The idea for cheesy French toast came bundled up tightly in an ironic aside. My girlfriend was over for breakfast one morning a few weeks back and after watching what should have been a simple plate of French toast get a bit too complicated, jokingly suggested that we might as well just melt some cheese on it too. I stopped, thought about it for a second, and immediately reached for my box grater.
Brilliant ideas don't necessarily need be intentional ones.
Cheesy French toast just makes sense. Cheese, after all, has a pretty consistent track record of making bread based foods better, so why can't it do for French toast what it already did for pizza and sandwiches?
The answer is that it most definitely can.*
As for the apples, they're already proven delicious collaborators with both French toast and cheddar cheese, so it just made sense to invite them along.
*The answer was an even stronger yes when I googled it later and it turns out, no, I'm not even close to being the first person to do this. But still, it's new to me and I'm excited so let me have this ok thanks.
STEP ONE TO CHEESY FRENCH TOAST, MAKE FRENCH TOAST.
Cheesy French toast is only as good as the French toast it's built upon, so that's where we'll begin. Great French toast should be custardy on the inside with a crisp, browned exterior. The best version I've ever had was soaked in creme anglaise overnight and then baked in an 800 degree brick oven. It was the most extreme version of crispy and creamy, and if you have the oven and the foresight, I highly recommend going that route. As for the rest of us, who, let's be honest, are probably not planning our French toast days in advance but instead waking up, likely a bit hungover on a weekend morning, and craving it, preferably within the hour, there is hope. Great French toast is still within your (our) reach.
PICK YOUR BREAD. DRY IT OUT.
The first step to great French toast is to start with great bread. Brioche and challah are popular and delicious options, but given the choice, I actually prefer a nice sourdough loaf with an airy crumb and a crisp crust. Brioche is already so packed full of eggs and dairy that soaking it in even more seems a lot like taking a bunch of lilies to the gilding factory, whereas sourdough's flavor is independent of fat, and so adding fat brings something new to the party, increasing complexity instead of stacking flavors on themselves.
Whatever bread you choose, one thing you don't have to bother with is letting it get stale. A lot of recipes suggest using stale bread here because the thinking is that it is dried out and thus will better soak up more of the custard. This is half true, half wrong. The truth is that dried bread will be a more effective custard sponge. The mistruth is that stale is the same as dried. Sure, day old bread has lost a little bit of moisture, but the reason its texture is so hard isn't because of drying but because its starches have retrograded and recrystallized. Heating bread undoes some of this, which is why dry seeming day-old bread is soft again once popped in the toaster, oven, or microwave.
The goal then is to get your bread, be it fresh or stale, dried out before soaking it in custard. This is easy. Cut inch thick slices and place them on a rack in a sheet pan in a 200F oven until dried but not browned, about five to ten minutes.
Once the bread is dried out, remove it from the oven and turn the temperature up to 450F.
THE LAZY PERSON'S CREME ANGLAISE
As for the custard itself, you are more than welcome to make a creme anglaise if you so please, but most mornings I can't be bothered. Instead, I just whisk together egg yolks, plain yogurt, and milk, then add a dash of vanilla extract (imitation is fine). The traditional anglaise ratio is 1 part egg yolk to 4 parts milk, so I lean on that with this:
- 1 part egg yolk (save the whites for cocktails)
- 2 parts plain, whole milk yogurt
- 2 parts whole milk
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
If you have Greek yogurt instead, just knock the yogurt down to one part and up the milk to three. I use the yogurt to simulate the thicker texture that cooking a proper anglaise would bring here, so don't worry about the ratios as much as how the end product looks.
But do note that there is absolutely no mention of sugar yet. I've found that adding sugar to the custard causes the bread to brown too fast and makes it hard to get a crispy result before ending up with a burnt one. There will be PLENTY of sugar soon to come, so there's no need to add it here too.
Place the lightly toasted, dried-out bread in a dish and pour the custard over the top of it. Let it soak in all nice and good. Flip it over, just to make sure as much custard is soaked in as possible, then removed the bread, dump the remaining custard back in the bowl, and repeat, pouring the custard on a new dry piece of bread. You can skip the pouring over part if you want, but I do think it really helps to ensure that the maximum amount of custard is absorbed into the bread.
MEANWHILE: YOU CAN NEVER QUITE PEEL AN APPLE IN ONE LONG STRIP AND THUS SAD SEATTLE TOM HANKS WILL NEVER LOVE YOU, JUST DEAL WITH IT.
While you're drying out and soaking bread slices, it's probably a good time to get started on the apple topping. One serving is generally two slices of bread and one whole apple, so figure out how many people are eating and then do that math. Peel and core the apple and cut it into irregular slices so that some end up soft and cooked through while others stay a bit crisp in the center.
Sauté over medium heat in an indulgent amount of butter until just beginning to brown, then (for every apple involved) dump in a few tablespoons of brown sugar and a third cup of water. Add fresh grated nutmeg and cinnamon to taste (it won't be much). Bring this to a boil and then simmer it. The goal is to cook the apples while reducing the sugar/water combo into a syrup for the French toast. Check on it periodically. When the apples have softened and the syrup thickened a bit, turn off the heat.
GRATE SOME CHEDDAR CHEESE
Grate some cheddar cheese.
COOK TWICE, EAT ONCE
French toast has more than just supposed country of origin in common with French fries. Like fries, it also benefits from a two step cooking process. Simply sautéing in a pan will work to brown the exterior, but it won't make much progress in the way of getting it crispy. For that, we also need the help of the oven. That's why I said to crank your oven to 450 after drying the bread slices out.
While your apple slices are cooking, get a non-stick or cast iron pan warm over medium heat. Add a few tablespoons of canola oil and then the custard soaked bread slices. Cook until browned (roughly two minutes), flip over, repeat, then transfer to a rack on a sheet pan. When all your slices are browned, transfer the pan/rack combo to the oven and back for five to ten minutes, or until the bread is crispy. Keep an eye on it though, because bread can go from great to burnt remarkably quickly.
Along with resulting in a better, crispier texture, the added benefit of finishing French toast in the oven is that if you're feeding a few folks, it allows everything to be finished at the same time.
Once the bread is crisp, remove it from the oven, switch the oven to broil, cover the bread with an even layer of grated cheddar, and pop that back in until melted.
My oven has a mostly worthless broiler, so I use a Searzall instead. It's fantastic.
Once the cheese is melted, arrange on a plate and dump the apples on top of that. The brown sugar/water combo you had simmering on the stove should have turned to a tasty syrup at this point. If you got distracted and too much evaporated, make up for the loss with maple syrup.
And there you have it. The French toast topping you never thought you needed, but from here on out, probably can't live without. Crispy, creamy bread. Savory cheese. Sweet apples. It's a perfect combination.
Melt cheese on stuff.
Want the gist of this in a recipe type form? Great news. I've decided to start doing that. Go here.