French toast always reminds me of my oldest sister, Leigh. I'm not even sure if she really likes the dish, but I can remember being very young and her asking my mom for french toast for breakfast. There's not much else to the memory -- Were we at a diner? Were we at home? -- but since then, french toast always gives me that cozy, nostalgic feeling of spending the morning in my PJs with my big sister.
It's the same feeling I get when I hear James Taylor and think of my mom, or see maroon Doc Martens and remember Jill's high school years. I'm actually not very fond of Doc Martens, James Taylor nor french toast, but they're so closely tied with people I love, specifically women to took care of me growing up. Even if it's not my favorite, I listen to "Fire and Rain" periodically if only to feel swollen with the melancholy of the melody. I associate it so tenderly with my mom that I almost feel uncomfortable listening to James Taylor with my mom, but when we're apart, there's nothing like it!
Anyway, this is all a kind of weird way of saying that I made french toast for some of my best friends this past weekend for breakfast at my place. But actually frying up toast while they sat around and hungrily waited didn't sound like the most exciting nor fun way to spend my Saturday morning, so I decided to go with more of a bread pudding approach. Dessert for breakfast; indeed, there is no better way to transport myself back to childhood breakfasts with my family.
With this version of french toast/bread pudding, all of the work happens the day before. 24 hours before your guests are due to come, you want to slice up a glossy loaf of challah and lay it out on a cookie sheet, allowing it to get stale on all sides. Then, you might want to think about some fruit. In my case, I was standing in one of those epic Trader Joe's lines when a pack of kumquats caught my eye. I grabbed them and sliced them up, laying them along the bottom of my favorite baking dish. Later, make a lovely caramel and pour it into your favorite oven-safe dish, much like you'd make a tarte tatin. Or, like you might with a pineapple upside-down cake. Which reminds me; I fucking love pineapple upside-down cake.
Once you've constructed your beautiful base of kumquats (or whatever seasonal fruit) and caramel, you pack in your stale bread slices and then pour over an eggy custard. Let that sit overnight and in the morning, all that's left to do is bake the sucker and turn it upside-down so your caramel can trickle down delectably. With this whole thing prepped the night before, I actually felt kind of bored waiting for my friends to arrive, which is way better than feeling pull-your-hair-out busy!
I borrowed this recipe from Deb at Smitten Kitchen, who borrowed her version from Amanda Hesser in her New York Times years. I followed their recipe pretty closely, but added my kumquat twist. I loved how these little fruits burst with flavor, but also add a perfect citrus bitterness that lends itself so well to a super-sweet caramel-laden bread pudding. Whether or not you have fond childhood memories of french toast being cooked at your house, there's no one who wouldn't feel comforted by this tasty morning treat, accompanied by a warm, milky coffee!
Kumquat Morning Bread Pudding/Baked French Toast
1/2 pint ripe kumquats, sliced into rounds 3/4 cup sugar 6 tablespoons unsalted butter 2-3 pinches coarse Kosher salt 12 to 15 slices challah bread (cut into 1/2 inch slices and then again in half) 8 eggs 1/4 cup mascarpone cheese, plus 3/4 cup for serving 1 cup milk 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. Place challah slices on a cookie sheet and allow to dry out over the course of a few hours. I sliced and laid mine out before I went to work in the morning, and then got to work on the rest of the pudding when I returned home. I also have an oven with a pilot light, where I stored the bread on the cookie sheet for the day. The oven provided very low, consistent heat which helped to dry out the bread, which I'd recommend!
2.Place kumquat rounds into the base of a 9-inch pie dish, arranging nicely as they will appear as the top of the cake. Reserve for later.
3. In a small, heavy saucepan, combine 3/4 cup sugar, salt and butter over medium-low heat. Allow butter and sugar to melt, bubble and begin to brown (approx 15 minutes). Try not to stir, but to swirl gently over the heat. If, it begins to brown too quickly add in 1/4 cup water and use rubber spatula to stir. When it reaches a rich caramel color, remove from heat and pour into the pie dish over the kumquat slices. Caramel will firm up like hard candy (which freaked me out). Don't worry! Swirl/spread over entire base of dish and put in fridge to cool.
3. While the caramel is cooling, whisk together eggs and marscarpone until smooth. Then, stir in milk and vanilla extract. Take pie dish out of the freezer/fridge and get your bread ready for use.
4. Arrange bread in the pan, ideally starting with the heel of the bread in the center of the dish and working outward from there! All of the bread should fit snugly into the dish, so cut those last few slices into smaller pieces to stuff into those neglected crevices!
5. Pour the egg mixture over the bread, making sure to moisten all of the bread. Find a large plate and place it on top of the dish, so that the bread is compressed and encouraged to soak up all of the egg mixture. Place in the refrigerator for overnight soaking! (You may wish to wrap the dish/plate in plastic wrap for an extra seal.)
6. In the morning, about two hours before you're ready to serve, remove the dish from the refrigerator, removing any plastic wrap and bringing to room temperature.
7. About an hour before serving, heat oven to 375 degrees. Place pudding in oven and cook for about 25 minutes. The center should be moist, but firm. I knew when to take mine out of the oven because the bread got nice and toasty, but not burned!
8. Remove from oven and run a knife around edge of dish, loosening bread from sides. Place a serving plate over top of dish (bottom side up), and, using potholders or trusty dish towels, hold pudding over sink and in a single fluid motion, holding it away from your body, invert plate. Allow the pudding a moment to pull away from the sides, perhaps giving the dish a little shimmy to help it along! Lift off pie dish. Scrape any extra caramel from pie dish over pudding.
9. Serve warm along with a dollop of mascarpone cheese and a big cup of coffee.