Seville Orange French Toast
With Maple Whipped Cream
I love love love love love French toast. Love it. But at the same time, part of me doesn’t really get it. Don’t get me wrong – I know what it is, and I know how to make it, but I feel like it occupies a strange cultural position that I just can’t figure out. First of all, I don’t get why it’s got a reputation for being difficult and/or time-consuming, and I can’t figure out why. It’s simply a matter of mixing basic kitchen staples and throwing the whole shebang in a frying pan. It’s also a great way to use up leftover bread, as it works better with a day-old loaf. In fact, the French name (because of course the French don’t call it French toast) is pain perdu (lost bread) – a direct reference to the dish’s ability to reclaim and reinvigorate stale bread. On top of that, it scales really easily, making it ideal for two people or 20. So while it’s got a definite elaborate-brunch status, it’s just as easy to whip up for a simple (albeit indulgent) breakfast or lunch.
Anyway, I can deal with misconceptions concerning difficulty. What really drives me nuts is the way that French toast is generally plated and presented. Specifically, the way that the simple combination of eggs, milk, and bread gets absolutely basted in cloying, over-the-top sweetness. The toast itself is often treated like an afterthought, with the focus instead falling on its ability to act as a vessel/sponge for syrup, heavily sweetened fruit purees, and unseemly quantities of whipped cream. Don’t get me wrong – sweetness definitely makes the whole thing come alive. But it seems like all too often French toast is positively drowning in sugar. I find myself wondering if it’s some kind of brunch inferiority complex (i.e. the bread just doesn’t seem exciting enough so the toppings overcompensate), or if it’s simply a lazy and generic way to put together an inoffensive meal. Perhaps it’s a bit of both. Regardless, brunch should be a merger between breakfast and lunch, not breakfast and dessert. In fact, I just want to go on record and say that over-sweetened brunch carbs are an annoying trend that I’d like to see quashed right now. If your breakfast is nearly indistinguishable from a rather large piece of cake, you might be missing the point of the meal.
Lest any of you think that I’m going to propose some bland health-foodified version of French toast, let me take a moment to allay your fears. This recipe proudly boasts sugar, real whipping cream, maple syrup, and plenty of melt-in-your-mouth airy-and-eggy challah bread. But the core concept is that flavours should be built and balanced, and not dominated by overarching sweetness. The French toast itself departs from the standard neutral base by incorporating bitter/sour orange flavours, while the maple and cream are combined into an amazing dual-purpose topping. The effect is a synergistic one; a little maple and cream go a long, long way, and neither one needs to be used in excess. Even the raspberry puree (which is optional but recommended) is completely devoid of added sugar, as the balancing tart/sour flavour of the fruit is what we’re really looking for. But ultimately, because the toast itself brings citrus flavour into the equation, you can vary your toppings based on your time/ingredients and still end up with a lovely meal. Even without the whipped cream, a bit of maple syrup (the real stuff – always the real stuff), a handful of raspberries, and some fresh orange slices would still make this a breakfast to remember.
There’s nothing complicated going on here. If you’ve ever made French toast, you’ll find that this isn’t much of a departure in terms of technique. Still I will (as always) give a few tips and tricks to help you really nail this.
As mentioned above, this is best with a nice, dense, day-old bread. In my opinion, nothing compares to challah when it comes to making good French toast. I buy mine from a bakery of Friday (challah is often easiest to find around the Jewish sabbath) and I’m all set for a nice Saturday morning brunch.
Other egg-enriched breads (pulla, zopf, etc.) would work beautifully too. Airy and egg-free breads like French bread or ciabbatta also work quite well, though they tend to yield a somewhat chewier final product, and generally requires a slightly longer soak in the egg/milk mixture before frying. If you can, avoid standard grocery-store loaf bread for this recipe; they tend to be too soft and to soak up the egg mixture too quickly, making for an overly soft/mushy end product.
Seville (or bitter) orange is an intense flavor – orangey yes, but sour, bitter and aromatic all at once. You can learn all about finding, choosing, and using them at this Ingredient Page here on the site. The key to using them here is to treat the juice and the zest as related but very different ingredients. Adding the juice to the egg/milk mixture delivers some orange flavour, but it primarily contributes a sour/bitter component that balances the richness and sweetness found in other parts of the recipe. In terms of the orange flavour however, it’s really the zest that does the bulk of the work, so be sure to include it. In fact, you can actually increase the quantity a little bit if you want a more intensely orange flavour to shine through (the flavour is relatively understated as-is). If you can’t find Seville oranges, you can use any orange citrus, including sweet oranges, tangerines, etc. That being said, if you do go with a sweet orange, I would recommend replacing the juice with a mixture of orange and lemon juice in order to round out the sweetness and bring some acidity back into the equation. You could also experiment with other citrus flavours – grapefruit and pomelo would both substitute nicely (though I personally think orange works best with the maple flavour).
The maple whipped cream is just sweet and rich enough to round the whole thing out without overpowering the other ingredients. In my opinion, the maple flavour comes through perfectly – it’s present and it’s distinctive, but it’s not overwhelming. It also works quite nicely with the small amount of added vanilla. That being said, die-hard maple addicts are forgiven if they want to add an extra glug (a very technical measurement, I know) to individual servings.
An earlier iteration of this recipe didn’t include the raspberry puree, but I’m much happier for its inclusion. Not only does it add a nice punch of colour, but the sweet/sour flavour really balances the rich whipped cream and the eggy bread. If you’re making this during citrus season (i.e. late fall to early spring) you’ll probably be hard-pressed to find good raspberries. Fortunately, frozen raspberries are even easier to use. Take a small handful, throw them in a bowl and microwave until soft, then crush them with a spoon. If you don’t like raspberry seeds, you can press the mixture through a small strainer.
The rest is pretty straightforward. A very light sprinkling of powdered (aka superfine) serves a purpose very much like a sprinkling of sea-salt used to finish a savoury dish; a small amount, spread evenly, delivers a flavour with immediate impact on the palate and prevents the overuse of other similarly flavoured components. A few thinly sliced sweet oranges (NOT Seville oranges) dress the plate up and help to extend the orange flavour a bit further. A sprig or two of mint is a nice visual touch, but it also works well with the citrus. I used chocolate mint from my garden which has a lovely hue and a very distinctive minty punch. Despite the name, there’s no chocolate flavour involved – the ingredient is named for its colouring and its ability to perfectly compliment chocolate.
Still, I do wonder what a tiny bit of grated dark chocolate might do to finish this off. If you end up giving it a shot, let me know in the comments.
While this dish isn’t terribly high in sodium, it is easy to see how a very small amount of salt (the salt in the bread plus a measly 1/2 tsp) can really add up.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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