Recently, a co-worker hosted a chili cook-off benefit lunch to raise money for his nephew. His nephew has been diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma and is facing a total of at least 16 rounds of chemotherapy. The money raised would assist the family with paying for deductibles and travel costs, which will accumulate fast. I’m happy to say there was a great outpouring of support and a large sum of money was raised to help this young man and his family with their tough road ahead.
After the lunch, we were left with a gallon-sized bag of sliced French bread that had gone uneaten. Not wanting to waste it, I started brainstorming. And came to French Toast Casserole. I love the idea of French toast. It’s an elite form of weekend breakfast, served only at special occasions or eaten when dining out. I’m not sure why it’s enjoyed so infrequently–it could be that it’s not exactly health food–but it makes the day seem so much fancier if French toast is on your plate. The down side is that someone has to stand at the griddle frying up slice after slice of that goodness, missing out on ambiance of the occasion. She gets to eat eventually, sure, but she’s usually last, when everyone else has already moved on to something else. It’s a lonely kind of job. Which is where French Toast Casserole comes in.
French Toast Casserole is really a glorified bread pudding. Soak your bread slices in custard overnight, add a topping, and bake in the morning. It frees you up to enjoy the whole meal with your friends and family and lets you pretend that dessert is breakfast. Works for me! So the morning after the benefit lunch, I brought in a dish of this Sugar-Crusted French Toast Casserole. Because I’m so proud of my co-workers and how wonderfully supportive they are of each other. You can’t ask for a better bunch! Whip this up and serve it to someone special to you. They’ll love it!
- 1-pound loaf French bread
- 6 large cage-free eggs
- ⅔ cup whole milk
- ⅔ cup heavy cream
- ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 Tablespoon vanilla extract
- ½ cup pecans, chopped
- ½ cup (8 Tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
- 2 Tablespoons pure maple syrup (Grade B preferred, as it’s more flavorful)
- 2 teaspoons vanilla extract
- Grease a 9″x13″ baking dish and set aside.
- Slice French bread into 1-inch thick slices and arrange in prepared dish.
- In a large mixing bowl, whisk the eggs for 30 seconds or so.
- Add the milk, cream, cinnamon, and vanilla extract and whisk for an additional 1-2 minutes, or until frothy.
- Pour over the bread slices, coating evenly. There will be a lot extra in the bottom of the dish; this is okay, as it will get absorbed. (I actually took each slice and dipped both sides in the extra before setting them upright again, just to be sure they were well-coated.)
- Cover and refrigerate overnight, or for at least 6 hours.
- In the morning, preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Take out the dish, uncover, and sprinkle with chopped pecans. Set aside.
- In a 3-quart heavy-bottomed sauce pan, melt the butter over medium to medium-high heat.
- Stir in the brown sugar and maple syrup and gently boil until the sugar is (mostly) melted. This will not be a smooth caramel sauce, but that’s okay; you want crystallization when it bakes anyway for that crunchy crust.
- Remove from heat and add the vanilla–it will bubble up. Be careful!
- Stir in the vanilla, then pour over the prepared bread evenly.
- Bake uncovered for 40-45 minutes.
- Serve immediately. No additional syrup necessary.