Let's make French toast!
By now it's very likely late morning or even afternoon as you're reading this, which means that unless you are one of those liberated, childless people who rise bleary-eyed and hungover to a decadent bottle-strewn mess and inconsequential nausea at the preposterously late hour of their own choosing (in which case, from hell's heart I stab at thee), you have probably already had breakfast. The great news is that this is not going to impact the deliciousness of your French toast even one iota, so stop making excuses.
French toast, like its cousins the pancake and the waffle (and their insufferably refined in-law, the sweet crêpe), has been victimized in recent years by the proliferation at places like IHOP of extravagant outrages like "Stuffed French Toast" (a large, polyhedral Twinkie coated with pink, strawberry-flavored dumpster sludge and whipped petroleum) and something called "CINN-A-STACK® French Toast," which, so far as I can tell, is intended as a breakfast choice for people who are concerned that eating cake frosting with their bare hands will make them seem uppity, or for people who have decided to give their own children terminal insulin shock, or both.
Look, it's no great crime every now and then to eat a breakfast that looks like as if it had been used to mop up after the gangland-style execution of a troupe of party clowns. (Apart from the grave injustice it will likely do to your digestive tract once it goes to war with your coffee and/or orange juice and/or justly offended natural gastric fluids there.) But the CINN-A-STACK® and its ilk have wronged French toast in creating the mistaken impression that French toast is best as an elaborate, showy, hyperindulgent production.
Properly made, by sane people who understand that more and good are two entirely separate and distinct words, French toast is a wonderfully simple breakfast. The dish was born in horses-and-swords-era Europe as a thing to do with stale bread after you'd finished hitting marauding orcs over the head with it. In keeping with the pragmatism of its origins, it should be made with the sorts of things that virtually every adult's kitchen already contains: eggs, milk or cream, bread, maybe a couple of spices, butter, maple syrup or sugar or honey.
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This, coupled with the fact that when made properly it just goddamn tastes better, is what makes French toast superior to pancakes and waffles. Pancakes are delicious, but made of the sorts of things—baking powder, shortening, flour—that you likely have around only if you're already the sort of person who does a lot of baking, plays cribbage, and thinks Pat Sajak is a good-looking young fellow. There are pre-made mixes like Bisquick, but you'll only have that in your pantry if you were already planning to make pancakes; you can't just roll out of bed, go, "I want some fucking pancakes!" with your disgusting morning breath, and go have some pancakes made from regular old kitchen staples like bread, eggs, milk, and butter. The same goes for waffles, which add the requirement of a specialized piece of kitchen hardware (the waffle iron), unless you want to just pop some Eggos in the toaster, in which case you might just as well eat your dishwashing sponge.
No, French toast is the superior sweet-bready-breakfasty-thing, possibly the greatest lazy weekend foodstuff of all, precisely because of what pancake houses so often get so ridiculously wrong about it: the ease and simplicity with which it can be made to perfection. It requires no esoteric baking ingredients. No specialized equipment. No cake frosting or fancy fruit syrups or twee little rainbow sprinkles. No whipped cream or chocolate syrup or chocolate Fondue dip disguised as nut butter. No planning. Just the thought—"Hey, let's make French toast!"—plus the kinds of things you almost certainly already have in your kitchen.
In fact, the very reason why IHOPs and so forth insist upon gussying-up their French toast into a kaleidoscopic funhouse nightmare is to obscure its humble simplicity. If it occurred to their diners that they were eating something that could be prepared even more deliciously in a half-hour at home, without requiring them to change out of their filthy bathrobe and into their less-filthy "dining at IHOP" bathrobe, nobody would ever go to IHOP for French toast. Which is how we arrived at French toast sandwiched around a schmear of cinnamon-flavored Crisco, like a remedial cinnamon bun for people who find the spiral shape of regular cinnamon buns intolerably non-Euclidean.
Friends, to hell with that! It might be fried, egg-soaked bread, but spiritually, it is not French toast.
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Our recourse, happily, is to make our own damn French toast. The following preparation has been chosen because it is both delicious, and stone simple. A 5-year-old could make it in a half-hour, if a 5-year-old could be trusted with a hot stove and you have a 5-year-old and you're really that hungover. If it pleases you to fancify your French toast with fresh fruit and whipped cream and so forth, that's fine, but totally unnecessary.
