Despite its name, French toast is hardly exclusive to the French. Versions of egg-dipped fried bread have been served for breakfast for centuries across Europe and around the world. Spanish torrija consists of bread dipped in milk, honey and egg and then fried in olive oil. Hong Kong-style French toast is an over-the-top example, stuffed with peanut butter or jam and served with golden syrup or honey. Here in the United States, we like our French toast covered with pure New England maple syrup.
The British have a savory version, “eggy bread,” which is just what it sounds like, and is eaten on its own without any sweet toppings. In Southeast Asia, savory French toast is a more interesting affair, including abundant ground black pepper and a sprinkling of herbs. If your taste tends more toward the savory than the sweet, this might be the breakfast (or breakfast-for-dinner) for you.
For the best French toast, sweet or savory, start with the right bread. A light and fluffy loaf will give you the lightest toast. White bread is fine, but challah and brioche are even better. To make sure that your bread can absorb the custard mixture, dry it out in the oven for a few minutes. Let it soak in the egg mixture, turning once, for 10 to 12 minutes. Eggs add richness and flavor, but you want your dish to taste like French toast, not an omelet. Because it is the egg whites that contain the sulfur compounds that give cooked eggs their eggy taste, use just the yolks. A little oil in the pan along with the butter will help you brown your bread without burning it.
Once you’ve tasted salt and pepper French toast, you might want to try other savory variations. Here are some ideas to get you started:
Parmesan French toast: Stir ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese into the batter. Swap parsley for the cilantro. Skip the scallions. Add a pinch of nutmeg. Serve with warm marinara sauce for dipping.
Indian-spiced French toast: Add a minced clove of garlic, ½ teaspoon curry powder, ½ teaspoon cumin and ¼ teaspoon cayenne to the custard. Serve with mango chutney for dipping.
Dill French toast with smoked salmon and crème fraîche: Substitute dill for the cilantro. Serve with dollops of crème fraîche and thinly sliced smoked salmon.
Lemon-thyme French toast: Substitute chopped fresh thyme for the cilantro, skip the scallions. Add the zest of 1 lemon. This one is also good with crème fraîche or whipped goat cheese.
Chili-garlic French toast: Add ½ seeded and finely chopped jalapeño pepper to the batter along with 2 finely chopped cloves of garlic. Serve with guacamole on the side.
SALT AND PEPPER FRENCH TOAST
8 (1/2-inch-thick) slices challah or brioche
6 large egg yolks
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions, white and light green parts
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup ketchup
1 tablespoon Sriracha, or more to taste
1 teaspoon honey
1 teaspoon lime juice
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
2 tablespoons vegetable oil, divided
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Place bread on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet. Bake bread until almost dry throughout (center should remain slightly moist), about 12 minutes, flipping slices halfway through cooking. Remove bread from rack and let cool 5 minutes. Return baking sheet with wire rack to oven and reduce temperature to 200 degrees.
2. In a shallow baking dish, beat together the egg yolks, half-and-half, salt, pepper, scallions and cilantro. Arrange half of the bread slices in the dish (you can do this in batches if your dish can’t accommodate all of the bread) and let stand, turning once, for 10 minutes.
3. In a small bowl, whisk together ketchup, Sriracha, honey and lime juice.
4. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add 1 tablespoon butter and one tablespoon vegetable oil and swirl to melt butter.
5. Add the soaked bread slices to the pan, letting any excess egg mixture drip back into the baking dish. Fry until golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes on each side. Place on a paper-towel-lined plate and place in the oven to keep warm. Wipe out the pan with a paper towel and repeat the soaking and cooking with the remaining bread, oil and butter.
6. Serve immediately with spicy ketchup on the side. Makes 4 servings.