Moms get blame and credit for all manner of things in the lives of their children. Mostly blame, it would seem. Child doesn’t sleep well? Hits other children? Throws a temper tantrum in the middle of Ikea? These and many, many more are often construed as some failing on the part of the mother. Even attributes that are considered positive in any other arena of our lives can be sources of blame in our mothering experience. For instance, I blame by own mom for my inability to deliver a joke with a straight face, an attribute I must have inherited from her, she who nearly always wears a bright smile or laugh on her warm face. I also blame her for my hopelessness with styling my own hair–she never did brush my hair when I was younger or teach me how to style it (nevermind that she was meanwhile teaching me far less useful life skills such as politeness and compassion).
Yet another thing I blame my mom for is my addiction to Sunday breakfast. Because I was raised on stacks of buttermilk pancakes, and waffles with strawberries and cream, and crepes filled with homemade jams, I cannot pass a Sunday morning without a sizeable treat, usually something that has been griddled or come from a waffle iron, and definitely something that can be adorned with a generous drizzle of pure maple syrup (I was raised on Mrs. Butterworth’s, truth be told, but my mom and I both have since become converts to the real deal). The scones from Saturday won’t cut it, nor would a fresh batch of muffins, or any other baked treat, for that matter. Sunday breakfast is a knife and fork occasion.
Lately I’ve taken to French toast to get my Sunday fix. I mostly love it because it is one of those simple pleasures that is more than the sum of its parts: eggs, milk, and stale bread combine to become crispy, crunchy, custardy, warm deliciousness in a matter of minutes. I also love that is born of frugality–really, just a use for days-old bread. For this reason, I do not purchase bread expressly for the purpose of making French toast. Nevermind those recipes beckoning you to go to the store for a loaf of challah bread on Saturday evening, just so you can leave it out to stale for the next morning. It seems to me that this would be just like buying egg whites for meringue, and who does that? You make meringues when you have egg whites crowding your freezer from all the delicious ice cream or custard you’ve made, and not for any other reason. (If you do find yourself in the odd position of needing egg whites, this is a sure sign you have not been making enough ice cream or lemon curd). Similarly, you make French toast when you have a good baguette that accompanied dinner a few nights ago and has since been taking up space in your cabinet, tucked away in its brown paper sleeping bag, just waiting to be awakened for Sunday morning munching. For me, this kind of frugality, coupled with the sense that everything purchased or made will eventually be enjoyed in one form or another, is part of the fun of managing a kitchen.
But the real reason I continue to make French toast is that I haven’t mastered it yet. There’s a breakfast place in the Columbia City neighborhood of Seattle that has managed this feat–it’s called Geraldine’s Kitchen, and we ate there once when Cadel was still small enough to sleep through a meal whilst forks and knives clinked against ceramic plates and the heady scent of coffee and bacon filled the air and conversations hummed all around him. Among this buzzing morning atmosphere, at our windowside table awash in morning sunbeams, the world stood still for a moment as I sunk my teeth into the warm piece of golden griddled toast before me. It had a perfectly crisp exterior and a still soft interior. It was buttery and melt-in-your-mouth. It was so good that it was gone before I could really dissect and try to reverse engineer it there on my plate. And, inexplicably , we haven’t been back since.
So, many Sundays, with that memory in my cloudy mind, I head to the kitchen in slippered feet to try again.
The French word for French toast is pain perdu, which translates to “lost bread.” I think a more appropriate name would be “excellently repurposed bread,” but then that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, although I’m sure it would sound snazzier in French. Each time I make pain perdu, I ponder its name and that call I feel to kitchen frugality and the sense that everything has its place and purpose, that it all comes together like a puzzle. I wonder where else in my life I can find lost puzzle pieces, where else I can be thrifty–not cheap, mind you, but rather, sage. How much old bread do we keep tucked away in our cupboards of personal intentions, waiting for that morning when we will throw open the cupboard and resurrect even just one of those forgotten loaves and make something new of it? When I make French toast, I marvel at how the baguette that was absolutely delicious spread with butter and sprinkled with salt can become something even more delightful days later, when it is given a second chance at the breakfast table. Call me romantic, but I think this is a sign of real hope for other stale, dried up bits in our lives– old plans, lost ambitions, forgotten dreams. If we head to the kitchen with these bits and keep trying, maybe we will eventually emerge with something golden, perhaps with a lovely, soft interior. Something delicious.
