Sometimes all it takes to reinvigorate an old standard is to slightly alter the standard ingredients it’s usually made with. Using pecorino instead of parmesan cheese, for example, will yield a shaper, saltier, nuttier flavor. Adding olives to a tomato sauce adds a depth and sourness to the sauce that, for me, marries well with the sweetness of the tomatoes. Using goat cheese instead of mayonnaise or mustard on a sandwich instantly elevates what is (for me) usually a dull, last-resort meal.
For French toast, a simple bread substitution can make a huge difference. I grew up using the standard, plastic-bag Wonder bread for French toast. As I got older, I started making French toast with a wheat bread made at my local grocery store. Most recently, I served a batch of French toast made with sweet, eggy challah to a group of friends, wanting to replicate the challah French toast served with orange-cranberry butter on a cool November New York morning several years ago.
My French toast, though made with the same bread, was nothing so fancy. It was served on the coffee table as my friends sat on the floor, coaxing the cats to come out and play. (The mean one couldn’t get enough, and the sweet one was too shy.) The bacon burned, because my boyfriend left me in charge of it without telling me, since I was over the stove anyway and despite the fact that I prefer my bacon burned and he, you know, doesn’t. My 4-cup coffee maker only actually makes about 2.5 human-sized cups, so this group of five kept refilling the basket with fresh grounds and running the machine again. The syrup, warmed on the stove, was served out of a plastic measuring cup (being the only thing with a spout and thus the only thing with a reasonable shot at not getting syrup all over the white carpet) (not that spilling on the carpet matters to me, as I spill coffee on it once a week, and am still not old enough for carpet).
The French toast I made with humble Wonder bread on Saturday mornings with my stepfather is not elevated by fancier bread, though it was tender and sweeter. I wonder how much the richer, eggier, sweeter, more sophisticated taste of the soaked fried bread came from the fact that I was making it for others. For someone who loves to cook, I entertain rarely. When I do, I prefer to serve chips and salsa while Handsome mans the grill. Standing in my kitchen, with friends all around me, I felt vulnerable and appreciated all at once. In a room full of people who love me, I was happy I’d served my stepdad’s French toast with challah, but knew I could have served it with Wonder bread and they would have reacted the same way.
Challah French Toast
A riff on my own French toast
Note: I do not measure when I make French toast. My stepdad never did, either. All measurements are approximate and should be customized to suit your own taste, and to better impress your friends (who don’t need impressing).
You will need:
1 loaf of challah bread, or other eggy bread, sliced
7-9 eggs, depending on how absorbent your bread is
1/2 c. milk
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Butter, for the skillet
Heat skillet on medium-high heat, and melt butter. (It’s perfectly acceptable if the butter browns.)
Meanwhile, whisk eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg in a large bowl. Soak one slice of bread at a time on both sides, and put the egg-soaked bread in the hot buttered skillet. Cook about three minutes on one side, or until golden brown, then flip and repeat on other side.
Serve immediately with warmed syrup, or keep warm in the oven until the bacon is finished burning.