by: Chef Jim Berman
The sweet, syrupy smell of falling aspen leaves, barely crinkling under your feet. Overly juicy, ripe-right-now Fuji apples exploding all over your chin. The wash of tingling of somebody saying "I really like you" for the first time. The closet-fresh, just-risen-from-summer-hibernation comfort of your favorite sweatshirt with the threadbare sleeves and stretched head opening. Coffee with a splash of hazelnut liqueur topped with way too rich whipped cream. Two slices of squishy-in-the middle, gently tanned French toast with each little pocket over filled with warm syrup glistening against melted butter. Ahh, the gentle and oh so luscious peck on the cheek (or more) of the start of fall. There really is romanticism in the change from season to the next, but none as profound as the start of fall. The leaves are holding on for one more stab at immortality. The birds squeeze every last minute of light from the waning glow of the setting sun. But, as we know that the gray days of winter approach, there is something comforting in knowing that the end of the roaring summer will be renewed by the deep clean that follows autumn.
The nip in the air can be a comfort, of sorts. The kids are back in school. Vacations are over. Days are shorter and there is a calm that washes across the day-to-day. Not necessarily a departure from "wooo hooo," but rather a foray through the forest with nary a glimmer of light shining through. Morning brings a new day, awash with big red highlights painting the tops of trees, water towers and the silhouettes of long-cast shadows from passing cars. But, there is no escape the cold floor that caresses your naked toes as they take one small step for man and one giant leap for chilly days. Cereal will not bring the comfort we crave; oatmeal is Monday through Friday and too healthy to cull our desire to feel warm and fuzzy all over. Perhaps that ooze of really good, Grade "B" Vermont maple syrup rivulets pooling in the corner of your mouth after each bite of thick-sliced, custard bathed slab of nook-filled bread slathered with rich, creamy butter will suffice to wrap the day in one great big grandma hug.
A bit of history to take good advantage of our lesson on French toast is befitting a chilly morn. French toast has an origin that is rather unremarkable, really. Folklore tells us that a gentleman (of American origin!) with the last name of, yes, French created his namesake dish in a tavern in upstate New York early in the 18th century. And, yes, there is even some mention of an egg-soaked bread concoction going back to cookbooks of the mid 1600s. Why quibble over semantics? The latter suggests, however, leftover slabs of bread. To this, alas, I take umbrage. The essence of a quality dish, with some exceptions of course, should be grounded in quality ingredients. I am not insinuating you have some peculiar, hard-to-find bread made with albino flour ground by a team of red-haired, left-handed virgins flown to your door. Actually, the aspect of French toast that makes you sing at the top of your vocal range is the technique in which you prepare the toast, rather than the bread. The ingredients do not play the supporting role, mind you. They do, however, share the spotlight that is the technique that will warm the heart of your slumbering roommates.
Check this out: (enough for you and the one whose gentle caresses make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end)
Unsalted Butter. Check out Vermont Butter & Cheese brand in the little wooden woven basket. It is worth the $6 per pound. My younger daughter eats it by the spoonful, so it must be good.
3 large eggs
2 Tablespoons, granulated sugar
¼ cup, heavy cream (if you are on a diet… They don't work. Also, if you are going to skip the cream, skip this recipe. Your loss. Try the oatmeal.)
1 teaspoon, vanilla. Please forego if you are going to use imitation vanilla – it is too sweet. Use pure vanilla extract. It's cheaper than gas!
4 slices, 1" to 1 ½" thick bread. I prefer a dense sour dough that does NOT come in a plastic bag. Go for the stuff that makes the brown bag in which it came smell like love.
Real Maple syrup. Try to get Grade "B" and do not be misled; Grade "B" is darker and more full of the flavor for which your soul is begging. The "B" does not mean it is inferior. Dirty one more cooking implement and actually heat the syrup, very gently, just before serving.
Gently melt a tablespoon of the butter in a large, cast-iron skillet. The silence of the early morning should remain in tact with the noticeable absence of the usual hiss and sizzle of cold fat hitting a hot pan. The gentle touch wins the prize! In a 3-quart mixing bowl, mix together the eggs and sugar. Stir in the cream and vanilla. Submerge the four slices in the custard mixture until squishy like summer sand between your toes. Lay each slab on the butter-coated skillet to absorb the warm embrace of the iron mattress for which the bread ne'er moves until the custard just sets. There should be no tell-tale signs of brown, burnt or otherwise abuse of these gentle morning glories. With the care of tiptoeing through a sleeping baby's nursery, turn over these beautiful babes in the arms of nurturing Mama Skillet.
Place two slices on each plate and slather with more butter. Do not be bashful; nobody is looking! Dress the toast with some of the warmed syrup. Serve immediately, as if there is any question. Feel the love. Embrace the warmth. Succumb to the lusty advances of almost naked French toast.