I recently had brunch at NOPA, a bourgey restaurant named after a San Francisco microneighborhood (NOPA = northern panhandle) invented by real estate agents to build a forcefield around Haight Street burners and Western Addition project housing that would otherwise lower the value of the classic 19th century Victorians they sought to sell. I don’t want to knock NOPA because it’s an amazing restaurant but ya, fuck it’s name. Anywaysssss, they have a dish on their menu called Custard French Toast that was by far the best french toast I’ve ever had. While I was pounding it down I realized I needed to figure out the ancient secrets of these french chefs who invented this amazing dish.
I decided to work through a few recipes to help triangulate the flavor and texture, but was disappointed. Then, after some ridiculously cursory research, I realized why all french toast recipes on the world wide web fail to capture the perfection I enjoyed that day at NOPA: ice cream. The difference between average french toast and genius is in the soak. Wikipedia, in an effort to be objective and lowest common denominator, defines french toast as “a dish of bread soaked in eggs then fried,” and for anybody who has had his or her dad’s french toast while watching Land of the Lost on a Saturday morning in 1991, this definition will suffice, but it does little to capture the dish in its most beautiful and moist form. Eggs are just one ingredient in the soak, and I believe the soak of an amazing french toast is custard, one variant of which (cream, sugar, and egg yolks) is the base of ice cream. Expressed mathematically,
FT = fried(cus + bread)
And hold onto your aprons because this shit just got real physical. Ice cream can be infused with any number of flavors meaning you can make some super elite french toast like chai french toast or salted caramel french toast or cookies and cream french toast or whatever flavor du jour they’re selling at BiRite Creamery.
This revelation, though not the most refined or erudite, is still earth shaking and I have the recipe to prove it.
- Heavy whipping cream, 4 cups
- Whole milk, 2 cups
- Eggs, 6 yolks
- Sugar, 1 cup
- Infusing agents
- Bread, hella stale
Ice cream is prepared in a 4:2:1:1 ratio with cream:milk:sugar:eggs. Infusing agents are optional but obviously are delicious so you should definitely go for it. For my proof-of-concept version I used orange zest, cinnamon, vanilla, cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves as my infusing agents and replaced some sugar for honey and maple syrup. You can dial up the sugar and spice as much as you desire but I recommend a dash of each spice and just more than the prescribed single cup of sugar.
Pour the cream and milk into a saucepan with the infusing agents and sugar(s) and keep on low heat for around 30 minutes while occasionally stirring until steam starts to rise from the pan. Slowly increase the heat until it simmers lightly but make sure the mixture never boils by bringing the heat back down and stirring constantly. After a moment of this, remove the remaining solids (cinnamon bark, nutmeg chunks, etc.) with a slotted spoon and place the whole saucepan on a folded dishrag in the fridge or freezer so it can cool.
Meanwhile take the eggs and extract the yolks. If you haven’t watched a Top Chef quickfire challenge, this process means cracking the egg and using the remaining halves to transfer the white and yolk back and forth until the white has dripped off and you have the intact yolk remaining. There is also a cool water bottle trick if you’re into that. I like having a little bit of white in the mix to make the custard a little fluffier, but I leave that to you. Mix the yolks, but don’t beat them.
Once the cream has cooled a little (or completely, thus obviating the next step) ladle in a little cream at a time while stirring the yolks. This prevents the yolks from cooking in the warm cream mix and becoming firm and scrambled. Once you’ve transferred about a quarter of the cream mix using this method, it’s safe to pour the rest in and stir until uniform.
The staler and thicker the slices the better. I recommend getting a sourbread batard, cutting inch thick slices, and leaving out for 3-5 nights to stale. If you leave the bread in the fridge it will actually stale at a faster rate, so there’s that too. If the bread isn’t stale enough it won’t ‘take’ the cream as much as you’d like and the end result will be chewy and leathery.
The baking step is optional under certain conditions and mandatory under others. The best french toast uses the fluff and volume of cooked yolks (and the touch of whites) to give the bread a pillowy texture. However, the thicker the slices, the harder it is to fully cook the bread through during the frying phase. A good rule of thumb is if you’re using 1/2” slices or thinner (i.e. pre-sliced shit from Safeways) then baking is optional. If anything thicker (i.e. the right way to do things) you’ll need to get baked.
Preheat the oven to 400˚F. Tesselate a flat pan with your bread, creating layers or using additional pans as necessary. Place in the oven for 5-7 minutes, until the spillover cream is bubbling and the custard is starting to cook through.
The frying step is to crisp and brown the outside but it’s also for decadence because ice cream bread should be fried in butter, right? Butter a frying pan, heat to med-high, and cook on each side (~2-3 minutes) until brown.
If you added honey or syrup in addition to the prescribed amount of sugar to the custard, you won’t want to go crazy with powdered sugar or syrup pour-over. I like to make the one part sugar in the custard equal amounts of white sugar, brown sugar, honey, and syrup to give the sugar a rounded quality (don’t ask me what that means). The best thing to do is grab seasonal fruit and toss with some crushed nuts. If you’re super elite, pair the toppings with your custard base. Some ideas:
- Orange zest and spice custard, powdered sugar, almonds (the classic, pictured throughout post)
- Chai custard, coconut milk or syrup, golden raisins, cashews, almonds (approximates kheer, an Indian rice pudding)
- Egg nog custard, maple syrup, brown sugar candied ginger, lemon squeezed on top (ginger bread house!!!)
Once you strip the stuffy label and build a simple custard, you too can make French toast that compares to those found in the bourgiest, booziest brunch joints. Not to knock the champs because nobody can truly compete with the best:
- NOPA’s Custard French Toast
- Outerlands' French Toast on house baked levain