Growing up, my dad, Ed, often made French toast for Sunday breakfast. It was always a highlight of the weekend, but he would also make it during the weekday for a special treat before school, too, with two caveats.
The first was I had to ask nicely. The second was I had to wake up early that morning.
Given how infrequently waking up early happened by the time my senior year of high school rolled around, French toast mornings were always infrequent but very special days in the Parks household.
Being something of an epicurean, I have made French toast in many different ways. Using Challah, raisin or sourdough bread. Toasting the bread first, or letting it sit overnight so it would dry out to absorb more of the custard. Adding cocoa for chocolate French toast or other warm spices to the custard…
My dad, however, was no-frills in his French toast prep. There were no— truly, zero—tricks, additional spices, or complicated flavors involved. In fact, I remember sprinkling some ground cinnamon in the custard one day, and oh, what bewilderment ensued. I believe the frustrated expression, “Come on, Anna!” which I always understood over the years was a gentler expression of, “What the hell are you doing?”
Nope, he wasn’t Chef Emeril Lagasse in the kitchen by any means, but he always had specific things that he made well and shared the responsibility of cooking for our family equally with my mom. He cooked more often than my mom, on account of their alternating work schedules.
There was no messing with Ed’s classic French toast recipe unless I wanted to end up making my own breakfast that morning. First, he used whatever non-seeded bread we had on hand. He and I always shared a fondness for the 9-, 12- or 130-grain-extravaganza loaves that we could find at the store, usually from the likes of Arnold and Pepperidge Farm brands. We always joked that my mom’s taste was bread of the Wonder brand variety: white as white can be, devoid of any whole grain. For that reason, we always had a country white or sourdough loaf on hand.
And yes, there were a few desperate Sunday mornings, before a weekly trip to the grocery store to re-stock on essentials, when we tried making French toast with the 1,000-whatever-grain bread. Needless to say, it was a lesson learned to keep a white country loaf always in the house, both for my mom and for impromptu French toast.
Ed would add sugar to the eggs and milk and sometimes used half-and-half instead of milk for the custard base. Then, he’d dunk the bread, probably count to 10, and transfer the soggy pieces to a nonstick pan. Adding a sprinkle of salt and pepper on top of each slice, the eggy exterior crackled and popped as the bread fried away in plenty of butter. By any professional chef or restaurant standards (Challah or brioche bread, who?), his French toast wouldn’t pass muster. But when the toast was hot out of the pan, topped with a melty pool of butter and syrup that collected in the middle of the toast for optimal dipping, the type of bread truly ceased to matter. It was hot, comforting breakfast food that in spite of its simple preparation and ingredients, always tasted special and started the day well.
Coming up on what would’ve been my dad’s 72nd birthday next month, April 4th, and with no “fancy” bread to be found in our house but plenty of eggs and some heavy cream, this breakfast bake reminded me of Sunday French toast mornings with my dad. It emerges from the oven a puffy mass, a cross between bread pudding and French toast that is soft and creamy inside, a little crunchy on top, and very comforting. I like to serve it in a bowl with toppings.
Bread pudding meets French toast. Serve with powdered sugar and syrup, whipped cream and berries, or whatever toppings that you typically enjoy with French toast.
- 6 whole eggs
- 1 cup heavy or light cream (I have also used eggnog over the holidays in place of the plain cream – try it!)
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ¼ teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste (or substitute vanilla extract)
- ¼ teaspoon salt
- ¼ teaspoon black pepper
- 6-8 slices country white bread (suggested: Arnold or Pepperidge Farm country white loaf)
- maple syrup
- powdered sugar
- whipped cream
- fresh berries
Preheat oven to 375° Farenheit.
In a large bowl, whisk eggs, heavy cream, spices, sugar and vanilla until well combined. Set aside.
In a small bowl, mix 1 tablespoon sugar with 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon and set aside.
Dice or tear bread into 1" pieces and spread in the bottom of a 9"x9" oven safe casserole dish. Dish should not be overflowing with bread.
Pour the custard mixture over the bread, then gently tilt the dish side to side to evenly distribute the custard. Let the mixure sit, about 10 minutes, so the bread can absorb the custard.
Sprinkle the top of the bread with the sugar-cinnamon mixture and bake, covered, 45 minutes or until puffed. Remove foil and continue baking an additional 15-20 minutes or until golden and crispy on top and cooked in the center. A knife inserted in the center should come out clean but if you see a lot of liquid, continue baking.