If you’re like me, when it comes to French toast, you’re a slosher, someone who just throws the ingredients together. Your method might go something like this: Slosh milk into bowl (I stock the 2 percent kind), add a couple of eggs and whisk until it looks right. Soak the bread, and sizzle in butter until done. Sometimes it’s delicious, and sometimes it’s disappointing. But it’s rarely worth the $12 price and the hour’s wait, sometimes in the rain, that the mobs sign up for every Sunday at brunch destinations like Egg, in Brooklyn, and Sqirl, in Los Angeles.
French toast that good demands a recipe. And, fortunately, it’s one that calls for no new ingredients, tools or technology. You don’t even need stale bread.
When I set out to make a travel-worthy French toast, my first call was to the ace of the new American breakfast: Jessica Koslow, the chef and owner of Sqirl.
At Sqirl, the French toast is cut so thick that it’s cooked like a steak: seared on the stove, then roasted in the oven. (It’s also stuffed with a pocketful of jam.) I wasn’t interested in adding more steps to my process, but, knowing that Koslow’s judgment on morning flavors is spot on, I asked what home cooks could do to make their French toast more like hers.
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“Cream,” she said immediately. Many cooks think of French toast as an egg dish, but restaurant recipes lean just as heavily on cream and milk, preferably whole.
“But that’s so rich!” I hear you wailing. There’s a lot of confusion about the fat content of milk. Whole milk seems like an indulgence on a par with Double Stuf Oreos these days, but the difference between whole and reduced fat isn’t that great; a cup of 2 percent milk has 5 grams of fat, while a cup of whole milk has 8, and makes for much better French toast.
While whole milk may not be as rich as one might think, cream, it must be admitted, is full of fat, with 10 grams in two tablespoons.
But, Koslow said, “A little cream goes a long way.” She suggests adding a couple of tablespoons to the milk-egg mixture. And, she said, the bread shouldn’t be soaked, only dunked, making it possible to use fresh bread, which is less absorbent. “You want to just fill the pores of the bread to make it supple and fluffy,” she said. “You don’t want to cream-log it.”
French toast that has been oversoaked stays damp and gooey in the middle even after the outsides are crisp and brown. A dip lasting for a few Mississippis on each side is enough to coat the slices and keep them from falling apart, especially if you’re using fresh bread.
Of course, stale is the traditional choice. Like panzanella in Tuscany or chilaquiles in Mexico, French toast is a classic in part because it uses an ingredient that people tend to keep around. But I have found thick slices of fresh bread to work just as well. They soak up slightly less liquid than stale bread, but, if the bread itself is delicious, the result is just as good. (Heresy alert: Maybe even better.)
While freshness may not matter as much, the type of bread does. As a child of the food revolution, I was raised exclusively on whole-grain bread, and I’m here to tell you that nothing ruins the custardy pleasure of French toast faster than a stray rye grain or wheat berry between the teeth. Sourdough, with its chewy crust and tang, is almost as bad. French toast is simply not the place for them.
Basic white bread is the clear choice, as are brioche or challah, which have extra fat in the dough. If challah is hard to find where you live, go shopping on a Friday; many supermarkets receive shipments that day. I have no problem with packaged, sliced white bread, except that the slices are usually too thin. It’s worth seeking out a whole loaf, so you can make substantial slices. Many bakeries, even the kind that grind their own flour and brag of centuries-old sourdough starter, stock whole Pullman loaves – white bread in an artisanal disguise.
Whether French toast should be sweet itself, or unsweetened, is a matter of taste. Many recipes include sugar (alongside Grand Marnier, amaretto and other cloying concoctions) in the egg-milk mixture. I prefer it unsweetened, to let the deliciously basic egg-milk-bread flavors shine through – the better to enjoy with maple syrup, preserves, sugared fruit and the like. Either way, French toast is not a dessert, so skip the whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
The final, irresistible flourish of restaurant French toast is in the lacy brown crust that adorns both sides. You’re looking for the golden brown of caramelized sugar, not the dull brown of overcooked egg whites, which often gives the dish a tough texture and a sulfurous taste. Adding egg yolks to the custard is part of the solution. Dusting the French toast with sugar at the end of the cooking, flipping it often to build a crisp crust, is another. This step is optional, but it does make people mad with lust – for more French toast.
But if a slosher you are, and a slosher you wish to remain, think of these instructions not as a recipe, but as a formula. For every four slices of bread, slosh in about cup of milk (or milk with some cream). Add an egg and an egg yolk. Whisk vigorously. Dunk quickly. Cook slowly.
Eat immediately, and be glad you’re not standing out in the rain.
Skillet French Toast
Yield: 4 servings; total time: 20 to 30 minutes
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
2 cups whole milk, or 1 3 / 4cups milk, plus 2 to 4 tablespoons cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
Pinch of salt
Unsalted butter, for cooking
8 slices white bread, such as Pullman, brioche or challah, sliced 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick
Cinnamon sugar or granulated sugar
1. Heat oven to 200 degrees, and place a wire rack on a sheet pan inside.
2. In a shallow bowl, whisk the eggs, additional yolks, milk, vanilla (if using) and salt until foamy and smooth. Set aside. Place a small lump of butter (enough to coat the bottom of the skillet when melted) in a large, heavy nonstick skillet over low heat. It will melt very slowly.
3. When butter is just melted and bubbling, raise heat and bring to a sizzle. Place 2 slices of bread in the bowl with the egg mixture. Turn them a few times in the mixture until evenly saturated, about 5 seconds on each side. Do not soak.
4. Lift a slice out of the egg mixture, gently shake off any excess, and place in the pan. Repeat until the skillet is full, and let the slices cook at a sizzle for about 2 minutes, until just turning golden brown on the bottom.
5. Add another small lump of butter to the pan and flip the slices over, swirling the pan so that the fresh butter coats the bottom. (This will allow the second side to brown.)
6. Continue cooking over low heat until the second side is golden brown. Dust with cinnamon sugar, flip again, and dust the other side. Test for doneness by pressing the center: The dent should slowly spring back. If it remains, the interior is not yet cooked. Continue cooking at low heat, flipping occasionally, until done. Serve immediately, or transfer to the oven to keep warm while cooking remaining bread. Serve as soon as possible. Top with maple syrup, berries, jam, sliced bananas, orange supremes – whatever you’d like.