Pumpkin French Toast Supreme

IMG_0012I’ll be honest with you: today’s recipe was not created last week. It was not created last month. It was created sometime in October just before things got very hectic with the approaching holidays. I did consider it might be out of place to post the recipe since it’s so “autumnal”. But, now I reason it’s actually quite suitable for wintertime as well as autumn. In fact, you might agree it’s good for any time of the year so long as you aren’t prejudiced about pumpkin in general!

I should start by saying that I love French Toast — at least the homemade sort. James could certainly stand as witness that I seldom order it from a restaurant. This has nothing to do with concerns about food safety. It’s more to do with the fact that eating out for breakfast is such a blissful occasion for me (even if we do it at least 3 times per month) that I don’t want to risk ruining the moment by ordering French Toast that may IMG_0839turn out to be a disappointment. Instead I turn to the trusty pancakes who’ve never let me down.

What is disappointing French Toast?” you ask. Disappointing French Toast is two wimpy slices of white sandwich bread dredged in sweetened eggs with a vague hint of imitation vanilla and maybe cinnamon. The slices sit there on the plate looking forlorn and begging to be put out of their misery — hollow and shameful impostors of anything remotely French let alone toast! Unless you’re at a well-known, national chain restaurant, you can never be quite sure what a menu may be alluding to when it lists French Toast. So, that’s why I usually steer clear of it.

In my opinion, French Toast should be as substantial as hearty pancakes or Belgian Waffles. But, sometimes a classic dish needs a little spritzing up — maybe even a LOT of spritzing up. One way I’ve come across to put a unique spin on French Toast is to make a French Toast Casserole — sort of like a breakfast-y bread pudding. Instead of individual slices of bread, the bread is either cubed or layered in a casserole dish and is drenched in the custard it would normally be dredged in. Toss in some cinnamon, maybe some raisins, and definitely some vanilla and voila! French Toast Casserole.

But what if you wanted to spin French Toast even further? What if you wanted to go beyond “casserole” and all IMG_1332of the unfortunate images that very word can bring to mind? Enter my latest breakfast-dessert amalgam: Pumpkin French Toast Supreme! This is the three-piece suit of breakfast fare, mes amis!

Choosing bread for French Toast is not a decision to make lightly. You want a bread that will absorb the custard adequately without falling apart and also one that can impart a complimentary flavor of its own. That pretty much eliminates white bread or Texas toast as both pretty well turn to flavorless mush when introduced to custard. Sourdough and French Bread offer great texture, but I feel they have too much texture and (in the case of sourdough) maybe not the best complimentary taste. For my preference, I usually go with Challah or Italian Bread. Both of these breads produce the bread pudding-like texture I look for. Challah — being already made with eggs — naturally melds into the custard nicely. Italian Bread has a structure similar to French Bread except that it has a much softer crust and less of a tendency to be jaw-breakingingly chewy.

My inspiration for making a French Toast Casserole, initially, was the second loaf of pumpkin challah I’d made and placed in the freezer for safe IMG_1868keeping. So, putting two and two together, I figured it’d be a perfect compliment to add some of our home-grown pumpkin to the custard to highlight even more pumpkin-y goodness in the dish. The custard would have to be rich enough to produce the right texture and flavor, but not so sinful that I could not eat it in good conscience. Here’s where I had to use a little bit of “light cooking” experience and also return to some recipes from breakfasts past to get some ideas for where to cut fatty corners. I’ll spare you the math and experimentation that involved. Suffice it to say that French Toast doesn’t have to be naughty in order to be nice.

Of course, traditional French Toast is hopelessly lost without at least a dash of cinnamon. But — since I was already seeking pumpkin bliss — I knew cinnamon would be even more at home when joined with its favorite bunch of spice groupies: pumpkin spice! Pumpkin spice is an unmistakable quartet of flavors whose balance is something cooking enthusiasts could probably argue themselves silly over. Needless to say, it’s made up of four spices in this order (from most to least): cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. Depending IMG_1870on the dish I’m making and the other flavors I’m hoping to highlight, I usually tinker with the balance of this quartet. But, if you’re pressed for time or space in your spice cabinet, 2 teaspoons of pumpkin spice will definitely hit the mark.

If you’re going to go out on a limb and call something “supreme”, you’d better have something ooey-gooey in store for the taste buds. While the texture of a typical French Toast casserole is usually sublime, I figured adding the creamy nuances of neufchatel cheese (1/3-less-fat cream cheese) would not be out of place. Rather than blending it into the custard and changing the overall texture of the dish, I felt it would have even more dramatic effect if cut into cubes so that nearly every bite contained a surprise burst of cheesecake!

