One of the advantages of being a food writer is that if you like a dish you were served in a restaurant or a hotel you can usually track down the guy who made it and find out what the secret is. Unfortunately, I have never been able to track down the guy who made my favourite breakfast dish at a hotel or discover how he did it.
It happened this way: in the early ’90s when I lived in Calcutta my work would often bring me to Delhi. In those days, the Taj Mahal Hotel on Mansingh Road was easily the best hotel in town and I became a regular. But there was one shortcoming. I just couldn’t get a decent breakfast. Each time I ordered French toast, it was either too dry or too soggy.
I complained and suddenly from the very next morning onwards, I was served the most amazing French toast I have ever eaten. It was almost like a soufflé with a meringue-like top and it quickly became my favourite dish at the Taj.
It never occurred to me, 20 years ago, that I would ever write about French toast so I never bothered to find out who the chef was or what he did to make the French toast so different and so memorable. A decade later, when I started writing Rude Food, I tried to track down the recipe – to no avail.
Though the Taj is still a wonderful hotel with excellent food, there have been so many personnel changes in the intervening years that nobody remembers who that chef could have been or what his recipe was. (If the chef who made the French toast at the Taj in those days is reading this, could he possibly mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me what his secret was.)
Ah, French toast! It’s one of those easy-to-make breakfast dishes that most middle-class families in India’s urban centres have some experience of. I know people who feed it to their children regularly because it is so easy to make. Besides, it takes the normal breakfast ingredients of milk, eggs and bread and turns them into something that is quite wonderful with a minimum of effort.
In essence, French toast is no more than slices of bread dipped in a mixture of milk and eggs and then fried on both sides. You can sweeten the milk and egg mixture if you like but it seems silly to do so because maple syrup, which is now widely available in India’s cities, makes a perfect accompaniment.
But as is true of all simple dishes (dal, for example), French toast is the most difficult to perfect. Any fool can make an ordinary French toast but only a genius can make the perfect version.
French chefs prefer to make pain perdu which translates as lost bread and is nearly identical to French toast. It has been conjectured that it takes its name from the phrase lost bread because French housewives devised the dish as a way of using up bread that was too stale for ordinary toast (hence, the ‘lost’ of the name). And it is true that most recipes will tell you to make French toast with bread that is a day old because it holds together better during the cooking process.
Pain perdu, when it is made properly, is one of my favourite desserts. Chef Nick Van Riemsdijk at Set’z makes a killer pain perdu but he serves his version as a dessert dish with ice cream. As much as I love Nick’s pain perdu, I can’t imagine eating it for breakfast every day.
So what does it take to make a great French toast? How can a chef elevate this humble dish into a magnificent breakfast? If you go on the Internet you will find hundreds of recipes for French toast with whipped cream or bananas or berries or even French toast with peanut butter and jelly (a version of the dish that sent Elvis Presley to the great Heartbreak Hotel in the sky, no doubt).None of these versions seem to me to really cut it. The trick to making a good dal lies in cooking it perfectly not in tarting it up. So it is with French toast. How can you make the best possible version of the classic dish?
I asked two of the best pastry chefs I know and their recipes were subtly different. According to Deep Bajaj, the Oberoi chain’s pâtissier extraordinaire, the process depends on the ingredients. Deep uses a golden brioche in which the yellow colour comes from the egg yolks added to the dough. He cuts the bread into one-inch slices (by hand, a slicer won’t do) and leaves the crusts on.
Then, he makes a loose batter of whole milk and eggs (his proportions are five eggs to a litre of milk) along with a little sugar (normal sugar is fine but you can use castor sugar, flavoured sugar or molasses-rich brown sugar) and some cinnamon powder.
Deep leaves the batter alone for a little while and then strains it to remove the little pieces of egg that remain. This is a tedious process, he says, but important if you want to avoid French toast with bits of fried egg stuck to it.
When the batter is ready, he takes a broad pan (never a thin skillet) and heats unsalted butter in it. He then takes the pieces of brioche and puts them in the batter. He is careful not to keep them in the batter for too long because that would make the bread disintegrate during the cooking process and says that two or three minutes during which you turn the pieces of brioche around to absorb all of the batter should be long enough. (The timing is important. All too often, chefs either soak the brioche in advance to save time or they quickly dip it into the batter without letting it stay there in an effort to save time and serve breakfast quickly. Both lead to disastrous consequences, says Deep.)
With the heat on low medium, you slide the pieces of brioche on to the pan and cook them on both sides until they are golden. But, says Deep, remember to make each piece also stand up in the pan because you must be sure that the crust is perfectly cooked and obviously, the crust cooks differently from the rest of the bread.
When the French toast is ready, serve it with maple syrup or honey. Deep eats his own French toast with ice cream but says apologetically that this is because breakfast is a big meal with chefs who are never sure when they are going to get to eat lunch.
I asked Deep if this was how the Delhi Oberoi made French toast for its guests and he assured me that it was. The slightly yellow, porous brioche he talks about is available in the pastry shop, he says. But the truth is that French toast at breakfast is never made by pastry chefs. The job always falls to the breakfast cooks who make the batter themselves and are forever being rushed off their feet by the flood of orders. So, as to whether you will get this perfect French toast at breakfast at every Oberoi hotel, well, we will just have to take Deep’s word for it.
Rohit Sangwan, the Taj Group’s champion pâtissier, has his own take on French toast. For a start, his loose batter is different. He uses milk, cream, cinnamon, vanilla and 30 grams of sugar to a litre of liquid. (Everything that Rohit makes tends to require a little cream.)
Rohit’s secret is that he does not mix the eggs with the milk. Nor is he as focussed on the bread as Deep is. He says his recipe will work well with any kind of bread though obviously the better the bread the better the French toast. But he insists that you must beat seven eggs per litre of liquid (the milk-cream mixture) and keep them separately. Once you have your bowl of batter and your bowl of beaten eggs ready, then you take the brioche / bread and put it first in the milk-cream mixture but for only three to four seconds on each side. Then, you take the bread out and put it in the eggs for a second on each side. It is only after this that the coated bread can go into a non-stick pan in which butter has been heated. After that, his process is much the same as Deep’s.
The important difference in technique is that Deep mixes the eggs with the milk and keeps the brioche in the loose batter for longer. Rohit concedes that this is the traditional recipe but says that all too often when you dunk bread in eggs for too long, a nasty raw-egg taste sticks to the French toast. Hence his solution of separating the ingredients so that the bread spends less time in the beaten eggs.
Which one is better? Which technique is cleverer? I have eaten both versions and both are brilliant. These two chefs are masters at the peak of their game.
So, here’s what I suggest you do: try both versions and see which one works better for you. Because finally, you’re the one eating the French toast and it is your opinion that matters.
From HT Brunch, April 22
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