Generally speaking, when you get your hands on some well-crafted bread, you should eat it right away. Maybe with a little butter, maybe not.
But if the artisan bread isn’t eaten in the first few days when it is at its peak, making French toast is an honorable way to finish it off.
That’s what I did with my gift of half a loaf of Cranberry Walnut bread from Barrio Bread based out of Tucson, Arizona. Everyone I know who has tried the breads from this community-supported bread company (there is no retail store) has had the same reaction — “it’s incredible,” they say.
I love the texture of French toast made with rustic bread. I cut it thicker than most, about an inch-thick, because that means the inside will be very soft and moist while the outside will be crisp and brown. And I use a ruler to make sure I’m cutting all the slices the same thickness.
Ask 20 cooks how to make French toast and you’ll get 20 different recipes.
I might make it different from one time to the next, but I always follow the same technique: make a custard, give the bread a good soak, fry it in a generous amount of fat to get a crisp exterior, and finish cooking it in the oven for a soft, custard-y interior.
I use a ratio of 6 eggs to 1 cup of whole milk. That’s a lot of eggs, but I like a very eggy, custard-y center. I put a little vanilla in the custard, and in this case I’m using orange, too — both the zest and the juice — because it goes well with the cranberry walnut flavor of the bread.
Lay the bread in a shallow casserole dish in a single layer and pour the custard all over the bread. Immediately turn the bread, and then turn it a couple more times over a 15-minute soak.
A word about the fat for frying. First, you can do this on a non-stick griddle with a minimum about of fat (butter and/or oil). But that’s not what I do.
I fry the toast in a skillet over medium heat with a fair amount of butter and a little canola oil. The oil helps prevent the butter from burning, although the butter does brown by the time I finish, and that’s just another layer of flavor.
Because I cut the bread extra thick (for that delightfully moist center) and because I have the heat up high enough to get a crisp, golden brown crust (more flavor!), it won’t cook all the way through in the skillet without burning the butter or the bread.
It needs some finishing time in the oven to cook the egg custard completely.
Once the bread is nicely browned on both sides in the skillet, I transfer the bread to a rack nestled in a baking sheet. This helps the hot air in the oven circulate around the bread and prevents it from getting soggy on the bottom.
Still with me? This may seem like a little extra trouble, but trust me, it is worth it.
Because you’ve made the effort to make perfect French toast with exceptional bread, you want the perfect syrup: pure maple syrup — preferably Grade B, which has more flavor than Grade A.
You’ll need a knife and fork for this baby. And perhaps a hike afterwards. Or a nap.
Rustic Orange Cranberry Walnut French Toast
The Cranberry Walnut bread from Barrio is naturally and deliciously tangy, a result of wild yeasts and a long, long fermentation process. It is also fairly substantial, weighing close to 2 pounds, but it doesn’t seem dense and soaks up the custard beautifully, like a sponge.
I got four (1-inch) slices out of half a loaf. Each piece is hefty enough to serve one moderate eater, especially if you’re serving fruit and another side, like breakfast meat or potatoes. The bread you use might not be as large (or it could be larger) so use your best judgement about how many slices you need to feed your crowd.
The custard is enough to soak a couple more pieces, but if you are doubling the recipe, you need to make 1-1/2 times (not double) the custard (so that would be 9 eggs, 1-1/2 cups milk, etc.)
One final note, any leftover French toast can be refrigerated (covered after it cools completely) and reheated the next day (uncovered and on a rack so that it crisps up again in a 300 degree F. oven for about 10 to 12 minutes.)
4 (1-inch) thick slices of day-old (at least) cranberry walnut bread
6 large eggs
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons sugar (optional*)
Zest and juice of 1 small orange
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons each: butter and canola oil
Powdered sugar for dusting
Place the bread in a single layer in a shallow casserole dish. Set aside. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Whisk the eggs with the milk, (sugar, if using), orange zest and juice, vanilla and salt until smooth.
Pour over the bread. Immediately turn the bread, making sure every inch is soaking up the custard. Soak for 15 minutes, turning the bread every 5 minutes.
Place 1-1/2 tablespoons of butter and 1-1/2 tablespoons of canola oil in a skillet. Turn the heat to medium. When the butter starts to sizzle, place a couple pieces of soaked bread in the skillet. Work in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan.
Cook until the edges near the surface of the skillet start to turn brown, about 2 to 3 minutes, and then turn over to cook an additional 2 minutes on the other side.
Transfer the bread to a baking sheet lined with a baking rack. Fry remaining bread in remaining butter and oil, and transfer to the rack. Place in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, or until the custard is cooked through. It will be moist on the inside. To tell if it’s done, insert a knife in the center. If it comes out milky, it needs to cook a few minutes more. If it comes out moist but clear, it’s done.
Place toast on warmed plates and sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve with maple syrup.
*Note: If you like sweet, sweet French toast, add 2 tablespoons of sugar to the custard. I do not add the sugar because I think the maple syrup and powdered sugar add enough sweetness. But we don’t judge here at Pen & Fork, so if you’ve got a sweet tooth, by all means add the sugar to the custard.