Is it the weekend yet? I’m ready for Sunday brunch! This might be the most over engineered baked french toast recipe on earth, but it also elicits comments like: “This is the best I’ve ever had”. The extra steps aren’t really that much more time consuming and if you choose to skip them, I completely understand (and I will point out the shortcuts) but as is, the result is custard-y French toast with a buttery crispy outer coating.
Instead of just mixing the half-half and eggs together, I make a crème anglaise base (with whole eggs instead of just yolks) which gives the soaked bread a silkier, creamier, fluffier texture when baked. Heat the half-half up to a simmer adding the green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, scraped vanilla bean, and orange zest. Let the mixture infuse and cool a little and then whisk it into the beaten eggs – tempering the eggs first with just a scosh of warm milk and whisking the remaining in a steady stream. I pour the crème anglaise base over the thick-cut bread,which is normally challah or brioche, and let everything soak for an hour or two.
Bake the bread in a single layer covered with foil until it’s poofy and golden brown on the bottom. Then remove and fry the top un-browned side in foamy butter on the stove top right before serving – this last step you can take or leave. I really like the buttery crispy addition, because let’s face it, butter is better with everything! But if time doesn’t permit, just remove the foil after ten minutes so the top browns too. Or skip the baking and fry in butter on the stove top – although it won’t be as custardy inside.
My dear friend Chef Ivan Shaw (check his blog out! I’m addicted to the great stories and recipes.) and his beautiful wife Nadine sent me and my husband a very special Christmas gift all the way from Canada. We received 8 cans of the purest highest grade maple syrup, maple butter, maple granules, maple candies, smoked duck breast, Grade extra-fancy foie gras lobes, and foie gras terrine. I think seared foie gras or even foie gras butter with this decadent Pain Perdu would be fantastic. And the smoked duck breast would be a killer pairing – much more interesting than bacon or sausage!
To add a little je ne sais quoi to the maple syrup I heated it up with a few splashes of orange blossom water (I use Carlo which can be sourced in Middle Eastern Stores and Whole Foods Market) and a few pods of star anise – not that it needed anything extra – I just like the two together because the perfume is heavenly. The orange blossom water is very very strong, add too much and the syrup will taste more like perfume or a bar of soap so go easy with splashes.
- 1 loaf of semi-stale challah bread, cut 21/2-inches thick
- 3 cups half-half
- 6 eggs
- 4 green cardamom pods
- 1 cinnamon stick, or 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 vanilla pod, split and seeds scraped
- 5 star anise pods
- zest of 1 large orange
- Maple syrup
- Orange blossom water
In a medium size sauce pot heat the half-half to a simmer over medium high heat with the star anise, cinnamon, vanilla pod with scraped seeds, orange zest, and cardamom pods. Once half-half comes to a simmer, turn off and allow mixture to steep for five minutes. Remove all the big spice pods, and reserve to use in the maple syrup, before the next step.
In a mixing bowl whisk the eggs together. Temper the eggs with a little of the steeped half-half mixture, whisking constantly to avoid scrambled eggs, and then add the remaining in a slow steady stream continuing to whisk.
Place the bread flat in a baking dish. Pour the milk mixture over the bread and refrigerate for up to two hours, flipping the bread over once to make sure both sides soak up all the good stuff. If you don't have two hours to wait, that's fine, just make sure the bread has soaked up as much as it possibly can.
Preheat oven to 375˚F. If you want to avoid your French Toast sticking to the bottom of the baking dish, then carefully remove it and add parchment paper. Add back in the toast and cover with tin foil, bake for 15 minutes until the bread is poofy and golden brown on the bottom. If you wish to skip the next step – top butter frying of the bread – then remove the tin foil and bake for another five minutes until the top is lightly browned too. Or if you're gonna go whole hog, remove the bread from the oven, heat up a few pats of butter in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat until frothy and fry the un-browned side until nice and crispy. Fry both sides for that matter if you want.
Heat up maple syrup over low with a few splashes of orange blossom water and reuse the star anise pods and the cinammon stick from the half-half mixture.
To serve: arrange the french toast however you see fit, pour the maple syrup, and enjoy!
Note to Chef: if making the crème anglaise base is too time consuming, then just whisk the eggs and half-half thoroughly together and add vanilla extract and a few pinches of ground cardamom, star anise, and cinnamon instead of the pods that won't infuse properly without heat.
Also, if you only are making 2 portions (4 1/2-inch slices of challah) then cut the eggs & half-half by 1/2. The ratio is 1 cup half-half to 2 eggs so you can double or triple or cut depending on your needs.