French toast or Drunken virgin? It depends on where you are!

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There are many interesting food items named after people or nations, this is like the case of the French toast.

When I lived in San Francisco I ate many times French toast, (for breakfast) and I served for my family as a sweet dish, battered in milk, sugar, or cinnamon were also added before frying it, and then everyone topped with wherewith they desired such as sugar, fruit, syrup, or other items. In the New York metropolitan area, within the Jewish-American communities, I ate with my friend Rachel the French toast another way, she prepared from a special bread the challah, (in the United States, distinctive regional or ethnic breads have sometimes been preferred, in many Jewish-American households, it is traditional to use the leftover challah from Friday night Sabbath dinner to make French toast on Sunday morning).

I am from Hungary so when I was a child my favorite savory, salty dish was the Fluffy bread, which was prepared on the following way: Slices of bread were soaked or dipped in mixture of beaten eggs and milk or cream. Then the breads were fried on both sides until they were brown and cooked through and then my mother served with grated cheese on top and we flavored with sauces such as ketchup or mayonnaise. I also liked to eat with pickles, sometimes with onions.

Short history

The earliest known reference to French toast was found in the book of Apicius, among a collection of Latin recipes, dating back to the 4th or 5th century; the recipe mentions bread soaking in milk but not eggs (though the editor adds eggs) and give it no special name, just calls Aliter Dulcia “another sweet dish”. Then there is a 14th-century German recipe under the name of Arme Ritter (poor knights) are made from bread leftovers as a fast and simple meal. There are several local alternatives in serving: with a mix of sugar and cinnamon, filled with plum-jam or with vanilla sauce. Sometimes it is made with wine instead of milk, and in that case it is called Betrunkene Jungfrau, “Drunken virgin”.

Then there are 15th-century English recipes for “pain perdu (French for “lost or wasted bread”, suggesting that the dish is a use for bread which has gone stale). However according to a 1660s recipe for “French Toast” was different: the toasted bread was soaked in wine, sugar, and orange juice. A similar dish, suppe dorate, was also popular in England during the Middle-Ages, although the English might have learned it from the Normans, who had a dish called tostees dorees.

Where I have eaten French toast so far and in what way?

In Paris at my Godmother’s house I ate stuffed French toast. It was very interesting experience because it was like a sweet sandwich of two pieces of French toast and was filled with bananas, strawberries, and other fruits. In France it is usually topped with butter, maple syrup, and powdered sugar but at Sylvie’s it was served with slightly salty caramel jam. I liked it very much!

In the Netherlands and Belgium, (in the latter I lived 15 years), the French toast is called Wentelteefjes and is made from bread leftovers with eggs, milk and a mix of sugar and cinnamon, baked in butter. They are usually eaten as breakfast or served with ice cream as dessert. In Belgium, sometimes people call it “lost bread” (“verloren brood”), because of the use of stale bread.

In England, it is also known as “eggy bread”, “egg dip” or “gypsy toast”: another version with jam which was once popularly known as “Poor Knights of Windsor”. Savory variations are more common than sweet (e.g. ketchup or Marmite spread on the bread or used for dipping). Eggy bread is rarely found in cafes, being more of a household favorite made for breakfast and flavored and/or augmented with whatever ingredients are to hand.

In Scotland in St Andrew and Edinburgh (at friends) it is popular as a breakfast item, either as accompanies to the traditional fried breakfast or served with a generous spread of warm porridge. It is not uncommon, now, to see a breakfast cereal sandwich made with French toast. By far the most popular filling is Sugar Puffs and this has become known as the Livingston Sanny. These are popular with children and there are even some cafés, near the university, in Edinburgh selling this as a morning snack.

One friend of mine Dana is from Czech Republic, (from Prague) and on the other day she invited me for a so- called smaženka, she told me that in some parts of the country (especially on the east), smaženka denotes a slice of bread with omelette, mustard, gherkin and sometimes onions and peppers on it. There are some regional names for the dish too.

I was just recently visited an other friend Gayane from Georgia for an afternoon snack and she prepared for me the so-called Cock-A-Doodle-Dok! and meanwhile she was busy with making this funny stuff she told me that in Georgia, it is made with white bread, soaked in beaten eggs and then added to an oiled pan until it is fried. “Cock-A-Doodle-Do” is considered a breakfast food or in our case just a snack.

In Greece, in Athen I accompanied my husband in a congress and we got for breakfast the egg slices, I figured out later that it was the Greek name of the French toast and it is typically made from slices of stale bread soaked in milk or water to soften it, dipped in egg, fried in olive oil and served with honey, sugar and cinnamon, and with feta cheese or sometimes just by itself. It is usually eaten as a breakfast food or cold snack.

Last year in March when I was in Rome I discovered a variation bread which was served as mozzarella in carrozza (“mozzarella in carriage”). In this version, a slice of fresh mozzarella is sandwiched between two slices of bread and the whole stuff is dipped in egg and fried. It can be seasoned with salt, but it is not sweet dish like French toast and is not eaten for breakfast. It is often topped with a tomato sauce, which is then sometimes garnished with some chopped parsley and grated cheese to make three broad stripes of green, white and red, the colors of the Italian flag. It is the patriot French toast!

In Russia, the (Bednye rytsari) “poor knights”, apparently after the German name are made of white bread, soaked in milk and egg and fried in a pan with oil afterward. This name is almost unheard of since the Russian Revolution, as the recipe since has known as (grenki). They are eaten both sweet (with a liberal amount of sugar added to the omelette mix before soaking the bread) and savory, but the latter variant is less popular nowadays. Egg is also sometimes omitted, with only the sweetened milk used.

End of the story

Nowadays the French toast is prepared from slices of stale breads dipped in eggs and milk/cream mixture and fried in butter or oil (depends on which case, sugary or salty). Then they are often topped with jam, butter, peanut butter, honey, Marmite, Vegemite, maple syrup, golden syrup, fruit syrup, molasses, apple sauce, beans, beef, lard, whipped cream, fruit, tomato ketchup (when sugar is not used), chocolate, sugar, yogurt, powdered sugar, marmalade, bacon, treacle, cheese (often with ham), ice cream, gravy, or various nuts such as pecans……

French toast recipe after/from Julianna Margulies

Makes 12 slices

6 eggs, 1 cup heavy cream, ½ tsp ground cinnamon, ¼ tsp of salt, 1 loaf sourdough bread, sliced ½ thick, 3 tbsp butter, maple syrup, confectioners’s sugar, fresh strawberries

In medium bowl, whisk together eggs, heavy cream, vanilla, cinnamon and salt. Pour half of the mixture into a 8x 13 baking dish. Place 6 slices of bread in bottom of dish. Let sit for 30 minutes or until bread is soggy, turning once. Melt 2 tbsp butter in large skillet. Add bread and cook over medium heat for 5-6 minutes or until golden, turning once. Repeat with remaining slices, adding more butter if needed. Serve with maple syrup. Sprinkle confectioners’ sugar on top and garnish with fresh strawberries.

Advice: Day-old bread is often recommended by chefs because stale bread will soak up more egg mixture without falling apart!

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