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French Toast for a Spring Breakfast

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Chef and Al talk about the endless possibilities for delicious french toast, from sweet to savory.

One of the first recipes Al's mother taught him was how to make French Toast.  Back in the day, they would take slices of pure white Wonder Bread, did them in egg wash, fry them up and slather them with butter and Log Cabin syrup.  But Chef Jerry Pellegrino says that rustic approach is only the beginning to whipping up some very creative variations on French Toast.

French toast does have roots in France, where it is known as "pain perdu" or lost bread, a reference to its staleness.  The idea was to simply revive the bread with a soak of eggs and milk, then fry it up.  Oddly enough, the old French name was "Pain Romana," referring even further back, to Rome.  Given the simplicity of the ingredients, it's likely this is a very old idea.

There are several approaches to making French toast.  The first variation is of course the bread.  Fresh bread is perfectly acceptable, but thick slices of stale baguettes work really well too.   You can have fun using other kinds of bread.  Sliced croissants,  brioche, challah bread or even foccacia would work nicely.

The length of time given to soaking varies.  Some people prefer a quick soak, while others, using thicker older bread, will let it soak overnight.  A quick soak followed by a quick pan fry will leave the middle of the slices dry and bready.  A long soak, followed by a quick pan fry, and then a spell in the oven at 350, will result in a pleasantly puffed up slice that is moist throughout.       

The soaking mixture is nothing more than a little milk and a few beaten eggs.  Most folks add a little vanilla to it to enhance the flavor.  But why not try adding a little maple syrup, or rum flavoring?

Traditional toppings include powdered sugar, syrups, jams and creams.  For a savory approach, you can work cheeses, breakfast meats and savory jellies into the act as well.  Quite a few recipes we discovered involved making a "sandwich" of two slices of French toast, filling it with something sinfully rich:  like the stuffing you put in a cannoli.

One idea that seems popular, especially with the kids, is the French toast roll-up.  To do this, you first cut the crust off the bread, then flatten it out with a rolling pin.  Brush on an egg, cinnamon and sugar blend, roll 'em up and dip them in the ordinary egg soak.  After frying, you have handy little finger shaped dippers that can plunge into ramekins of tasty syrup.

Interestingly, Al and Chef Pellegrino found quite a few recipes for savory variations on French toast.  One, called "Egg in a Hole" involves cutting a circular hole into the bread slices, cooking them up, then cracking an egg into the middle. You just let the egg fry away until it's done.  Sprinkle a little cheese on top, and you've got a lovely breakfast.

One idea recalls Elvis Presley.  You use dark bread, preferably pumpernickle, and you cook it up the normal way.  When it's done and still warm, you spread a thin schmear of peanut butter on each slice, lay down a strip or two of bacon, then some thinly sliced bananas.  Stick it in the oven for just a few minutes, then hit it with your best maple syrup. It's so sinfully good, you may have to do penance.

Here's a savory version of French toast that we made up, inspired by the famous Croque Monsieur sandwich.


To serve two:

four thick slices of hand cut bread, preferably a day or two old

4 medium eggs

1/4 cup milk

salt and pepper


two slices of Canadian bacon

two fried eggs, trimmed to fit on the bread

1/2 cup béchamel sauce

1/4 cup grated gruyere cheese

1.  Crack the eggs into a bowl, and stir in the milk and salt and pepper. 

2.  Place the bread slices in a small baking dish, and pour the egg mixture over

the slices, covering them.  Refrigerate overnight.

3 .  Over moderate to low heat, melt several tablespoons of butter in a skillet.

Keeping the heat low, to prevent the butter from scorching,  add the slices two at a time.  Let them cook for about two minutes on each side.  Repeat to have a total of four slices.

4.  Remove the cooked bread from the skillet, and wipe it clean with a paper towel.  Put two two slices in the skillet, and place a slice of Canadian bacon and a fried

egg on top.  Cover each with a second slice, making a "sandwich".   Bake in a 350 degree oven for about ten minutes.

5.  Heat the béchamel sauce over low heat, and stir in the cheese, allowing it to melt.

After baking the French toast sandwiches, place them on plates, and ladle of a generous topping of cheesy sauce.  Serve at once.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.