Sunday, April 17, 2011

Spring Feast


C'est le temps des sucres! It's the season for sugaring off! Unfortunately, not everyone can make to a sugar shack (though I do hope you get to live the experience at least once in your life... something for the bucket list!) Of course, you can always make a feast in your own kitchen: there is nothing better than breakfast fare served with generous amounts of beautiful maple syrup.


The traditional French Canadian sugar shack menu would give most people a heart attack: baked beans and pork; fried pork rind; split pea soup with pork jowl; eggs and bacon; pancakes or french toasts; all positively drowning in a sea of syrup. Oh, and one must not forget the taffy on snow for dessert. It's all a bit much for a homemade brunch, but can anyone pass up a platter of golden french toast?


It's all in keeping with the spring-cleaning mood, of course: french toast is perfect for using up all those ends and remnants of bread that seem to inhabit the kitchen counter. There's a good reason why the French call this brunch staple pains perdus: literally translated as 'lost bread', one uses old bread that would otherwise have been wasted. I feel silly giving a recipe for french toast, but I've actually been asked for one by several friends, which leads me to think that there are still a few people out there who are mystified by this dish.


Making good french toast is not an exact science, but here are a few guidelines to ensure success. First of all, use stale bread: it will soak up the custard more readily, yet will not turn soggy. If you do not have stale bread, you can leave slices out overnight to dry out a bit, or you can even stick them in a low oven until the bread has lost most of its springiness. Secondly, the batter has to be custardy: though the egg to liquid ratio need not be exact, the mix should neither be too thin nor too thick. Soaking time is somewhat important - some dislike the mushy, baby-food-like texture of soft toasts: a thicker custard, and shorter soaking period will result in sturdier french toasts. Finally, the type of bread used will greatly play on the final result: I rather like custardy, creamy toasts, so I prefer to use sturdy country loaves and baguettes, as they have a good crust to middle ratio, and the thick crust helps the soft centre from collapsing on itself. However, any stale bread will do the trick: I've even tried old pita wedges to test the recipe. The result was an interesting cross between crêpes and french toast, and was lovely sprinkled with maple sugar.

I've actually had earnest debates over whether or not the custard should be flavoured. It all comes down to personal preferences: I like to douse my toast with generous amounts of maple syrup, so I prefer a mere hint of sweetness in the custard. However, since I also tend to eat the left-overs cold and plain, I do make sure that one can taste the sugar. But I have a friend who prefers her custard lightly salted and peppered so that it doesn't jar with a slathering of Marmite... In fact, if you replace the sugar in the following recipe by a few pinches of salt, you can even use the custard as a base for a quiche. As much as I love vanilla, I don't put any in the custard because I don't enjoy the gustatory tug-of-war between the vanilla and maple syrup. However, a few gratings of nutmeg is quite complimentary to maple. But that is just how I like my pain perdu. One thing that need not be debated is the use of cream in the custard: cream is lush and rich, and will turn good old french toast into an event. Nevertheless, for the sake of you waistline and health, use for special occasions only.

Pain Perdu
Feeds... well, it all depends on whether or not you want to share!

250ml/ 1cup milk, cream, non-dairy milk, or any combination thereof
3 eggs
3 Tbs sugar, or to taste
1 stale baguette, ½ a country loaf, ½ package of sliced sandwich bread, or the equivalent quantity of any other bread
butter or oil for frying 

In a salad bowl or deep dish, mix eggs, milk and sugar until the sugar is completely dissolved.
Slice the bread -if it isn't already done- into 2cm/ 1" slices.
Soak the bread in the custard: at least 5 minutes (it really depends on how dry your bread is) if you like soft toasts. If you prefer firmer toasts, soak until the bread feels al dente: squeeze the bread between your thumb and forefinger, you should feel a slight resistance after an initial give.
Over medium/ medium-high heat, melt a pat of butter or a teaspoonful of oil in a frying pan.
When the butter starts to bubble, place soaked bread in pan.
Fry about 1 minute on each side, or until the toast is prettily mottled brown.
If you are feeding a crowd, keep toasts warm in a low oven until you are ready to serve.

French toasts are best served piping hot, but there is no accounting for taste: I do relish left-over cold toasts too! If you are serving up french toasts at brunch, you will most likely want to have some fruit on hand to garnish your plate: local apples are still available in most regions, and are scrumptious caramelised. When you are done frying your toasts, add one last pat of butter to the pan, and throw in a few peeled, quartered and cored apples. Let to colour nicely on all sides, add a few drop sof water if you want to cook them fully. If you happen to have -gasp!- left-over french toasts, they can be frozen for another day: just layer the toasts with wax or parchment paper, and all you will need to do is pop them in the toaster when you fell like a nibble. Or you can just leave them on the counter for a midnight snack...




Bon app'!



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