The other night, while eating dinner, I watched old episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef on PBS. In one episode I learned how to properly rotisserie a chicken, including using pliers to tighten the thumbscrews on the spit. In another episode, with clips of visits to an upscale fish market and lessons from a skilled chef, I learned how to fillet a fish. Julia’s enthusiasm and lack of self-consciousness were lovely to watch. She seemed thoroughly immersed in what she did and gave her viewer a valuable education in food. A graceful force, she taught us techniques of French cuisine and increased awareness of ways to prepare food. For the American cook, it was a way to visit France and imagine what it might be like to eat there.
The recipe for the familiar breakfast staple of french toast is adapted from the cookbook Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson. Chad and his wife Elisabeth Prueitt are chefs and co-owners of Tartine Bakery & Cafe and Bar Tartine in San Francisco. Like Julia, their food is deeply influenced by travels and training in France. Chad’s cookbook Tartine Bread addresses the art of breadmaking, formulas for several types of bread, and thirty recipes using day-old bread. If you love to bake bread, it’s a gorgeous and inspiring read. Though I haven’t yet eaten at their restaurant, the recipes in Tartine Bread at least provide a way for me to eat there in my imagination, and it’s a delectable trip.
For my adaptation of Tartine Bread’s “Baked French Toast,” I substitute a homemade whole grain bread, made in a boulé shape and sliced thickly, for Tartine’s basic country bread. It’s really important not to use thinly pre-sliced sandwich bread for the best results. Instead, make your own or buy a good-quality artisan loaf and slice it yourself. I also use honey instead of sugar, and substitute orange zest and almond extract for the lemon zest and vanilla extract. For an interesting savory touch, I add minced fresh thyme. When spread with butter and drizzled with maple syrup, I think you’ll find this french toast will transport your tastebuds to a very happy place.
Whole Grain French Toast with Almond, Orange and Thyme
(recipe adapted from the cookbook Tartine Bread by Chad Robertson)
2 pieces whole grain bread, sliced into 3/4″ thickness
2 large eggs
1/2 cup whole milk (I use raw goat’s milk)
1 tablespoon raw honey
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 tablespoon orange zest
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced
1 tablespoon butter for skillet
In a medium bowl, whisk eggs, honey, almond extract, salt, orange zest and thyme together until well combined. Arrange bread slices in a baking dish just large enough to accommodate both pieces snugly. Pour egg mixture evenly over bread slices. Refrigerate, turning both pieces over every 15 minutes, so the liquid is absorbed evenly, for a total of one hour. Turn the bread carefully using a spatula so it won’t break or fall apart as it absorbs the egg mixture.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Just a few minutes before the bread is done soaking, add the butter to a cast-iron or oven-proof skillet and heat over medium-low. Transfer both pieces of bread to the skillet. If you have extra egg mixture left in the soaking dish, pour a little bit at a time directly onto the bread and let it absorb the excess. After a couple of minutes, turn the bread over to cook the other side for an additional two minutes. Then transfer the skillet with the bread to the middle rack of the oven, and bake for 15 minutes. The finished french toast will be slightly puffed up when first removed from the oven.
Serve with butter and warm maple syrup.