Make the perfect pain perdu

The English call it French toast, but eggy bread fried in butter is an all-day treat in any language, says Rosa Jackson

The name pain perdu sounds a little forlorn to me, like bread that has lost its way. Known as French toast in English, this dish can, in fact, reach surprising heights of decadence, as in a caramelised banana version with ginger ice cream that I tasted in a modern bistro.

Though it’s safe to assume that pain perdu originated as a way of using up stale bread, it has long had the capacity to rise above its peasant origins. In Roman times, the legendary gourmet Apicius recorded a recipe for bread that was freed of its crust, broken into pieces and soaked in a mixture of milk and eggs before being fried in oil (presumably olive) and coated with honey. Known in France at one time as pain à la romaine, this dessert was eventually dubbed pain perdu. The reason might not be as obvious as it seems: the revived bread was traditionally served in January on the Monday following Epiphany, which was known as ‘lost Monday’.

During the Middle Ages, pain perdu made its way on to aristocratic tables: cookbooks at the time call for wheat bread, which was reserved only for the wealthy, with its crusts cut off. A more modest recipe had its place in ordinary homes, where rustic country bread made with other grains such as barley or rye was the norm. Over the centuries, regional variations developed: in Normandy pain perdu might be flambéed in pommeau (an apple liqueur) or calvados and topped with apple jam, while in the north it is usually sprinkled with cane sugar.

I grew up thinking of French toast as a breakfast dish, but in France it is more likely to be served as a dessert, especially in restaurants. Here, slices of fresh brioche might replace baguette, departing from the thrifty roots of this recipe. The usual proportion is one egg to each cup of milk, though for a richer version some chefs use only egg yolk and replace some of the milk with cream. The egg-milk mixture might be sweetened, or the soaked bread could be caramelised in butter and sugar. The length of soaking depends on the type of bread and how dry it is; the goal is for the slices to hold their shape when cooked.

As for the toppings, most French chefs combine a seasonal fruit, cooked or not, with something sweet, such as fruit coulis, honey, maple syrup or caramel, and perhaps a sprinkling of cinnamon or nutmeg. A scoop of a sorbet or ice cream then provides a cold contrast to the warm toast. Somehow, I think Apicius would have approved.

PAIN PERDU

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Serves 4

In my recipe, I increase the proportion of egg to milk and add cane sugar to the butter in the pan. Brioche is ideal for dessert, while baguette works well for breakfast. If you are in a boulangerie, look for the loaf called ‘restaurant’, a double-sized baguette that produces larger slices.

8 slices day-old bread, brioche or baguette

2 eggs

1 cup full-fat milk

1 packet vanilla-scented sugar (available in France as sucre vanillé), or 1tbsp sugar plus ½tsp vanilla extract

4tbsp/50g butter

2tbsp cane sugar

1. In a large, shallow dish, beat together the eggs, milk and vanilla sugar (or sugar and vanilla) with a fork. Add the bread slices and soak for a few minutes on each side.

2. In a large frying pan, heat the butter over a medium heat. When it has melted and is starting to bubble, sprinkle in the sugar and stir until it dissolves. Still over a medium heat, fry the soaked bread slices on each side until golden and cooked through (they should feel springy to the touch). Serve immediately with the topping(s) of your choice.