Finally, every great show needs a closing number that brings everything over the top and earns the entire cast a standing ovation. For the final component of my breakfast delight, I chose to go for the somewhat obscure: hickory nuts.

Hickory nuts are a close relative of the familiar, widely available pecan. Both nuts are grown in North America, but hickory nuts are seldom IMG_1865available in the grocery store. James and I discovered the major reason for this when we were on vacation in October. James’ sister Georgia had thoughtfully bestowed upon us a giant sack of hickory nuts from a shagbark hickory tree in her yard in southern Ohio. We spent the better part of a day shelling them and became intimately aware of the tedious work it is to shell hickory nuts: they are nearly impossible to remove from the shell whole; the nutshells are dangerously sharp; and the meats themselves are much smaller than compared to the pecan.

Now you’re likely asking yourself why we’d bother with something so clearly inferior to the pecan. Here’s where words don’t help much: while they do taste pecan-ish, hickory nuts taste deliciously different in ways I cannot describe. Okay, I’ll try to describe it. Pecans taste sweet, rich and buttery in a complex, dark, IMG_1869woodsy sort of way. Hickory nuts have that same sweetness and butteriness, but go in a completely different direction — somewhere between maple syrup and English walnuts. If pecans are sultry, hickory nuts are subtle and sophisticated. Now that we’ve had them, we’re going to lament any year where we’ve not managed to take the time to shell and store a bunch of them!

If you aren’t able to locate any hickory nuts, don’t despair. You could substitute pecans or English walnuts and equally satisfactory results. That being said, do seek out hickory nuts — see if anyone at your Farmer’s Market offers them, check online resources, etc. After all, unless you live in the southern United States or in Mexico, hickory nuts are your “local nut” (village idiot aside, of course).

IMG_1872

Pumpkin French Toast Supreme
A Tales of Thyme & Place Original
Serves 12

    10 cups Challah or Italian Bread (app. 1lb, cut into 1-inch cubes)
    8 ounces neufchatel cheese, chilled, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
    1/2 cup golden raisins
    1/2 cup coarsely chopped hickory nuts, toasted (divided)
    8 large eggs
    1/2 cup low fat milk
    2/3 cup half and half
    1 cup pumpkin purée (canned or homemade)
    1/2 cup maple syrup (grade B preferred)
    1 teaspoon vanilla extract
    1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
    1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
    1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
    1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
    1/4 teaspoon salt
    additional ground cinnamon and maple syrup (optional)

    Place half of bread cubes in a 13 x 9 baking dish coasted with cooking spray. Be sure the cubes form a complete layer (no large gaps). Distribute the neufchatel cubes over the layer of bread cubes; sprinkle with golden raisins and half of the chopped hickory nuts. Cover this with the remaining bread cubes, arranging them as necessary to sandwich the neufchatel cubes.

    In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the eggs; whisk in the milk, half and half, maple syrup, vanilla, spices, and salt. Pour the milk mixture over the bread mixture, sprinkle with remaining chopped hickory nuts; cover and refrigerate overnight.

    Preheat oven to 375-degrees. Remove bread mixture from refrigerator and allow to sit at room temperature for 30 minutes. Bake in preheated oven for 50 minutes or until set. Allow to stand 5-7 minutes before serving. Sprinkle each serving with a dash of ground cinnamon and a drizzle of maple syrup, if desired.

IMG_1873

While making this recipe does require a little bit of planning ahead for the whole overnight soaking phenomenon, that little bit of preparation totally pays off the next morning when all you have to do is pop the whole thing into the oven! Think of all the free time that will leave you to sit and casually sip your coffee or tea while smelling breakfast cooking itself. For something so “supreme” and seemingly decadent, the nutrition facts aren’t too shabby, either (1 serving: app. 383 calories, 14g total fat, 6g saturated fat, 5g mono fat, 3g poly fat, 236mg cholesterol, 3g fiber, 12g protein. [when using pumpkin challah bread from recipe]).

Advertisements

~ by Jason on January 13, 2011.

2 Responses to “Pumpkin French Toast Supreme”

  1. Jason ,That looks tasty,But do you taste the nutmeg in this?
    Love ya mom

    • Well, if you couldn’t taste it, I wouldn’t put it in there! 😛 Seriously, though, when it’s mixed with the other spices, I know you’d like it. Besides, you like nutmeg; you just don’t think you do. You eat it all the time when you visit me, I just don’t announce it! 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s