Also known as pain perdu, poor knights of Windsor and, most accurately, if least romantically, eggy bread, this simple piece of culinary genius has been giving pleasure since the last days of Rome – perhaps a less decadent era than is popularly believed, given its thrifty ways with stale loaves. Sweet or savoury, even vegan, it’s not just for breakfast.
Prep 25 min (if making clarified butter)
Cook 3 min
Serves 2, and easily doubled
100g unsalted butter (see step 1)
2 tsp granulated sugar, plus extra to finish
¼ tsp salt
A pinch of ground cloves
A pinch of ground mace
A pinch of ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cinnamon
Finely grated zest of ½ lemon (optional)
2 tsp plain flour
2 x 2cm-thick slices good white bread, preferably slightly stale
1 A word on the fat
Though you can use two tablespoons of butter straight from the packet for this, it’s worth taking the time to clarify it if you can, especially if you’re making a few rounds, because that will stop the milk solids burning in the pan. Alternatively, use ghee, or, if you’d prefer to keep things dairy-free, two tablespoons of neutral oil instead.
2 Clarify the butter
To make the clarified butter, melt 100g butter (this will make more than you need here, but it keeps well, so it’s worth making extra) in a small pan over a medium-high heat until a layer of thick, white foam rises (these are the solid milk proteins, which are wont to burn at a high heat) and it begins to bubble vigorously as the water evaporates.
3 Strain and cool
Turn down the heat under the pan and continue to simmer gently until the foam sinks and the fat stops bubbling, being careful that the white bits on the bottom don’t catch and burn. Strain the butter through a clean cloth to separate out the solid milk proteins. The clarified butter is now ready to use, though it will keep for at least six months, so long as it’s chilled in a sealed container.
4 Start the batter
Melt a tablespoon of the clarified butter (assuming you’re working with it from chilled). Beat the eggs in a bowl, then whisk in the melted butter, sugar, salt, spices and lemon zest. Mix up the spices as you like: use just cinnamon, omit the cloves altogether, add ground cardamom or fennel seeds instead – whatever you think might be nice. The same goes for the citrus zest.
5 Finish the batter
Put the flour in a wide bowl and whisk in a little of the egg mixture to make a paste (if you prefer, you can use a gluten-free flour, such as cornflour, or leave it out altogether; it’s not essential, but it does help with crispness).
Gradually beat in the rest of the egg mixture until you have a smooth batter.
6 Soak the bread, then fry
Soak the bread (gluten-free, if necessary) in the batter mixture for 30 seconds on each side, until soft but not floppy.
Meanwhile, heat another tablespoon of butter or fat in a frying pan on a medium-high heat. Once hot, lay in the bread and leave to cook undisturbed for about two minutes, until golden and crisp underneath.
7 Flip, fry and serve hot
Flip over the bread, cook for a minute (or a little longer) on the other side, until similarly golden, then transfer to plates, sprinkle with sugar or drizzle with honey, and serve with indecent haste while the French toasts are still hot and crunchy (or keep them warm in a low oven, if that makes life easier).
8 A vegan alternative …
For a vegan version, whisk two tablespoons of chickpea (gram) flour into 100ml plant milk in place of the eggs, and add a tablespoon of neutral oil to the batter with the sugar, salt, spices and zest; cook it in another tablespoon of oil. If your plant milk is sweetened, you may wish to dial down the sugar a little.
9 … and a savoury one
Leave out the sugar, zest and spices, or replace them with more savoury flavourings of your choice (grated parmesan and nutmeg, for example), then top with fried bacon or tomatoes. Or use the French toast as the base for a toastie, adding a filling (cheese is rarely a bad idea), topping with another slice of bread and cooking as above.