A relative walked into my kitchen yesterday, wishing happy Easter and greeting the kids and I. She carried a platter of caprese salad, setting it down on my kitchen island. I could feel her eyes scanning the counter tops, looking … hoping. But there was nothing yet to see, with dishes tucked into the fridge and oven waiting. I busied myself, sliding thin slices of lemon into the sweating pitcher of ice water and gathering forks, knives and serving utensils to take outside, where we’d be eating. The ham came out of the oven, hot and sweet with glaze. And I slid mini frittatas into the waiting oven to warm them up. I’d cooked them earlier in the day. (Psst! recipe coming later this week!). “Ooh, what are those?” she asked, and I explained. Finally, she couldn’t take it anymore. Though she didn’t want to ask, she had to know. And in a whispered voice came the question: “Did you make the French toast?”
It’s a loaded question. The French toast, a special overnight recipe that I got from my friend Cate, has become a family tradition. I whip up batches a few times a year for special occasions — graduations, confirmations and always, always Easter. What once was a whim, has become something that everyone looks forward to and talks about. Overnight Creme Brulee French Toast takes two days to make. You know it must be something amazing if I make it again and again, despite the lengthy cooking process. And it truly is. The first day is all about assembly: creating a sweet buttery sugar mixture that’s spread in the pan and then thick slices of French bread pressed into it. A rich vanilla-y egg mixture is poured over, seeping into the slices as it marinates overnight.
The next day, you sprinkle the bread, now fat and soft from marinating with cinnamon sugar. Then it’s baked until browned and puffy. When you serve it, flip the pieces over to reveal the gooey golden sugary side. It’s best that way. This French toast requires no syrup, nothing more than a spatula for getting out of the pan. It’s an ooey-gooey masterpiece that has delighted us for years now. But it’s only for special occasions. It’s so rich that it would be wrong, in my mind anyway, to have it any more frequently. “Yes, two trays of it,” I replied. I didn’t have to turn around and look to know the broad smile it gave her. When I first started hosting family holidays, every menu was different. I was always trying something new and experimenting. At first, it was fun to have each holiday be so unique. But then something changed — there were dishes that really stood out like this one and they were requested again. And slowly, we moved from something new every time to having special traditions. A lot can be said for traditions, especially food traditions. I love knowing that as our family grows up, dishes like this will be special memories in everyone’s minds … and someday they may be something my kids make for their own children. There’s nothing more special than that.
Note: This recipe is updated from one that first appeared on Sarah’s Cucina Bella in 2009. It’s adapted from All Recipes via Sweetnicks.
- 12-14 1-inch thick slices French baguette (about 3/4 of a loaf)
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter, 1 stick
- 1 cup packed light brown sugar
- 2 tbsp light corn syrup
- 6 large eggs
- 1-1/2 cups half-and-half
- 2 tsp pure vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp Kosher salt
- 2 tbsp cinnamon sugar
The night before serving:
- You'll need a 9x13-inch baking pan. I use a glass one that goes from fridge to oven without problems. Start by fitting the bread into the pan to determine how many slices you really need. It varies based on the size of the loaf. Once you've fit as many in as you can, remove from the pan and stack them to the side. Brush any crumbs from the inside of the pan. Then, grease the bottom and sides of the pan with a little butter all over. Set this aside while you prepare your caramel-y layer.
- Next, you need a small saucepan. Melt the butter in the pan and then add the light brown sugar and corn syrup. Whisk vigorously for 4-6 minutes, until the sugar dissolves and it becomes what appears to be a smooth liquid. Pour into the prepared pan, taking care to spread it evenly around by tilting the baking pan to distribute.
- Press the slices of French bread into the pan, taking care to get the caramel-y mixture onto each one.
- Finally, whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, vanilla extract and salt until slightly frosting and all one even pale yellow color. Use a ladle to pour this over the French bread slices. It's key that you coat each slice all over (otherwise there will be hard spots in the toast). It will look like a lot of egg, but don't worry -- it absorbs into the bread. Cover and chill overnight in the refrigerator.
The day of serving:
- Remove the French toast from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. While it's sitting, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
- Sprinkle the slices with the cinnamon sugar.
- Slide the pan into the oven and bake, uncovered, for 40-50 minutes, until puffed and golden brown. The egg should be set all over. Remove from the oven and serve immediately.
- Traveling with this? Whether you are going across town or farther, this is a dish you need to make ahead of time and fully cook before going. Otherwise the egg mixture will slosh out.
- Making ahead. This can be cooked ahead of time and reheated before serving. To do so, cook completely in the oven earlier in the day. Then set aside. When it’s time to serve, reheat the French toast in a preheated 325 degree oven for about 10 minutes.
- Softening up hardened French toast. As the toast cools, it can be hard to remove slices from the pan. Simply reheat the toast as described above and it will come out easily again.
- Doubling up. Want to make a double batch? For best results, prepare each batch separately the night before. It’s tempting to just double everything up, but it just doesn’t come out as well when you do. But don’t worry, it only takes a few minutes to assemble.
Sarah Walker Caron is a cookbook author, freelance writer and founder of Sarah’s Cucina Bella. She is the author of several cookbooks including The Super Easy 5-Ingredient Cookbook and One-Pot Pasta, both from Rockridge Press. A single mother to two kids in middle school, Sarah loves nightly family dinners, juicy tomatoes plucked fresh from the vine and lazy days on the beach. She also adores reading and traveling.