There are some seemingly basic dishes that if cooked in a run-of-the-mill way become just that. Run of the mill. Ordinary.
French toast is a perfect example. The American version that populates many cafe breakfast menus is a slice of sandwich bread dipped in an egg-and-milk mix and fried. To me, there is nothing terribly appealing about it – it is ordinary.
Take a step back to the forerunner of French toast. Pain perdu. Even the name is more enticing. It literally translates to “lost bread”, reminding us that if quality day-old bread is soaked overnight in custard, it becomes a delicious treat and is not lost at all.
Another concern is the current thinking that any dish served in a restaurant should be up to the artistic plating skills of a MasterChef contestant. Sometimes we forget that quite ugly food can often be some of the most delicious and comforting.
I am reminded of David Lebovitz’s words about his trip to J’Go, a restaurant in Saint-Germain, Paris: “My friend and I ordered one Pain Perdu d’Huguette ... Admittedly, it didn’t look like much. Yet the moment we each took our first bite, we looked at each other and there was no mistaking this: le pain perdu was the best dessert I’ve had in a long, long time. Each slice of crustless bread was soaked in custard, then fried in hot, sizzling-brown butter, until crusty and caramelized.”
It is important to follow the instructions for this one. The best sort of bread is a good white loaf from which you can slice a hefty two- to four-centimetre-thick slice. It is always best to soak the slices in the custard overnight so the whole texture of the bread is transmogrified. And the curious step of shaking a little sugar and flour on each side of the bread before you fry it gives it the most wonderful crust.
For variations on the theme, you can make a slit in the bread before it is soaked and fill it with chocolate buttons or, in summer, sliced ripe peaches. Once cooked, the lost bread is delightful with maple syrup, with a little Armagnac sprinkled over. With Mother’s Day upon us, I am sure there are not too many mothers who wouldn’t appreciate a cheeky nip of Armagnac in their breakfast in bed.
For the custard
– 100ml milk
– 150ml thickened cream
– 2 large eggs
– 3 tbsp sugar
– 1 tbsp Armagnac
– 1 tsp vanilla essence
For the pain perdu
– 2 slices good white bread (sliced 3cm thick)
– 1 tbsp castor sugar
– 1 tbsp plain flour
– 2 tbsp unsalted butter
Make the custard for the pain perdu.
Whisk together the milk, cream, eggs, sugar, Armagnac and vanilla essence until the mixture is combined.
Place the bread in a deep dish or tray that is just large enough to hold the bread in a single layer, then cover with the custard. If your dish is too large the custard won’t soak into the bread completely. If you don’t have a suitable dish, you can use a sealable plastic bag and press out the excess air. Cover and refrigerate for a day, turning the bread over a few times.
Preheat the oven to 230ºC.
Remove the soaked pain perdu from the refrigerator and flip one more time. Mix one tablespoon of sugar with one tablespoon of flour and sprinkle half the mixture on top of the bread, using a small sieve to ensure the flour gets sprinkled evenly.
Add the butter to a cast-iron frying pan or other heavy pan and heat over medium heat. When the butter has melted and the foaming subsides, add the bread with flour-sprinkled side down and fry for about five minutes.
Dust the pain perdu with the remaining flour and sugar mixture and check that the underneath is well browned. Be careful that your heat is not up too high or it will burn. If it looks like it’s browning too quickly, turn the heat down. Flip the bread over and put the pan in the oven.
Bake for eight to 10 minutes. Keep a close eye on it as the sugar will burn easily. You want the surface of your pain perdu to be very dark but not burnt. That way it will have a delicious crunch.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 11, 2019 as "Breakfast and bread". Subscribe here.