Monday, November 28, 2011

It's National French Toast Day!

Contrary to popular belief and technically speaking that is, French Toast isn't toast at all. As a matter of fact, it wasn't even created in France. In it's simplest form, French Toast is day-old bread dipped in a batter of egg and milk, and sauteed in butter. According to Mr. Breakfast, French Toast was introduced in 1724 by a man who owned a tavern near Albany, New York. His name was, you guessed it, Mr. French, Mr. Joseph French!

Do you know what they call French Toast in France? Pain Perdu or "lost bread." How apropos:) While exploring the Origin of French Toast, I became intrigued with the many national coats French Toast may cloak. For instance, in Britain, French toast may be referred to as Poor Knights of Windsor or Poor Knights Pudding. Eggy bread is another English term you may hear.

The popular history behind French toast (aka German toast, American toast, Spanish toast, Nun's toast, Cream toast, Breakfast toast, Mennonite toast, Pain Perdu, Panperdy, Arme Ritter, Suppe Dorate, Amarilla, Poor Knights of Windsor) is that it was created by medieval European cooks who needed to use every bit of food they could find to feed their families. They knew old, stale bread (French term "pain perdu" literally means lost bread) could be revived when moistened with milk and enriched with eggs. The traditional method of cookery was on a hot griddle prepped with a little fat (butter, oil). Quite like today...The Food Timeline

I hope those tidbits about French Toast are going to satisfy you for the time being because, I want to talk about my favorite version of French Toast; the Monte Cristo Sandwich. Have you heard of it? Don't worry if you haven't, I haven't come across another person besides Marion that knows what a Monte Cristo Sandwich is here in central Pennsylvania.

Most food historians generally think that the Monte Cristo sandwich is a variation of a French dish called Croque Monsieur. This original grilled cheese sandwich consisted of Gruyere cheese and lean ham between two slices of crust-less bread, fried in clarified butter. It was originally served in 1910 in a Paris cafe. This sandwich is still a popular snack or casual meal throughout France and Switzerland in most bars and cafes. It is usually made in a special sandwich grilling iron consisting of two hinged metal plates, each with two shell-shaped indentations. At most Paris cafes, the Croque Monsieur is no longer prepared as a square sandwich but rather as a one-sided tartine made with a large single slice of bread from a round loaf. What's Cooking America

As a matter of fact, just the other morning I asked the chef at my morning cafe whether he had the ingredients on hand to perform a Monte Cristo Sandwich. Well, I didn't say it quite like that. I simply asked Justin, the cook at Sunset West, if he knew what a Monte Cristo Sandwich was. He didn't. I then asked if anyone had ever come into the diner and requested a Monte Cristo Sandwich. He said someone had a few years ago and ironically enough, they too were from New York. Perhaps, it's a New York thing. I doubt it.

Basically, a Monte Cristo is a gussied up triple decker sandwich filled with tender slices of ham, turkey and cheese. That's how I prepare it anyway. However, it took me longer than I care to admit on getting it quite right. You see, in the past, my Monte Cristo sandwiches never held up quite right like those I use to get at my favorite diner in New York. And since it didn't appear anyone in the immediate vicinity was going to serve it to me on a silver platter, I just had to learn to make it on my own. Well, wouldn't you know it, I discovered the secret here. Most recipes I've encountered in the past didn't include adding flour to the eggy milk batter. And although the sandwich still tasted yummy, it just didn't have any substance. I tried changing up the bread, slicing the cold-cuts thinner, thicker and even omitting one of the "decks" and it still didn't feel quite right. Well, using this recipe, with a few minor ingredient changes, the results were exactly what I was looking for.

Monte Cristo Sandwich
adapted from norecipes.com
makes 2 sandwiches
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup freshly grated pecorino romano
1/2 teaspoons freshly grated nutmeg
6 thin slices of challah bread or brioche
1 tablespoon butter
2 ounces Emmentaler (Swiss) cheese, sliced thin
1/4 pound sliced honey roasted turkey
1/4 pound sliced black forrest ham
powdered sugar
strawberry or raspberry jam

Whisk the egg, milk, flour, cheese and nutmeg together until smooth. Heat a skillet or griddle large enough to accomodate all the slices of bread in a single layer over medium heat. Dip the slices of bread into the egg mixture, giving it a few seconds on each side to absorb the batter.

Add the butter to the pan once it is hot, then place as many slices of battered bread onto it as you can fit. Wait till it is golden brown and crisp on one side, then flip and top 4 pieces of bread with the cheese. Put the turkey on 2 of cheesed slices of bread and the ham on the other 2 cheesed slices of bread.

Fry until the bread is browned and crisp on the second side, then make the sandwich by stacking a ham slice with a turkey slice topped with a plain piece of French toast. Slice the sandwiches in half, dust with powdered sugar, and serve with a small bowl of jam.

I didn't have any "fancy" bread on hand when the urge struck so I used plain ol' white sliced bread. Pepperidge Farm I believe. I added a sprinkling of vanilla sugar to the egg and milk batter because I usually add vanilla sugar to regular French Toast. As for the turkey, ham and cheese, I used Boar's Head products because IMHO, they are the next best thing when I don't have fresh turkey ham or cheese on hand. The first time I prepared it, Marion and I had it for breakfast. Yes, we skipped going to Sunset one morning and had this instead. That's my daughter Michele's home made freezer strawberry jam slathered on top. Delicious in its own right!!!

Well, it was so darn good, I just had to make it again a few weeks later. This time topped with fried apples!!! Oh my holy goodness, it was scrumptious!!!

I would be remiss if I didn't mention one more crumb I learned about French Toast in my travels. It seems, for those of us who live in areas of the world where snow is inevitable, the weather may dictate when the French Toast Weather Alert goes into effect. What? You've never heard of the French Toast Weather forecast? I hadn't either. It seems, it has everything to do with mobs of people running to the grocery store to pick up the bare necessities of milk, bread and eggs when the weather person warns us of an impending snow storm or hurricane. Suzanne, the Farmer's Wife has a great post about French Toast and the weather on her blog if you would like to dig deeper:)

FYI: If you have ever seen the movie Unstoppable with Denzel Washington, chances are you too have seen Sunset West.

1. Is French Toast Really French?
2. The Origin of the French Toast
3. Pain Trouve au Four (Baked French Toast)