Breakfast in my home is often a fend-for-yourself meal. We keep bagels in the fridge, mostly for my husband, and the pantry is stocked with at least four different kinds of cereals and an assortment of granola bars. Hard-boiled eggs have made an appearance for the past couple of weeks, serving their purpose as a side dish to a bowl of cereal, and more importantly, a quick infusion of protein before school.
With these breakfast foods to choose from, and from start to finish, the morning meal – that most important meal of the day, as they say – is over in about ten minutes. A hurried breakfast is great for efficiency on a school day, but come the weekend, rushing through breakfast leaves me feeling dissatisfied and incomplete.
Breakfast was my father’s specialty. On most weekdays, like my kids often will, my brother and I ate cereal with milk. Occasionally, we had oatmeal, and I have fond memories of a Cream of Wheat phase. But on more than the occasional weekend, Dad would decide that it was time for a full, hot breakfast. Those mornings were special.
My father’s breakfasts weren’t fancy – no eggs benedict or Belgian waffles or chocolate chip pancakes – but being Not Fancy was exactly what I loved about them. He cooked eggs, usually over easy, always preferring a runny yolk to any other kind. Sometimes he served eggs over a mound of buttery grits. From my dad, I learned that nothing quite compares to the taste of that first mouthful of warm, creamy yolk scooped up with a spoonful of grits. On other mornings, he crumbled breakfast sausage into a saucepan of thick, cream-colored gravy, and he served the sawmill gravy over warm biscuits.
To this day, when I spot sawmill gravy and biscuits on a breakfast menu, I think of my father in my parents’ old kitchen, stirring the gravy in the Revere Ware saucepan.
My favorite breakfast was French toast, though, and my dad’s was the best. His ingredients were neither unique nor exotic – eggs, milk, a small amount of sugar, a healthy dash of cinnamon, and perhaps a few drops of vanilla. And unlike more modern, epicurean versions of French toast, which call for brioche or challah bread, his recipe (only in his head, never written down) used sliced sandwich bread (but never white bread). And to top it off? Warmed Aunt Jemima syrup.
This French toast casserole is not my father’s recipe, but the flavor profile is similar to his more traditional version. Most French toast casseroles I’ve tried are too sweet, either loaded with sugar in the batter or drowned in a sweet streusel topping. I much prefer a just a hint of sweetness, enough that a light drizzle of maple syrup on top complements and enhances the flavor but doesn’t overwhelm the taste buds. This casserole was just right.
And I think my dad would have really liked it, despite the fact that I fancied up the bread and used real maple syrup.
Overnight French Toast Casserole
Yield: Serves 8.
Cook Time: 55 minutes
I have mixed feelings about French toast casserole. So many versions are too sweet, too soggy, too dry, or too dense. This one is none of those things; it's just right. If you're not a fan of cinnamon (and who ARE those people?), feel free to cut the amount in half or omit entirely.
1 large loaf (14-16 ounces) challah bread
8 large eggs
2 cups whole milk
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 pinch coarse salt
Butter a 9 x 13 inch casserole dish. Cut or tear challah bread, excluding the end pieces, into 1-inch chunks and spread evenly in the dish.
In a large bowl, combine the eggs, milk, buttermilk, cinnamon, nutmeg, light brown sugar, and salt. Whisk together until smooth, then pour evenly over the bread chunks in the casserole dish. Using the back of a large spoon, press the bread down into the custard so that each piece of bread is moistened. Cover with foil and refrigerate for 12 hours or overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Bake the casserole, still covered with the foil, for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 20-25 minutes, until puffed and set and lightly browned on top. Serve with a sprinkling of confectioners' sugar and warm maple syrup.