To begin with, assemble your egg-mixture stuff. This is sometimes called "custard," but I like to call it egg-mixture stuff because "custard" makes me feel like I should be wearing a bonnet. For this you'll need a big bowl. Into it go some eggs (to be safe, use one egg for each slice of French toast you plan on making) and some milk (the heavier, the better, all the way up to heavy cream; if you have skim milk, that's OK, too, but it won't make too much of an addition to your French toast). Don't beat the mixture just yet.
Now, add some flavors. Do you have ground cinnamon? Of course you do; if you're like me, you have two or three hundred bottles of the stuff, multiplying like rodents in the back of a cabinet somewhere. Shake some into your bowl, taking absolutely no care to use only a precise amount. Do you have vanilla extract? Yes! There's still a little bottle of the stuff from back in 2003, when your significant other decided that this was the year for giving homemade sandwich cookies tied in cute little bundles as Christmas gifts to everyone in North America. Splash some into your bowl. Do you have nutmeg? No? Too bad. Nutmeg is really very good in French toast. If you had some, you'd want to sprinkle some in your bowl.
That'll do. Beat the crap out of the mixture with a whisk or a fork, until it's fairly consistent, but don't make a big deal out of getting it perfect because that would be a violation of the spirit of French toast.
The egg mixture is now ready for use. (Note: You can prepare the egg mixture the night before and stash it in your refrigerator, if you anticipate being utterly brain-dead in the morning and want to smooth the path between your dead-eyed zombie incarnation and a plate of delicious, life-restoring French toast. For the purposes of this preparation, we are proceeding as though you woke up and thought to yourself, "Hey, let's make French toast!") On your stove, heat some cooking fat in a big frying pan or on a griddle.
Here is where we are going to pause for a moment of cooking-fat advocacy. The fat you choose here will determine how you proceed. Butter is probably the most popular choice, since butter is wonderful and belongs on French toast anyway—however, butter burns very easily and at a relatively low heat, which means that you will have to cook your French toast over lower heat than if you use a hardier fat, which in turn means that you will spend more time standing over your stove than absolutely necessary, all in service of what will turn out to be a negligible difference in the flavor of your French toast.
And so, I am recommending that you use either vegetable or canola oil if you have either of them at the ready, which you probably do, because since 1954 federal law has required all new home construction to include non-load-bearing bottles of vegetable or canola oil in the pantry or that weird dusty cupboard high up over the refrigerator where you stuck that empty festive Christmas shortbread cookie tin 12 years ago. Neither of these oils will add any unpleasant flavor (or, really, any noticeable flavor at all) to your French toast, and both of them will enable you to cook it over higher heat, which will hasten the French toast to your face in a really wonderful way.
This has been a moment of cooking-fat advocacy. Thank you.
Pan on its way to being good and hot? Good. Beat the egg mixture a few times to stir up any of the flavoring ingredients that might have settled at the bottom of the bowl, and then dunk some bread in it. It's popular and traditional to use stale bread for French toast, and if you have some, that's great—also because there are so few times in life when you will have an opportunity to go, "This bread is stale—great!" But it's not totally necessary. If you use fresh bread, your French toast will be more delicate when you cook it, and noticeably less firm when finished, but it will still taste good enough to fold spacetime.
Similarly, it's popular to use exotic varieties of bread for making French toast: challah, pane, attractive diagonally sliced baguette, and so forth. That's also a great idea if you happen to have fancy bread sitting around, but your breakfast is still going to beat the living hell out of Cinnamon Toast Crunch if you use plain old store-brand wheat bread.
Give each slice of bread a dunk, a flip, and a few seconds to bask in the egg mixture and soak itself. Now, cook your French toast! A minute or so per side; when a slice is browned (not blackened), firm, and cooked-looking on both sides, it's done. Repeat with literally all the bread in the world.
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As for eating French toast, you're free to pair it with whatever you like: fruit, marmalade, preserves, jam, jelly, honey, confectioner's sugar, and, yes, damn you, you can put cake frosting or Nutella or whipped cream or fucking fruit syrup or ganache or cinnamon-flavored Crisco or fucking chocolate chip cookie dough or whatever stupid goddamn thing you want on it. But before you summit Mount Candy and return with the still-bleeding heart of the world's last spearmint-flavored snow leopard, to mount atop your stack of French toast and call it MINT OLYMPUS® French Toast, do me a favor and just this one friggin' time serve your French toast with one modest pat of unsalted butter on top of each slice and a generous-but-not-obscene pour of by-God maple syrup. It's a long, lovely autumn day—there will be plenty of other opportunities to make mistakes.
Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. His work can be found destroying everything of value in his crumbling home. Peevishly correct his foolishness at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo by Jim Cooke