Special-Occasion Breakfast: Challah French Toast With Orange and Rum

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An indulgent special-occasion breakfast. [Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

One of the first stories I wrote after joining Serious Eats was about how to make Perfect Quick-and-Easy French Toast. The goal was simple: make the best French toast using only basic household ingredients, like sandwich bread, sugar, and eggs. I've always intended to revisit the topic with a more tricked-out version. So, finally, here we are.

This one uses challah or brioche and is flavored with rum and orange, then served with whipped crème fraîche. Honestly, though, it's just as easy—and relies on the same basic principles—as the everyday version I published before. The biggest difference is that this one may require a special shopping trip for ingredients you may not have on hand.

The first special ingredient is the bread itself. You can use challah, the eggy braided Jewish bread and a perennial French toast favorite; brioche; or another similarly airy, light bread—what's ideal about them is that they produce French toast that's incredibly custardy and tender. I like to cut the bread in nice thick slices, about an inch wide, for really hefty, generous slabs.

Next up, you'll want to dry those slices in a low oven. My original tests showed that softer bread, like white sandwich bread, challah, and brioche, was liable to fall apart if soaked when fresh; toasting helps it hold up to the moisture. If your bread is stale, that works, too (though stale rustic loaves with tougher crusts have a harder time soaking up the custard).

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While the bread is drying, it's time to quickly whip up the custard. I make it with what I've determined to be the ideal ratio of three eggs per cup of milk—no need for cream, since its extra fat can leave a greasy coating in your mouth. I spike the custard with the next set of special ingredients: rum; a generous amount of grated orange zest; and a handful of spices, including cinnamon, nutmeg, and star anise. These aromatics are really what takes the French toast from the everyday to something memorable.

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Now, there's an art to cooking French toast. First, you want the oven on, around 250°F or so. That's because these slices of toast are thick, and you're not guaranteed to cook the custard all the way through in the pan before the exteriors have fully browned. Transferring the toasts from the skillet to the oven not only keeps them warm, it cooks them through so that no one gets stuck with fancy French toast sporting a raw, soggy center.

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Next, you absolutely must manage the skillet's heat with care: Drop the French toast into a skillet that's too hot and it'll blacken and burn before you have a chance to intercede. For the best, most even browning, I recommend a very moderate heat. It'll take longer, but the results will be much better.

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Once a few slices of toast are in the pan, I sprinkle a little sugar all over the top surface of each one. Once you flip them, this sugary coating will caramelize and crisp slightly. It's an optional step, but a nice one.

To serve, I whip crème fraîche into stiff peaks. It adds the cultured cream's characteristic lactic tang and complex savory flavor, balancing out the sweeter elements of the breakfast.

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And then I go ahead and dump some pure maple syrup on top. After all, this is a special-occasion French toast.

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