Its calorie count may make this popular breakfast dish more of a brunch special, and yet, there are few Colonial dishes that give you that happy high like French toast does.
Three years ago, when Sandeep Singh (Co-owner Ministry of Beer) decided to revamp the menu of the microbrewery, one dish that made it to the final draft of the renewed menu was the iconic French toast. Or as Singh puts it, “The Raymond of all breakfasts, everybody loves it, has a special recipe to this instant comfort food and can be made as gourmet as one wants.” Simply, a dish that was fit for any restaurant. While the idea was great, the execution, as the sustainable interior designer would soon discover, was mission confusion: “With nearly hundreds of ways to make it, it was hard to pick one that would be the right fit,” says Singh, who finally decided to go the good old regimental way and picked the version that is served most.
“The French Toast then,” says the restauranteur, “is this thick square of a double baked, stale bread that is soaked in custard, set aside on the wire rack before it is shallow fried in butter or lard in a cast-iron pan and finished with a dash of rum. The smokey, sweet toast is served with whipped cream, local cut fruits and honey. When treating guests, however, the toast would get a dress-up with chocolate sauce or shaven bits, chopped nuts, a rich compote instead of cut fruits and maple syrup – a stark reminder of the Colonial days. This very dish, when on the go, becomes a simple fare of jam-butter sandwich soaked in a seasoned egg wash and then toasted on the iron pan over a wood/charcoal fire that gives it that rustic aroma and taste. This toast is served with a simple dusting of sugar – or in some cases, cinnamon sugar.” After several trials, all three versions made it to the menu that will be functional once eating out becomes “normal”.
“The beauty of French toast,” says Chef Dhruv Oberoi (Head Chef, Olive Bar & Kitchen), “is that it has remained extremely adaptive and versatile since its first appearance in Roman cookbook Apicius where it is referred to as ‘Aliter Dulcia’ (a sweet dish). The recipe instructs: ‘Break fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces and soak in milk and beaten egg, fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.’
“The dish was most likely invented as a way to use bread, a staple of almost all Western civilisation. Its gradual transformation was as much a result of trade and wars as it was of political upheavals that earned the simple bread, egg, sweet toast the moniker of Poor Knights of Windsor during the reign of Edward III. After the Battle of Crécy in northern France in 1346, the knights were forced to take asylum in Windsor Palace and eat fried bread. It was perhaps the nourishment, wholesomeness or purely the ‘not so frugal’ taste of the toast that drove, by the reign of Richard II, the dish to be called Payn Fondew, made of ‘bread fried in grease or oil, soaked in rede wyne’ and cooked with raisins, finished with sugar and spices, and garnished with candied white coriander seeds. The next few centuries saw the rise of French toast to become Pain Perdu in France, Arme Ritter in Germany and Köyhät Ritarit in Finland. It was sometime in the 17th century that Britain became familiar to the art of soaking bread in custard and frying. The English Huswife (1615) recipe for ‘the best panperdy’ that used egg but no milk, calls for a dozen eggs seasoned with cloves, mace, cinnamon, nutmeg, and a good store of sugar, with as much salt as shall season it. It recommended the thick slices of manchet [an expensive bread] for the toast.”
“The first version that travelled to India,” says seasoned pastry chef Avijit Ghosh and history aficionado, “was that of the Pain Perdu that was made with eggs, milk, sugar, butter fried and topped with strawberry (fresh or jam) with a dash of lime or orange juice. In fact, it was a recipe that was widely used in the Dak Bungalows where eggs, milk, stale bread, and lemon were available while sugar and jams were carried by the English women and men who made these places. It was in the later years that the more elaborate recipes were adopted by regimental cooks which had toppings ranging from maple syrup, jam, honey, peanut butter and whipped cream to fruit, yogurt, ice cream, nuts or bacon and used bread that ranged from brioche to challah.”
