In this modern-day-take-it-out-of-the-freezer-and shove-it-in-the-microwave world, we often lose sight of what real food tastes like. Not too surprising, when you look at the ingredient lists on most prepared foods. Many so-called foods have more chemicals than food ingredients. I figure if you can’t even pronounce half the ingredients, you shouldn’t rely on it as a major food source. On the other hand, just think about beef stew or chili simmering slowly through the day, ready to warm the cockles of your heart – not to mention your cold hands – come dinner time. Or home-made breakfast burritos or Cornish pasties, stored in the freezer for those mornings when you can barely find the kitchen, let alone think up a menu.
This recipe is not just old-fashioned, it’s ancient. One version dates from around the 4th or 5th century AD:
“Another sweet dish: Break [slice] fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces which soak in milk and beaten eggs. Fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.” —Apicius, Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling, recipe 296 (p. 172)
No one seems to know just why it’s called French toast, and in many countries, it’s not. The various names include German toast, Spanish toast, American toast and pain perdu (the French term, which means “lost bread”). The Spaniards call it torriga, and in England it’s known as Poor Knights of Windsor, which is similar to the names in Denmark – arme riddere – and Germany – arme ritter. Like many older recipes, it was designed to make the most of food rather than letting it go to waste.
Although you can use any sort of bread, there are several that make better French toast, in my opinion. Both Challah and brioche are dense, sweet breads with egg, which helps keep them from falling apart when soaked in the egg mixture. The classic version, however, would have been made with sourdough yeast bread, as sourdough was how cooks made bread in those days. A rustic loaf, with whole grains, chopped nuts and seeds, makes for a toothsome delight. The key is to slice the bread a little thicker than you normally would for sandwiches and let it get stale – we’re talking rock-hard here. It will soak up the egg mixture without falling apart. Cooked and cooled, the slices will freeze well, and can be reheated in an oven or dropped in a toaster for a quick breakfast on a weekday.
4 large eggs (obviously, it will be better with your own fresh ranch eggs)
½ tsp cinnamon (nutmeg and cloves are also good, but use about ¼ tsp of the cloves)
5 or 6 slices of bread (do make your own, it makes a big difference)
Honey, syrup, jam or powdered sugar
Rule number 1: You must have a HOT griddle. If the griddle is hot enough, a few drops of water will immediately sizzle into steam when dropped on it. This is key is to getting a good brown crust.
Rule number 2: The griddle must be well-greased. I like beef tallow, but lard is also a good choice. Coconut oil will also work well. DON’T use salad oil, corn oil or vegetable oil, as it makes the crust soggy. Butter tends to burn because of the high griddle heat. Although I’ve never tried, it, ghee would probably also work well, since it’s the milk solids in butter that make it burn, and ghee doesn’t have milk solids.
Rule number 3: If possible, cook it on cast iron; a griddle is best, but a large, flat-bottomed skillet also works well.
The rest of the recipe is simplicity itself. Beat the eggs with the spices, pour into a shallow bowl. Lay each piece of bread in the bowl and let it sit for about 30 seconds (this is why you use dense, stale bread). Cook on the griddle until browned, flip and cook the other side. I like to put the butter on the top as soon as I turn the bread – it melts beautifully. Cover lavishly with whatever toppings you prefer.