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Food for Thought - June 23, 2010 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
Why is French toast called “French” toast? It didn’t originate in France. In fact, despite its Francophilic title, there is nothing inherently French about French toast. It is a dish that spans numerous countries and eras in history. Moreover, it is or has been known by many other monikers such as Spanish toast, German toast, nun’s toast, eggy bread, torriga, Poor knights of Windsor, and many others. In France, the country of its namesake, it is known as “pain purdue,” which translates as “lost bread.” This ineluctably refers to the traditional use of stale bread in the dish.
French toast can be traced back to the Romans. This is really not surprising. In fact, its origins must be hoarier than that. Once bread was invented, it didn’t take centuries of evolution to realize it can be dipped in fluid to soften or flavor it. Nevertheless, the Roman Empire is our identified provenance which explains France’s name for French toast before pain purdue: “pain a la Romaine,” or Roman bread. The term “French toast” can be traced to at least 17th century England and of course spread to America along with the colonists.
French toast was eaten throughout Europe during the middle ages. It was indeed a means of utilizing stale bread, both to make it palatable and to avoid wasting food, an unthinkable act for the penurious peasants of the time. However, the affluent consumed it as well, albeit adorned by more extravagant and expensive ingredients.
As stated, French toast or some variation thereof is consumed the world over. For some it is a dessert; for others a holiday favorite such as on Christmas or Easter. But there’s no dispute that here in America, French toast has become one of our iconic breakfast offerings.
Basic French toast is quite simply slices of bread dipped in an egg and dairy mixture, and then fried in butter. Traditionally it is topped with powdered sugar and syrup. But from these humble beginnings a multitude of permutations emerge. A wide variety of flavoring elements can be added to the basic recipe. All kinds of fruit, nuts, whipped cream, peanut butter, cheeses, jelly, etc. can festoon the basic template.
Bread choices are variable but usually encompass some form of white bread with not too hard a crust. French Brioche and Jewish challah breads are delightfully decadent choices. These are rich breads fortified by eggs. As for me, I must have been a starving Dark Ages peasant in another life. I make French toast from my everyday sliced white bread which is starting to go stale.
Stuffed French toast is basically a French toast sandwich. Some kind of filling is placed between two pieces of pre-cooked French toast and then it is finished in an oven. Speaking of sandwiches, we couldn’t discuss French toast without mentioning the Montecristo. Originating probably in California in the 20th century, a Montecristo is a ham and/or turkey and cheese sandwich. Once composed each side is dipped in beaten egg and fried, in essence creating a sandwich encased in French toast. One of the great culinary mysteries is where the Montecristo derived its name. Montecristo or “Mountain of Christ” is a small island off the Tuscan coast which was immortalized in Alexandre Dumas’ classic: “The Count of Montecristo.” Either the island or the novel would seem to be the source of inspiration but it remains anybody’s guess.
In any event, below is my recipe for orange-almond French toast. If you prefer the no-frills original, just omit the orange and almond flavorings. Viva la………Romans?
ORANGE-ALMOND FRENCH TOAST
Butter, as needed for frying
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon orange zest
1 tablespoon sugar
Â¼ teaspoon almond extract
Â¼ teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of salt
6 slices of bread
Powdered sugar and maple syrup as needed
Heat up a large sautÃ© pan or griddle to no more than medium heat with a generous amount of butter.
Thoroughly whisk the eggs, milk, cream, orange juice, orange zest, sugar, almond extract, cinnamon and salt in a bowl.
Pour into a square or rectangular baking dish. Place the bread in the dish, working in batches if necessary and allow it to soak somewhat on each side.
Place the bread in the pan until browned on the first side. Flip and brown the other side.
Sprinkle powdered sugar on the bread and serve with the syrup.
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