One of the events I most look forward to every autumn is my friend Ken’s Post-Vermont Brunch. He does not use the phrase “Post-Vermont” dismissively, as in “Vermont is so last season! Sugar Maples have totally jumped the shark!” No. What he means is, he has now come back from his annual trip to Vermont, and returns triumphant, bearing gifts.
He brings home local, seasonal Vermont products: bread from a small bakery, fresh-picked apples, locally-smoked bacon, and maple syrup. He beams his brunch beacon into the midnight sky, and a fuzzy image of Mrs. Butterworth hovers against the racing moonlit clouds, alerting his friends to assemble. (Actually he sends us emails.) We converge upon Ken’s home at the appointed date and time and the breakfast-type merriment begins.
There are various species of apples to try, and he labels them so everyone can figure out which ones they like best. He always serves some nice cheeses, and asks everyone to bring back the little (now empty) bottles of maple syrup he gave them the previous year for a refill: he decants the syrup from a big container into the little bottles at the end of brunch right before everyone heads home, a sort of benediction/closing ritual. He usually has several different grades of syrup available for tasting during brunch and for giving as gifts later.
Last year there was a semi-crisis, as Ken’s Platonic Ideal Bread was no longer available. (Did I mention he’s a picky guy? He’s a sound engineer. He’s a picky guy.) The Vermont bakery that always baked his dream bread moved and left their ovens to a subsequent bakery that uses a different recipe. The original bakery took its recipe to their new digs, but they no longer had the same ovens, and the bread just isn’t the same.
Ken was heartsick at the loss of this bread (did I mention he’s a picky guy?), and at the thought he would never again be able to use it to make French toast. He bravely rallied and made excellent French toast with a second-runner-up Nearly Perfect Bread.
He does have a point, though, despite the fact that I like to tease him about his finicky nature. He uses a whole grain bread with a fine crumb that absorbs the egg and milk custard readily but still retains some heft and body when it is cooked. (I normally use challah or brioche when making French toast, which produces a good but very different dish. The texture of challah French toast is light and fluffy instead of a little bit chewy and “al dente” as Ken’s is.)
The only problem with serving French toast at brunch is that each serving must be made individually. Ken’s brunches are day-long, relaxed affairs and nobody minds sitting around waiting for their serving. But there is another brunch strategy one could employ: Baked French toast.
Baked French toast is basically a version of bread pudding. The night before friends come over for brunch, you can assemble this dish and leave it in the fridge overnight while the bread absorbs the custard. Then, in the morning, all you have to do is stick it in the oven while you make coffee, squeeze oranges, etc.
Speaking of coffee and oranges (and, for our purposes here today, bananas), this raises the thorny issue of tropical commodities. They are neither local nor seasonal to the Northeast and, unless global warming increases the overall annual temperature dramatically, probably won’t be locally available anytime soon. I’ve been investigating the production and distribution of coffee and bananas and I’ll have more to say about each in the coming two weeks, in Son of Brunch (part II) and Return of the Brunch: This Time it’s Personal (part III).
Baked Banana French Toast with Bananas Foster Sauce
Serves 6 – 8
Start preparing this dish the night before you want to serve it. N.B.: If you chose to sprinkle powdered sugar on this dish, be aware that most brands of powdered sugar contain cornstarch. You can get non-GMO cornstarch at natural food stores.
1 tablespoon butter for buttering the pan
A loaf of Challah, brioche, or egg-based bread, or any relatively light white bread, but not something truly frail, like Wonder Bread, which is too wimpy for this dish
2 cups half and half
1 cup whole milk
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 teaspoon real vanilla extract
pinch cinnamon (optional)
2 bananas (don’t slice until morning …)
2-3 tablespoons raw sugar (i.e., slightly bigger crystals than regular sugar)
- Butter a 9 x 13 baking pan. (I like to use glass or ceramic pans to make this dish.)
- Slice the bread and lay the slices one on top of the other so that they overlap until the bottom of the pan is covered. Leave enough room for the custard to reach high enough to cover and soak all the bread without spilling over the sides of the pan. (You probably won’t use the whole loaf of bread.)
- Combine the eggs, half and half, milk, maple syrup, vanilla extract, and salt in a blender. If you want to use cinnamon add it now. Blend lightly until well combined but not frothy. (You don’t really need to use a blender, it’s just easier to get a very uniform custard.)
- Pour the custard mixture over the bread in the pan.
- Cover the pan tightly with silver foil or some sort of airtight lid.
- Put the pan in the fridge to set up overnight.
- The next morning, preheat the stove to 350 degrees.
- Take the pan out of the fridge.
- Slice the bananas on the diagonal into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Carefully lift the custard-soaked slices of bread using a knife or offset spatula (this will be difficult as they will be very delicate from being wet … just pretend you are a famous neurosurgeon who likes to bake when not performing operations) and slip the banana slices between the slices of bread.
- Now bake until puffy, so that the center seems somewhat firm. This should take about 40 minutes, but start checking after 30.
- About two or three minutes before you think it will be done, pull the pan out of the oven and sprinkle the raw sugar over the top. Then return the pan to the oven until it’s ready to come out.
- Serve with the Bananas Foster sauce, or any other sauce, or jelly, or simply a coating of powdered sugar.
Bananas Foster Sauce
Makes enough to cover the French toast and then some …
This is not a true Bananas Foster sauce, as it does not require being flambéed. (Your kitchen and your home insurance agent will thank you for skipping this unnecessary, highly flammable, and somewhat unpredictable step. Trust me on this.)
6 tablespoons of butter
2 tablespoons of brown sugar
3 bananas, sliced into 1/2 inch slices
2 tablespoons of rum, brandy, Kahlua, Grand Marnier, or Frangelico
- Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat.
- Add the brown sugar to the butter and stir until it has all become wet and seems like it’s beginning to dissolve.
- Add the sliced bananas and sautée until they are cooked through.
- OK, turn the flame off. Now take the pan off of the burner and even a little bit away from the stove. This is very important! Once the pan is off the flame and away from the stove, then and only then, add the alcohol. See how it sputters and splatters and makes a mist over the bananas? If that mist (which is alcohol carried into the air via steam) comes into contact with a flame, the mist itself bursts into flame (briefly, but all the same, it can make things like, oh, let’s say the microwave over the stove catch fire. Someone I know did this with the exhaust fan on and managed to create a fire in his exhaust fan and then the inside of the wall caught fire too. The fire department had to put it out. It’s no joke.)
- Put the saucepan back down on the burner (but still with no flame and not near any neighboring burner with a flame going) and let it rest for a minute.
- I find it’s easiest to bring the pan to the table and let people cut the serving size they want for themselves. Use a knife for cutting and a spatula for serving.
- Serve the sauce in a little bowl or gravy boat. People can pour it or drizzle it using a big spoon.