Sundays in my childhood home meant something delicious for breakfast. Every other day we had cereal or fried eggs, but Sunday was a time to indulge. Dad usually cooked, to give Mom a break, and he tended to do things in phases. There was the slightly overdone omelette phase (possibly to avoid poisoning us with salmonella from raw eggs), then there was the pancake phase (also a shade browner than necessary, but always delicious), then there were a few months of thick, crunchy cinnamon toast. I think we had a bagel phase at some point, and we sadly skipped waffles altogether, probably due to our lack of a waffle iron manufactured after 1952.
The French toast phase lasted quite a while, to my delight. Dad used whole wheat bread because that’s what we had. Homemade French toast and restaurant-style, white bread French toast seemed like two distant, unrelated creatures. I never even entertained the notion that we could have white bread French toast at home. We might as well have had Peking duck. The idea was that exotic.
I haven’t followed in my dad’s footsteps as far as cooking something special on Sunday, but occasionally I’ll get out the waffle maker (made in 2011!) or indulge my hankering for egg-dipped, cinnamon-laced French toast. I usually make French toast with wheat or oat bread, like my dad, but this week I decided to try my hand at restaurant-style French toast. I consulted my old friend, Madame Internet, to figure out puzzles like optimum bread thickness, cooking temperature, egg-to-bread ratio and egg-to-milk ratio. I learned that Madame I. isn’t always right and sometimes you need to trust your instincts. At any rate, one thing is for sure: Crusty French bread makes the best French toast. Best to stick with the theme.
First of all, a primer: French toast – or freedom toast, if that’s your thing – is basically bread dipped in egg and a little milk and then fried until golden.
The finest French toast of my life was on vacation on Cambria, Calif., the first real trip my husband and I took with our baby daughter. We joined my parents at a rented house with a view of the ocean and a big kitchen. We bought a couple loaves of crusty white bread for something or other but didn’t eat all of it. Come breakfast time, it was remarkably stale. Because we don’t like to waste things, we decided to call it into service for French toast. I learned that day that moderately stale white bread makes the best French toast, because its dry texture makes it better able to soak up the milk and egg. If you have to wheeze and grunt a little while you’re slicing the loaf, you’re on the right track.
The the internet advises inch-thick slices, or slightly under, and the internet is right. The general rule is one egg for every two slices, so if you want eight slices, use four eggs. Here’s where the World Wide Web’s French toast experts were wrong: They say the egg-to-milk ratio should be 4 eggs to one cup milk. That makes a dipping sauce that’s too thin and you’ll have a lot left over, or else you’ll have (quelle horreur!) soggy toast. I cut the milk in half and the consistency was better. You can add a touch of sugar, but I prefer to let a good glug of maple syrup do all the sweetening.
Truly exceptional French toast, however, uses only yolks – one yolk per slice of bread. This is the way the French do it, according to the folks at Bergerac French Bistro in Southeast Portland. During a memorable pre-pandemic brunch (ah, halcyon days!) at this charming restaurant, we asked for the secret of its rich, sunshine-colored French toast. The server whispered furtively in our ears, lest the chef overhear her divulging trade secrets, “Just the yolks, folks! Just the yolks!”
Now comes the fun part: riffing on the theme.
The standard flavor addition is two teaspoons of vanilla, adjusting up or down for extreme love of vanilla. Next, you could add a teaspoon of cinnamon, cardamom, powdered or fresh ginger or even pumpkin pie spice. Instead of vanilla, use a teaspoon of almond extract. Add lemon or orange extract with a teaspoon of citrus zest. Add a little strawberry extract with the vanilla and top your toast with strawberry preserves.
Soak each piece of bread in the liquid for a scant five seconds; it should be evenly moist, but not mushy. For the frying, I recommend butter, because I recommend butter for everything, but vegetable oil will work just as well. The trick is to cook it on medium-low heat, allowing the inside to fully cook while the outside turns a slightly caramelized, golden brown. This requires some degree of patience – expect five minutes or more for each piece – but the payoff is well worth it.
Serve with the syrup, a sprinkle of powdered sugar, fresh fruit or fruit compote. Try a squeeze of lemon juice and honey. Pretend you live in an English cottage and spread on some lemon curd, orange marmalade or Devonshire cream and jam. I would suggest savory toppings, but we all know that’s not going to happen. Lavish some sweet love on your French toast and it will love you back.