Photography by Liz Barclay (@liz_barclay). GIFs by Amy Chen.
Whether you’re a post-grad nursing a hangover or a parent making Sunday brunch for your kids, French toast is an essential component of the breakfast artillery. So what’s the key to taking your pain perdu game from pedestrian to extraordinary?
For some guidance, we visited chef Jim McDuffee of Joseph Leonard in the West Village, where brunch crowds line up for hours to get a taste of some of the city’s finest French toast. To make his version, McDuffee takes thick slices of buttery brioche and drowns them in barely-sweet egg custard. He pan-fries the slices until they’re golden and crisp, then bakes them in the oven so that the custard in the interior is just set. Finally, he tops the whole thing with apples cooked in caramel.
“For me, things like French toast and pancakes are vehicles for maple syrup and other toppings, just like nachos are vehicles for guacamole or salsa,” says McDuffee.
The chef’s first trick to amazing French toast? Make sure the custard is not too sweet; that way, you can drown the slices in maple syrup or a fruit topping.
Trick number two: Cut your bread thick. “French toast should be a steak dinner type of thing,” says McDuffee. “You shouldn’t be serving anyone thin, wimpy French toast slices.” The chef prefers a buttery Pullman brioche loaf, but admits that French toast made with challah, country bread, or sourdough will still turn out great. McDuffee has even made French toast out of carrot cake slices—seriously.
The third secret to French-toast glory is getting your pan nice and hot before cooking. McDuffee explains that when the surface is hot, the sugar in the custard caramelizes and you’re left with golden-brown French toast with a crispy exterior and custardy interior.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to recreating the classic Joseph Leonard French toast for yourself at home.
How to Make French Toast à la Joseph Leonard
For the French toast:
* 1 loaf Pullman brioche (or challah, country bread, or sourdough)
* 6 eggs
* 1 quart whole milk
* 1 cup sugar
* 1 tsp cinnamon
* 2 tbsp vanilla extract (or the seeds of one vanilla bean)
* Pinch salt
For the caramel apples:
*3 apples (Fuji or Granny Smith work best)
* ½ cup sugar
* 1 tbsp butter
Cooking the French Toast
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Slice your Pullman loaf into 1½-inch thick slices. You’ll want to slice the bread at an even thickness so that the pieces of French toast cook at the same rate.
2. Now it’s time to make the custard. Crack the eggs into a bowl, then add the whole milk, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla extract, and salt.
3. Whisk the ingredients vigorously until combined.
4. Soak the slices of Pullman loaf in the egg custard mixture for approximately three minutes. Move the slices around a bit so they all get an opportunity to soak up the custard.
5. Heat a large non-stick sauté pan over high heat, and add a splash of canola oil and a tablespoon of butter. Turning your burner on high—and letting your pan get hot before adding the oil and butter—will cause the French toast to caramelize properly on its exterior.
6. Once the butter is just about melted, lay the slices of bread in the pan, being careful not to splash any of the oil on your hands.
7. Cook the French toast on one side for about five minutes, or until the underside is a deep golden brown.
8. Flip the French toast slices over using a spatula.
9. Place the pan in the pre-heated oven. Bake on the bottom rack of the oven for approximately 7-10 minutes until both sides of the French toast are golden brown and the custard is just set in the center.
10. Plate your perfectly-browned, gorgeous slices of French toast and get ready for the best breakfast of your life.
Cooking the Caramel Apples
Note: You want to use a good baking apple, something that won’t turn into mush when cooked. Granny Smith, Gala, and Fuji are all good apples to use.
1. Peel your apples.
2. Cut the apples into 1-inch-thick slices, being careful not to get any of the core or seeds.
3. Heat a non-stick pan over high heat. Once the pan is hot, add ½ cup sugar in an even layer. If your pan is hot enough, the sugar will instantly begin to color and liquify at the edge of the pan.
4. Once the caramel starts browning at the edges, begin to drag the sugar towards towards the center to prevent any burnt spots. Once burnt, caramel can’t be saved—so don’t let anything get too dark.
5. Keep stirring over the heat until the caramel is dark, reddish-brown, and just to the point where it starts to smoke. At this stage, add the apple slices and toss them with the caramel.
6. The caramel will seize up when the cold apple slices hit the pan—this is okay. Continue cooking over high heat until the apples begin to cook and release their moisture. Then add your tablespoon of butter and let the apples cook until they are soft.
Assemble the French toast
Plate the slices of French toast on a large platter, then pour the apples and caramel syrup over the French toast. Finally, top with powder sugar and serve.