Pancake day is fast approaching, and thus the newspapers and food magazines are full of various sweet and savoury recipes for these glorious mixtures of milk, eggs and flour. So, naturally, I have decided to go against the trend and provide you with an alternative brunch recipe. And what a wonderful alternative it is. Amazing how some of the most frugal dishes - often characterised by their attempt to salvage old bread - can be some of the most delicious. In this case, day old bread is soaked in a mixture of eggs, milk, vanilla and sugar, then pan-fried in butter. The result is a hugely satisfying doughy texture with a bit of crunch on the outside; so much richer than normal toast. This soothing blanket of carbohydrate is just right to team with something sharp and palate-awakening. In this case, roasted rhubarb, because I can't get enough of the stuff, and it is just beautiful.
A lot of fancy restaurants serve French toast as a dessert, but they call it pain perdu - lost bread. I suppose because you're rescuing bread that would otherwise be lost to the bin, or the birds. I rather like the idea of a lost slice of bread wandering around, waiting to be swept up and carried away to its rightful home: a dish full of milk, beaten egg, vanilla and golden granulated sugar. There it lies, thirstily drinking up this elixir, until you transfer it to a pan of foaming butter.
It seems odd to buy a loaf on purpose to use for something that is meant to make use of leftover stale bread, but there you go - I'm just living the life of expendable luxury. I left the slices out overnight to go hard, so they'd absorb more of the lovely milk and eggs and wouldn't go soggy. I like to slice the bread very thickly for French toast, so you end up with something crunchy on the outside but deliciously soft and fluffy in the middle. It also looks more generous and appealing on the plate - particularly when you have done 1.5km in the swimming pool beforehand and haven't eaten since dinner the night before.
The sound of the soaked bread sizzling as it hits the hot butter in the pan is joyous. Even more wonderful is flipping it over onto the other side, and seeing that the egg has turned brown and golden in patches. The best bit of the whole piece of French toast is the middle, which is all soft and fluffy, though the crusts are good too. Some recipes tell you to cut off the crusts - ignore them; this is clearly nonsense.
A drizzle of rhubarb syrup, a few pieces of cooked rhubarb (roasted in orange juice with sugar), a sprinkle of icing sugar, and you have an incredible brunch for so little effort. Even easier than pancakes. I have never had French toast, nor made it, before, so I'm pretty impressed by this recipe, and can't wait to experiment with all sorts of loaf/fruit pairings. Next up I want to try brioche with cinnamon and caramelised apples. Watch this space.
Vanilla French toast with roasted rhubarb (serves 2):
One day-old small whole white loaf
150ml whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
8 tbsp sugar
Knob of butter
4 sticks rhubarb
Juice and zest of 1 orange
For the rhubarb, slice into short lengths and place in a baking dish with the orange juice, zest, and 5tbsp sugar. Place in the oven at 180C for about 20 minutes or until tender to the point of a knife.
Slice the loaf into pieces about an inch thick. Beat the eggs with the milk, vanilla and sugar in a shallow baking dish. Place the bread slices in for around 5 minutes, pressing down, then turn over. You want them to have soaked up most of the mixture.
Heat the butter in a frying pan until foaming. Place the bread in (you might have to do this in batches). Let it sizzle for a few minutes then flip over and cook for a few more minutes. It should be quite firm on the outside but still soft in the middle, and should have browned in places. Keep warm in the oven while you do the other slices.
To serve, drizzle with the rhubarb juices, place some rhubarb on top or at the side, and sprinkle with icing sugar.