Do The French Eat French Toast?

The Wagon Train Coffee Shop is a small diner, in a one strip, one gas station town, in Truckee, CA. The walls display license plates, and framed photos of local football teams and a sign saying, “Sorry Complaint Box is Full”.  The waitresses are amiable and efficient, big-boned “girls”, who tuck their pens behind their ears and shout orders in shorthand, “Dry wheat to five!”. The coffee is served in ceramic mugs so thick you have to work to get your lips around the rim and the jam sits stacked on the tables, molded into white, plastic, single-serve sized packs.

I was at the Wagon Train Coffee Shop one recent snowy afternoon, and had the best French Toast I have ever sunk a fork into. It sat solidly in the middle of my plate, one big slab of sourdough sponge, as thick and wide as a T-bone. It had been given a leisurely soak in its eggy bath, so much so that large bits of fried egg were still clinging to its sides. It’s surface displayed a perfectly balanced topography of yellow and brown.

The maple syrup arrived in a flimsy aluminum jug. It is delivered in bulk to the diner and dispensed from a giant coffee urn behind the counter. (It was probably not pure Vermont sap. This was not the kind of place that cared about that.)  I drizzled a thin stream over the top of my French Toast. It was gradually sucked in.

There was nothing fancy about this French Toast, there was not even cinnamon on hand. This was practical French Toast, stripped of pretension, perfect in its simplicity, looking simply for an eager mouth and an appetite, which I had after four days of skiing.

There’s no question as to why French Toast is a comfort food– we are hard wired to derive pleasure from sugar and fat. Our first food from the breast is rich in both, the protein from the eggs fills us up and the warm, plush bread is easy to chew and digest. French Toast delivers what our primitive-selves desire: maximum energy with minimum effort.

Knowing I would never be able to recreate the Wagon Train experience at my home, two thousand miles east of the Western frontier, I instead created an entirely different New York City variation – an urban, slightly thinner, more accessorized version of Truckee French Toast. Check it out here. (Warning: If you’re a French Toast purist, beware – I took great liberties with a time-honored tradition. This heretical act was done in the name of health (without, I think, compromising taste), but if you’re a traditionalist don’t try this at home.)

Interestingly, the French don’t eat French Toast – they eat “pain perdu”, (or lost bread, meaning stale bread, salvaged by soaking it in egg and milk), the English eat “Eggy Bread”, the Hungarians, “Bread with Fur” (I don’t think “fur” when I see French Toast but then again, I’m not Hungarian), and the Germans, “Poor Knights” (the lowly cavalry had limited access to fresh bread). The practice of soaking stale bread actually dates to the 4th or 5th Century with the Romans (from whom the French plucked the idea) – so for proper attribution, call it “Roman Toast”.

Your tricks or tips for making perfect French Toast? Any variations you swear by?  Any diners where you’ve had French Toast so good, it’s worth planning a trip around?

Get Posts By Email

  • http://molly-sweeney.com Molly @ the F-spot

    I go to Truckee/Tahoe almost every week in the winter to ski. I’ll be there on Wednesday! The Wagon Train is a fixture in Truckee and I’ve been there many times, but I have not had the French Toast (admittedly because it is “bad for you”). I will make a point to try it on a morning before a big ski day for a guilt-free indulgence. And thanks for the recipe! My husband loves French Toast and I like your healthy additions!

    If you’re interested in some of my recent skiing shenanigans, you can check them out here: http://molly-sweeney.com. :-)

    • ursula haimowitz

      OMG…I am a LOCAL in Truckee California and WE ALL KNOW BETTER than to eat at the “Gagging Wagon” as we locals dub it…no offense meant to your commentary but this place you rave about is known to serve really dangerously bad food..i.e old,stale,bad meat cooked in crank case oil..They are nice waitresses..the place is so dirty and dingy and the cookies in the window have been the SAME decorated cookies since LAST January..not kidding. I am only mentioning this to you because this is an article on “healthy food items” and this place can give you some serious listeria and food poisoning. Locals eat at Squeeze In about half a block down the walkway in our one horse one gas station town…the food is fresh,cheap,nice waitresses,funky alien decor and everyone is allowed to scribble on the walls! Molly..don’t do it. The best breakfast is in Tahoe City at Rosie’s Cafe.

      • Michelle

        Wow! So interesting (and good) to know!!! Just goes to show that when you’ve been skiing for 4 days, your standards can slip a little (as your appetite grows.) I certainly was not lured into thinking I was eating at a “healthy” place (there was much that gave that away), and had no illusions about how healthy my actual french toast was, but at the time, it certainly tasted divine. And every once in a while, enjoying a touch of not-so-healthy diner food, reminds you why is should be regarded as a very occasional thing. (I also included a healthy french toast recipe, so show that this delicious breakfast food, CAN be made and eaten “guilt free”. Next time I will definitely try Squeeze!

  • Patrick

    Yeah, I would probably draw the line on the syrup, except for the fact that, being far away from my native California Bay Area and no longer five hours away from my beloved Truckee, Tahoe and Squaw Valley, I don’t have access to Aunt Jemima for my “Poor Knight” – which is considered children’s food here. Either I splurge on the Grade B Canadian maple syrup available in health food stores, or I have to get creative – with jam, powdered sugar, Nutella (or occasionally even fresh fruit). In Germany we do have access to 4 lb bricks of whole grain bread that put your sprouted wheat to shame. If I can get the eggs to adhere to anything is an experiment I will have to get back to you on. And we do have this little place called the Alps about 3 hours away that aren’t bad for snowboarding either ;-)

    • Michelle

      Funny how after 4 days of hard core skiing, one feels (or I felt) perfectly justified in dumping maple syrup on top! Something about being back in NYC and NOT burning thousands of calories on a ski hill drew me to the yogurt/syrup combo. More skiing AND more maple syrup! please.