I don’t feel right sharing my yet-to-be-perfected pain perdu here, as I’m sure whatever you’ve been making is just as good. But I do want to share a recipe I just wrote up for the Theo blog: chocolate babka. It’s a lightly sweet, yeast-risen celebratory bread of Eastern European descent, and I daresay it’s the best thing I’ve tasted this year. If you are lucky enough to have leftovers (I suggest doubling the recipe if you want to be sure), I bet it would make awesome French toast.
adapted from A Baker’s Odyssey (Wiley 2007)
To make the dough, you first make what is called a “sponge,” which is a thick batter of flour, milk, and yeast that helps to develop flavor.
3/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/4 cup whole milk
1 package (2 1/4 tsp) active dry yeast
Heat the milk in a saucepan until bubbles gather at the edges and steam is rising from the surface. Add the flour and whisk until smooth. Measure the temperature; it should read between 120º and 130ºF. If it is too hot, allow it to cool slightly before proceeding.
Sprinkle the yeast over the flour-milk mixture and whisk it in well. Cover the bowl with a damp towel or plastic wrap and let the sponge rise in a draft-free place until at least doubled in volume, about 2 hours.
4 large egg yolks
6 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
6 tbsp unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
1 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
You can mix the dough by hand or with a stand mixer, but be aware that mixing by hand will take a bit more time and a lot more elbow grease.
Whisk the egg yolks until thickened and pale, which should take several minutes. Then add the sugar and continue to whisk until the yolks are very light in color and fall in thick ribbons when the whisk is raised. Whisk in the salt and vanilla.
Add the sponge mixture to the yolks and stir to combine. Gradually mix in 1 cup of the flour and beat for several minutes to make a sticky dough. Add the 6 tbsp butter pieces one at a time, beating until each is completely incorporated before adding the next.
If you are using a stand mixer, at this point you will want to switch to the dough hook. Add the remaining 1/2 cup of flour and beat until a smooth, shiny, and elastic dough forms.
Scrape the dough into a lightly buttered bowl and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Let the dough rise at room temperature until it has tripled in size, about 2 hours.
Meanwhile, prepare the filling:
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces (I used Theo 70% Dark)
2 oz. almond paste
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
In the bowl of a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the chocolate until very finely chopped. Add the almond paste and cinnamon and process until the almond paste is chopped into very small pieces roughly the size of the chocolate pieces. Transfer the filling to a small bowl and set aside.
To finish the babka:
Lightly flour a surface for rolling the dough. Using a flexible bowl scraper, transfer the dough from the bowl to the floured surface. Pat it out into a 12×6 inch rectangle. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out to a rectangle measuring about 17×10 inches, dusting with flour as needed to prevent sticking.
If necessary, turn the dough so that a 17 inch side is facing you. Sprinkle the filling over the surface of the dough, leaving a roughly 1/2 inch border on the side farthest from you. Gently press the filling into the dough with the palms of your hands (not all of it will stick, and that’s ok). Starting with the end nearest you, roll up the dough into a 17 inch log. Pinch the edges of the dough to seal, then roll with the palms of your hands to elongate the log by a couple more inches. Then, gently fold the log in half and twist twice to create a loaf with 3 or 4 humps.
Generously butter a 9×5 inch loaf pan and place the dough in the pan, taking care to tuck the ends underneath.
Brush the top of the loaf with the 1 tbsp melted butter. Loosely cover the loaf with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight.
In the morning, remove the loaf from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature (You can speed this process by placing the loaf in a slightly warmed oven).
Preheat the oven to 350ºF (If you have warmed the loaf in the oven, be sure to remove it before preheating).
Remove the plastic wrap from the loaf and bake for 45-50 minutes, until well browned and a tester comes out clean. If the top of the loaf is getting too dark before the loaf is finished baking, tent it with foil to prevent further browning.
Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before turning it out. Slice into thick pieces with a serrated knife.