Wednesday, August 10, 2011

French toast goes glam

First published Canberra Times 10 August 2011.
It’s a winter’s morning and I wake to the smell of nut brown butter frying in a pan and the sound of eggs being whisked in Mum’s treasured orange melamine mixing bowl. This hum of activity and the unmistakeable aromas of milk, vanilla and nutmeg could only mean one thing – french toast for breakfast.
It also signalled a last delicious snuggle under the covers before wrenching myself out of bed, slipping into school uniform and charging into the kitchen, just in time to see the last of the soaked bread slices lifted from their milky egg bath into the sizzling pan. My job is to sprinkle the cooked slices of french toast with a cinnamon and vanilla sugar mixture before delivering them to the table for breakfast.

Images of this family favourite flooded back to me when a Dijon bistro blackboard listed “pain perdu pudding” as the dessert du jour. I couldn’t resist the temptation to stroll down memory lane.
The dish arrived - a pudding version of french toast, dripping with thick cream, melting over a crunchy praline topping in a sea of pillowy softness. I poked it with my spoon, releasing a puff of eggy steam. This was the smell of memories.

It seems french toast is a favourite the world over, and most countries can claim their own version, sweet, savoury or both. The Roman’s ate it and its existence in England dates back to at least to the time of Henry V when it was known in the Norman world as Pain Perdu, or “lost bread”, a tasty way of using up leftover bread. It had another incarnation in the Old Dart as “Poor Knights of Windsor” where the egg and milk mixture included wine or sherry and it was spread with jam.

The basic concoction of bread dipped in a milky egg mixture and fried in a pan is universal, but after that, the variations are seemingly infinite. In Australia, this essentially breakfast dish has basic variations of sweet and savoury, determined by the addition of salt or sugar to the mix. We also have some startling regional variations, including Vegemite and Marmite, while Queenslanders might refer to their version as fried bread, and serve it with cheese and tomato sauce as a savoury meal (yuck).The Canadians love theirs with bacon and maple syrup.

The Hong Kong version is served for breakfast, made by deep frying stacked sliced bread dipped in beaten egg or soy milk. It is then served with a slab of butter, topped with golden syrup or honey.
In India, they prefer theirs served salty, rather than sweet. Eggs are beaten with milk, salt, green chili and chopped onion. Bread is dunked into this mixture and deep fried in butter or cooking oil. It is normally served with tomato sauce. In the Czech Republic, it arrives with mustard, gherkin and sometimes onion and capsicum.

French toast is the ultimate peasant food, made from simple ingredients, readily available to most people, rich or poor. It’s filling, tasty and lends itself to the addition of almost anything else that comes to hand.
This recipe for French toast pudding is very easy to make. I use a loaf of brioche, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced into one centimetre thicknesses. You could use any bread, panettone, croissants, baguette or sourdough for this dessert, as long as you soak the bread in the milk and egg mixture for a few hours before cooking. Serves 8.

French toast pudding
1 loaf of brioche
8 large eggs
1 ½ cups pouring cream
2 cups of milk
3 tbsp sugar
1 scraped vanilla bean
¼ tspn nutmeg, ground
¼ tspn cinnamon, ground
Pinch salt
12 pitted prunes
½ cup brandy
½ cup thickened cream and ½ cup yoghurt to serve

Praline topping
125 g unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar, lightly packed
1 cup chopped pecans
½ tspn cinnamon, ground
½ tspn nutmeg, ground

Fig vino-cotto sauce
2 tbsp fig vino-cotto
3 tbsp balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp maple syrup

Start recipe a few hours ahead of cooking. Slice brioche in half horizontally, then slice into one cm slices. Arrange slices slightly overlapping in a large well buttered ovenproof dish. I use a 34cm by 22cm lasagne dish. Tuck the prunes in and around the bread slices. Sprinkle the brandy over the bread.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs and cream until combined. Then add the milk, sugar, vanilla bean, nutmeg, cinnamon and salt to the egg mixture and whisk until combined. This can be done by hand, but use an electric mixer if you prefer. Pour mixture over the bread slices, making sure all the bread slices are coated evenly with the egg mixture. Cover with foil and leave to absorb for a few hours.

While the bread is soaking, prepare the praline topping. In a small mixing bowl, combine the softened butter with the remaining praline topping ingredients, mixing well.

Preheat oven to 180C. When the bread has soaked up the egg mixture and is ready to bake, spoon the prepared praline topping over the pudding. Place the pudding uncovered in the preheated oven and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the topping is golden.

For the fig vino-cotto sauce, mix all ingredients in a small jug.
Serve the pudding warm with a dollop of thick cream and yoghurt mixture, topped with a drizzle of fig vino-cotto sauce.

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