“In Colonial times,” adds Sandeep, “French toast, which had gained the name thanks to Chef Joseph French in 1724, remained more or less a Sunday brunch dish that was most enjoyed in cooler places such as Darjeeling and Shimla. The reason was that French toast and the way it was made was considered a heavier meal that could suffice for breakfast and lunch too. It was during the World Wars that simple formats were curated made with stale sliced bread and dusted with sugar and served with the fruit of the day, usually banana, apple, papaya or a mix. The mess version was slightly more elaborate with a choice of eggs on the side as well, and tea or coffee.”
Hotels eventually adopted the French version and continued tweaking it to suit the palate of the time, recalls Chef Ghosh of the prime days of the toast, which after four decades of reign disappeared into oblivion and into the home kitchen. Then about five years ago, thanks to the nostalgia trend, says Chef Dhruv, “The classical French toast made an appearance in experiential places as part of chefs’ specials. Only this time, it was Pain Perdu with the use of maple syrup and chocolate along with fruits that were either served au naturel or as compote prepared fresh in-house. In Grammar Room for instance, we use Polish Babka to make our toast that is served with a side of seasonal fruit, crushed, toasted almonds and honey drizzle.”
In Chef Ghosh’s version, it is a brioche, which adds more character to the toast than say the ordinary slice bread that often breaks, and is served with toasted nuts for crunch, honey, and a berry compote with, of course, the traditional whipped cream to crank up the rich taste. The restaurant Perch in Delhi does its version with thick sliced bread sandwich with a cornflake coating and generously drizzles with sweet chocolate sauce, caramelised banana slices and in some cases a sprinkling of toasted seeds on request. “The reason for using brioche or babka is that both the breads are dense in nature and can soak in generous amounts of the egg custard and still not lose its shape. Inherently sweet, these breads also allow for the contrasting flavour foreplay with fruits, nuts and seeds.”
Sadly, when it comes to the world of nutrition, it is this layering that is a cause of worry as it takes the home version which oscillates between 300 to 400 calories to an upward of 800 calories, which while makes it a better brunch option, doesn’t really earn it the tag of being healthy. Except for perhaps being a calorie-rich diet that when composed carefully and processed food reigned in to the minimum, can become a good filler if you plan to skip two meals during the day. However, for psychologist Itishree Mishra, French toast does have one silver lining. “As a food that is often laden with different forms of fat, it does wonders as a neurological tool that calms the mind, releases happy hormones and makes one more acceptable to changes, especially with habits that have turned into an addiction.” In the nutritional world, such dishes are used as a tool to get people away from certain food habits by replacing harmful ones with a controlled portion of foods that bring out the same feelings. “Of course,” adds Mishra, “it only works when done in moderation as these foods are easy to get addicted to.” But is that the reason French toast continued to exist in the culinary grammar of many cultures? Partly yes, say the experts.
Do you want to recreate this classic at home, but with a twist? Simply follow the recipe below:
Pain Perdu by Chef Dhruv Oberoi
- 2 slices of babka (or any other sweet bread)
- 2 eggs
- 15ml milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
- Orange zest for fragrance
- 10gm brown sugar or jaggery
- Seasonal fruit for garnish
- Crushed and toasted almonds for garnish
- Honey for drizzling (optional)
To a medium, shallow bowl, add the eggs, milk, orange zest, and granulated sugar. Whisk to combine and break up the eggs completely.
In a medium pan over medium heat, melt 1/2 a tablespoon of butter, moving the pan from side to side to evenly distribute the melted butter.
Use a fork to dip a slice of babka into the liquid batter, dipping both sides of the babka. Place the babka into the prepared pan, cooking each side for approximately 1 minute, or until it’s golden brown and crisp. Repeat this step for the remaining brioche slices, melting a 1/2 tablespoon of butter in the pan before frying each piece of bread.
Cut each babka slice in half, diagonally, and garnish with any seasonal fruit and almond slices. Drizzle honey all over.