After escaping the spiral of self-doubt that naturally followed, I decided that even if you roughly know how to make French toast, there may be a few things you can learn from my recipe. And if you don't have a recipe? Well, now I've got you covered there, too.
I started with this Deluxe Cinnamon French Toast from cookbook author Lisa Yockelson that I had originally tested more than three years ago. I remember loving its crunchy exterior, but I wanted to streamline the recipe a bit.
So even if you do know how to make French toast or have a favorite recipe, here are a few takeaways:
• Think about the bread. I prefer thicker slices (about an inch) because they are easier to dip and flip. For the same reasons, go for something sturdier. My pick is challah, which is soft but stable and mildly sweet. Texas toast works, but regular white bread? I've had too many slices disintegrate to endorse it. Sourdough and brioche are other options.
• Flavor the custard. The egg-dairy mixture for soaking the bread is an ideal vehicle for flavors. This recipe accomplishes that with vanilla and cinnamon, but choose what you like. Almond extract would be great, or - if you're feeling fancy - try orange-flavored liqueur. My husband and I have used ground cardamom to lovely effect. If you're using a dried spice, be sure to mix it with the sugar going into the custard first (or sift the two together into the eggs). This helps distribute it more evenly, keeping it from clumping once it's added to the eggs.
• Let the bread rest. Sure, you may have hungry people patiently (or not so patiently) waiting for a weekend breakfast, but a quick rest in the refrigerator is, I think, worth the end result. It allows the custard to soak farther into the bread, which gives a more uniform texture so you don't get an eggy outside and regular bread on the inside. And have you ever had that unappetizing scrambled-egg exterior? That's less likely with this method, too, because the excess egg either migrates inside or gets left behind on the baking pan. You could omit this step if you're really rushed for time, but I don't recommend it.
• Give it a nice crunchy crust. Sprinkling one side of the soaked bread with cinnamon sugar is perhaps the best part of this recipe. When that coating hits the hot skillet, it darkens and caramelizes. As you'd expect, that crust looks and tastes good - kind of like creme brulee. If you're already using other competing dried spices in the custard, you can use sugar alone for sprinkling or add another hit of whatever was in the egg mixture. From there, serve as you please. I'm a simple-maple-syrup kind of girl, but a warm fruit compote, fresh berries, candied nuts and whipped cream are all toppings worthy of this top toast.
CINNAMON CHALLAH FRENCH TOAST
Makes 4 to 8 servings
MAKE AHEAD: The bread slices need to soak in the whisked-egg mixture for 10 to 30 minutes in the refrigerator.
• 1/4 cup sugar, plus 2 tablespoons for sprinkling
• 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, plus 1/4 teaspoon for sprinkling
• 4 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
• 3/4 cup half-and-half (may substitute whole milk)
• Pinch salt, preferably fine sea salt
• Eight 1-inch-thick slices challah (egg bread)
• 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, or as needed
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
Use a fork to stir together the 1/4 cup sugar and teaspoon of cinnamon in a small bowl. (You can skip this step and use a small strainer to sift those two ingredients together right into the whisked eggs.)
Whisk the eggs in a mixing bowl until well blended. Add the cinnamon-sugar mixture; whisk for 30 to 45 seconds or until lightly frothy. Whisk in the vanilla extract, half-and-half and salt.
Pour the whisked-egg mixture into a pie plate or rimmed baking sheet. Dip/soak the bread slices so that both sides are saturated, then carefully transfer the soaked slices to a rimmed baking sheet, arranging them in a single layer. Refrigerate, uncovered, for at least 10 minutes and up to 30 minutes.
When ready to assemble, stir together the remaining sugar and cinnamon in the same small bowl (or sift via strainer again). Melt half the butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat until the butter is foamy.
Sprinkle a little of the cinnamon-sugar blend over the top of each slice. Use a wide spatula to transfer two or three slices to the skillet, sugared sides up. Cook for 2 minutes, then flip over each slice and cook for 3 minutes, or until the bottoms are lightly caramelized, adjusting the heat to medium-low, as needed, to keep the French toast from browning too fast. For best texture and flavor, avoid undercooking the French toast (it should not be squishy or look wet), and refrain from pressing down on it in the skillet. If there are darkened bits of butter, you may need to wipe out the skillet between batches.
When the French toast is done, transfer the slices to a baking sheet or heatproof platter; cover loosely with aluminum foil and keep warm in the oven. Repeat with the remaining soaked slices, using the rest of the butter as needed. Serve crispy sides up.
Adapted from an original recipe by cookbook author Lisa Yockelson.