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Recipes: Indulgent creme brulee French toast

Three easy recipes for sweet and special breakfasts.

Photograph by Jim Scherer / Styling by Catrine Kelty

Creme brulee baked French toast.

With the holidays come myriad opportunities for dietary indulgence — and a hall pass to go for it in the name of celebration. Everyone has favorite seasonal temptations, and a decadent breakfast often tops the list (the once-a-year extravagance to which I look forward the most is visiting my Christmas morning coffee with a little Kahlua and Armagnac). A pan of rich, eggy baked French toast is a great option, for both the eaters and the cook, who can assemble it the night before and just pop the pan into the oven in the morning. Add coffee, fruit, some bacon and/or sausage (and maybe a mimosa or two?) and you have a sweet, rich breakfast or brunch that feels as special as it is easy to pull off. And that’s a gift for everyone involved.

CREME BRULEE BAKED FRENCH TOAST

Serves 8

This dish picks up the Creme Brulee moniker because of the extra-rich custard for soaking the bread and its layer of brown sugar syrup. That layer is not crisp, as on a traditional Creme Brulee dessert, though you can firm it up a little by running the servings under the broiler (watch carefully because the topping can burn in an instant). Pomegranate arils make a pretty, seasonal garnish.

Mark Schou

TIP: When making the Creme Brulee Baked French Toast, fit the bread into the pan first. The brown sugar topping turns sticky quickly, so trying to puzzle the bread into the pan at that point would be an exercise in frustration.

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1 pound stale French, hearty Pullman, or country white bread, crusts removed and bread cut into 1-inch-thick slices

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

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1½ cups light brown sugar

2 tablespoons light corn syrup

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

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Salt

3 large eggs plus 2 large yolks

1 1/3 cups whole milk

2/3 cup heavy cream

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Fit the bread slices into a 13-by-9-inch or other 3-quart baking dish, cutting them as necessary to cover the entire bottom. Remove the bread and set aside. Wipe out the crumbs from the pan, grease it with 2 teaspoons butter, and set aside.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the remaining butter. Add 1 cup brown sugar, the corn syrup, cinnamon, and a pinch of salt, and cook, whisking constantly, until the brown sugar is incorporated and the mixture is uniform, about 4 minutes. Working quickly, pour the mixture into the baking pan and spread it to cover the entire surface evenly. Fit the bread slices into the pan on top of the brown sugar mixture.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and yolks until uniform. Add the milk, cream, vanilla, remaining brown sugar, and ¼ teaspoon salt, and whisk vigorously until the brown sugar is partially dissolved and the mixture is uniform. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the bread and, using a large spatula or spoon, press the bread lightly into the liquid. If desired, set the baking dish on a large rimmed baking sheet to catch drips. Cover the dish with plastic wrap, set weights evenly on it, and refrigerate for at least 3 and up to 24 hours.

With the rack in the center position, heat the oven to 325 degrees; let the baking dish stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Uncover the dish and bake until both edges and center are puffed, 45 to 50 minutes, rotating the dish halfway through the baking time. Set the dish on a wire rack to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Cut the French toast into squares, transfer them to serving plates, flipping the pieces bottom side up, and serve at once.

Note: For a firmer surface, first transfer the squares to a foil-lined broiler-safe baking sheet, flipping the pieces bottom side up. With the oven rack in the center position (about 8 inches from the heating element), heat the broiler. Broil the squares until well browned and caramelized on top, 2 to 3½ minutes. Remove from the broiler, transfer to serving plates caramelized side up, cool for 5 to 10 minutes, and serve.

CINNAMON-GRAHAM STREUSEL BAKED FRENCH TOAST

Serves 8

For extra flavor dimension in the custard, you can add 2 tablespoons of dark or amber rum.

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

3 tablespoons granulated sugar

¾ cup light brown sugar

1/3 cup flour

¼ teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

Salt

5 graham crackers, broken into rough pieces (about 1½ cups)

1 pound stale French, hearty Pullman, or country white bread, crusts removed and bread cut into ¾-inch-thick slices

3 large eggs plus 1 large yolk

1 cup whole milk

1 cup half-and-half

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

Grease a 13-by-9-inch or other 3-quart baking dish with 2 teaspoons butter and set aside. In a small bowl, mix ½ teaspoon cinnamon and the granulated sugar and set aside.

In a microwave or a saucepan on the stovetop, melt the remaining butter. In a food processor, pulse ¼ cup brown sugar, flour, remaining cinnamon, nutmeg, and ¼ teaspoon salt to combine. Add the graham crackers and 5 tablespoons of the melted butter and pulse to break down the graham crackers into large crumbs and the mixture just begins to resemble wet, pebbly sand, about 5 2-second pulses. Scrape the streusel mixture into a bowl and refrigerate until ready to use (at least 20 minutes).

Lightly brush a side of each slice of bread with some of the remaining melted butter and sprinkle lightly with the cinnamon sugar. Cut the bread slices in half and fit them into the prepared baking dish.

In a large bowl, whisk the eggs and yolk until uniform. Add the milk, half-and-half, vanilla, remaining brown sugar, and ¼ teaspoon salt, and whisk vigorously until the brown sugar is partially dissolved and the mixture is uniform. Pour the egg mixture evenly over the bread and press the bread lightly into the liquid. If desired, set the baking dish on a large rimmed baking sheet to catch drips. Cover the dish with plastic wrap, set weights evenly on it, and refrigerate for at least 3 and up to 24 hours.

With the rack in the center position, heat the oven to 325 degrees; let the baking dish stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes. Distribute the chilled topping mixture evenly over the bread, forming different-sized clumps (from pea to small marble) with your fingers as you go; gently pat down the topping into a compact, even layer. Bake until the topping is deeply browned and the edges and center are puffed, 45 to 50 minutes, rotating the dish halfway through the baking time. Set the dish on a wire rack to cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Cut the French toast into squares and serve at once.

> Variation

CARDAMOM-GRAHAM STREUSEL BAKED FRENCH TOAST WITH PEAR

Serves 8

Whisking 3 tablespoons of clear pear brandy, sometimes called Poire Williams (more generally, clear fruit brandies are called eaux de vie) into the custard mixture is a nice touch to boost the pear flavor.

Follow the recipe for Cinnamon-Graham Streusel Baked French Toast, making the following changes:

1) In the streusel mixture, omit the nutmeg and substitute 2 teaspoons ground cardamom for the 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon (keep the ½ teaspoon cinnamon for the cinnamon sugar).

2) Peel and core 2 large pears (about 10 ounces each) and cut into ¾-inch chunks. Tuck the pear chunks into the bread slices before adding the egg mixture.

Adam Ried appears regularly on “America’s Test Kitchen.” Send comments to cooking@globe.com.
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