For three solid years, I envied that tower of French toast.
My mom is a high school librarian, and when my sister and I were kids, she’d drop us off at our neighbors’ house to wait for the bus while she drove to work. We’d get there about an hour before the bus was due and wait inside while the family had breakfast. Morning after morning, we’d open the door to the scent of bacon frying and pancakes on the griddle. Or the sight of plates piled high with freshly buttered biscuits, sausage and fried eggs. Or the French toast! We’d already eaten breakfast, but a bowl of Cheerios is no match for a hot breakfast on a cold morning. We’d take our seats at the kitchen table and steel ourselves for the daily agony of watching those biscuits and pancakes and sausages disappear before our eyes.
Forget waterboarding. If you really want to torture someone, withhold bacon. (Not that that’s what this family did. We didn’t feel entitled to their breakfast. We simply lusted after it in our hearts.)
We understood that Mama didn’t have time to be our short-order cook. She needed to get to work. We needed to get to the bus stop. Truthfully, we liked cereal. But every day, when we got to that House of Never-Ending Pancakes, we wanted that hot breakfast like worms want dirt. And now, my 6-year-old nephew Jack is the same way. In fact, he and my sister struck a deal over it. If Jack fights his sleepyhead tendencies and gets ready for school early, she’ll make him a hot breakfast that morning instead of cereal. So far, he’s jumping out of bed like the covers are on fire for a plate of scrambled eggs.
As for me, I firmly believe that one of the great unsung joys of adulthood is the ability to choose one’s own breakfast. And that brings me to Virginia Willis’ French Toast Casserole.
Sweet goodness. This one surprised me.
It’s so incredibly simple. Some melted butter and brown sugar in the bottom of a baking dish. A few slices of bread arranged on top and moistened with a mixture of eggs, whole milk, vanilla, cinnamon and ginger. A scattering of chopped pecans over the top. Refrigerate it overnight, and bake it in the morning. You can dust it with powdered sugar and top it with sorghum or maple syrup, but the surprising thing is that it doesn’t need it. The casserole isn’t dry. It isn’t eggy. It isn’t cloying or complicated.
It’s just so incredibly good.
You could save this recipe for a weekend or holiday, but why not put it together Sunday night and start your week off right? Turn Monday morning into something to get excited about, for you and your family.
With every decadent bite, I like to imagine myself leaning across the sands of time (and over that neighbor family’s kitchen table) to give my younger self a fist bump. I whisper, “Stay hungry, Kid. And buy stock in Apple. Then you can have all the French toast you want.”
French Toast Casserole
Adapted from Virginia Willis’ “Bon Appetit, Y’all”
In a perfect world, you’ll be able to find brioche or challah for this recipe, but if your world isn’t so perfect, go with what you can get your hands on – French bread, country loaf, Texas toast, even cinnamon-raisin bread.
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
- 3/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1 loaf brioche or challah, sliced 1 1/2 inches thick (about 1 1/2 pounds)
- 8 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 cup chopped pecans
- Accompaniments: confectioners’ sugar; sorghum, cane or maple syrup
- Combine the melted butter and brown sugar in a 9-by-13-inch baking dish.
- Arrange the bread slices in the dish. (It’s fine if they overlap.)
- In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, ginger and salt. Pour the mixture over the bread, and let it soak in.
- Top the bread slices evenly with the pecans.
- Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 3 to 12 hours.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In the meantime, take the casserole out of the refrigerator, and let it sit at room temperature for 20 minutes.
- Bake the casserole until it’s browned and set, 30 to 45 minutes. Let it cool slightly on a wire rack. Sift confectioners’ sugar over the casserole, and serve it with sorghum, cane, or maple sugar.