I have to admit that when a friend offered me her recipe for the French toast she learned during her Girl Scout days, I didn’t exactly rush to accept. An unfortunate experience with a campfire stew involving canned vegetables and cream-of-something soup is still etched in my mind.
But she nudged and she nagged and she insisted until I finally made a batch. And it turns out that the Girl Scouts make a mean French toast. It really was the best I have ever had: custardy in the center, with a crunchy caramelized topping that reminded me of the sugar cap of a crème brûlée.
The technique differs from other French toast recipes, with their quick dip into eggy milk. This one calls for patience. You have to soak the bread in the custard overnight, or at least for several hours, until the slices become so saturated that moving them to a baking pan can be a damp and precarious endeavor.
Then the soaked bread is slowly baked on a bed of brown sugar instead of being quickly fried. This sounds like sacrilege but turns out to be a genius move. Not only don’t you have to stand at the stove flipping pieces of soggy bread before you’re fully caffeinated, you can also put a pan of bacon into the oven at the same time as the French toast. Then read the newspaper until the scent of caramelizing sugar and sizzling pork fat drives you to hungry distraction. It’s worth the wait.
I’ve tweaked the basic Girl Scout formula over the years, increasing the richness with extra egg yolks and cream, adding spices and other aromatics, and changing the bread from sliced white to challah, brioche or sliced baguette. Use whatever light-textured bread you have on hand, preferably one that’s slightly stale.
In this version, I’ve combined challah with a custard laced with rum and nutmeg. It tastes just like eggnog, albeit the breakfast-appropriate kind. If you’d rather not use the rum, leave it out. Or substitute orange juice or a few drops of orange blossom water, which works nicely with some grated citrus rind mixed in, too.
Then serve it up for a decadent brunch paired with a pot of coffee or tea. But skip the maple syrup, which would be overkill. The recipe is sweet enough all on its own.
Crème Brûlée French Toast
5 large eggs plus 2 yolks (or 6 whole eggs)
2œ cups whole milk
½ cup heavy cream (or use more milk)
3 tablespoons dark rum or orange juice
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
ß teaspoon grated nutmeg
œ teaspoon kosher salt
1 loaf challah bread, sliced 1 inch thick, preferably stale (about 1 pound)
1 cup packed light brown sugar
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
In a bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, cream, rum, vanilla, nutmeg and salt. Spread bread out in 1 layer on a large rimmed baking sheet (about 11 by 17 inches). Pour custard over bread, cover with plastic wrap, and let soak in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or preferably overnight. Flip bread slices over once while they soak. This can be halfway through the soaking, or about an hour before baking, whichever is more convenient.
Heat oven to 375 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together brown sugar and butter. Pour mixture onto another large rimmed baking sheet, using a spatula if necessary to spread into an even layer.
Transfer soaked bread to sugared baking sheet, placing slices on top of the brown sugar mixture. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until tops are golden brown and sugar is bubbling.
Serve immediately while still hot, with the crunchy brown sugar side up, spooning more of pan syrup over the top.
Serves 6 to 8.