      • Patrick

        I would click “like” if I could ;-)

  • Gary

    I don’t get it. Do a few other substitutions make all of the sugar, salt and fat OK? Not in my book.

    • Michelle

      Good question! When I re-made it in my NYC kitchen, I cut way back on the fat (meaning I did not put any more butter on the top when it came off the pan), I used nutritious whole wheat bread (that had less than a gram of sugar in it), a tiny dash of salt, stuck a little fruit and seeds in which fills you up so you eat less (I could only get through one of my two slices before I was full), and used only a tiny bit of maple syrup mixed with some yogurt to drizzle. So overall, this “revised” recipe was generally healthier than “typical” French Toast.

      But in general, here’s my view on foods like French Toast — don’t eat them every day, but when you do, think about what you’re eating, enjoy the sweetness and the egg and the bread, and all the goodness but consider it a treat and not a routine breakfast food. And then, and this is the most important of all, later that day – go out for a ski! or a run, or a walk or a climb on a stairmaster or anything that moves you!

  • Anne-Sophie Marie

    When I was a little girl growing up in France, my mom used to make me Pain Perdu on Sundays, with stale Poilane Sourdough, eggs, raw whole milk, raw honey from my grandfather’s garden, and cinnamon, sauted in fresh butter. It was my favorite and reading your mention of Pain Perdu brought back wonderful memories so thank you!

    Despite being French, I’m gluten intolerant, so a while back I made up a Pain Perdu recipe I could actually eat, so here it is:

    GLUTEN FREE PAIN PERDU

    2 eggs
    1/3 cup raw/fresh milk
    a bit of unsalted butter for pan
    2 thick slices of buckwheat bread
    a dash of ground cinnamon
    2 tablespoons kefir
    2 tablespoons raw honey or maple syrup

    Whisk eggs with milk until you have an even texture. Soak buckwheat slices into it, turning each over after a few minutes. Once the slices are evenly soaked, put butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once butter is melted, place the slices. After a few minutes, when the bottom sides a golden brown, flip over and heat for a few more minutes.

    Serve hot and spread honey on the slices, top with kefir, and sprinkle with fresh cinnamon.

    Happy New Year, and congratulations on your wonderful blog!

  • Jacquelyn Hoag

    My mom did a gourmet food tour for some years in France. One of her breakfast mornings featured pain perdue, the leftover bread sliced thick, the fresh eggs from the lock keepers basket, cream and orange juice with a good dash of grand marnier and fresh grated orange rind. Cooked in butter and served with a dusting of powdered sugar. What was wholly french were the ingredients…otherwise, it was my California maman’s version of “french toast”. What a treat floating down the canal du midi!
    Good old bread pudding is another way to finish up day old bread, drenched in what is essentially eggnog, and being a California girl, I added golden raisins and lemon sauce….

  • Steve

    French toast is a bit of a Sunday morning go-to for me. We’ve been watching the calories, so we’ll use light syrup. My favourite French toast is made with a multigrain raisin bread. There’s a local artisinal bakery that makes a meuslix bread that knocked my socks off. I love it with some fresh nutmeg grated into the batter. I’m going to have to try hemp seed in there too!

  • ctb

    1 of my past fave sweet-tooth indulgences was French toast made w/ diagonal cuts of Cuban bread (you could sub baguettes), sauteed in gobs of butter, served w/ lots of real maple syrup – & a pinch or so of nutmeg in the egg mixture.

  • Debbie

    I think the thing to remember is that there needs to be balance in everything…in the ingredients, in what we consider indulgences, in what to sacrifice for flavor. Food fuels the body, but I think it needs to appeal to the mind also. Will French Toast ever be consider health food… umm no, but what it brings to our senses will far outweigh it’s ingredient detriments.

    • Michelle

      Here, here. Focus on the quality of the ingredients and wholesomeness of the ingredients, eat only small amounts (and only occasionally) of those foods high in calories (french toast for ex) and get outdoors and move your limbs!

  • http://febrilemuse-infectious-disease.blogspot.com CM Doran

    After reading your post and the comments, I became nostalgic for Angelo’s, a breakfast restaurant across from the med school library in Ann Arbor, MI ….they made french toast with raisin bread…it was very good. They didn’t give small portions, but for a college student on a Saturday morning–true comfort!

    I also have a brunch dish that is a baked “French toast”…when all done is very similar to sticky buns, with a french toasty middle.

    • Gretchen

      Oh Angelo’s! That was my weekend treat when family came into town to visit. :)

      Oh boy do I miss that place… just thinking of the french toast with raisin bread makes my mouth water.

      • http://febrilemuse-infectious-disease.blogspot.com CM Doran

        How fun! Zingerman’s didn’t make french toast, but whenever I talk to anyone that knows A2, Zingerman’s is always mentioned.

        It’s funny how nostalgic we can get over food…or the company we keep there.

        • Gretchen

          Oh Zingerman’s! My brother sent me a gift box from there for my last birthday … it was a box full of dessert heaven! I love Chapel Hill, but sometimes I really miss Ann Arbor!

  • Alicia May

    During Autumn when I enjoy making anything with pumpkin or suash, I laboriously peel, steam and finally puree chunks of fresh pie pumpkin and mix with eggs, evaporated milk, sugar, honey, cinnamon and other spices for home-made pumpkin pies. There is always extra pie filling left over so instead of tossing it this last fall I decided to put it to use on my toast. Just dip a hearty thick sliced bread in your pumpkin pie mixture and plop it on a warm buttered griddle. Absolutely delicious <3 Pumpkin French Toast! *Amazless*

  • http://www.sunnyside-up-cafe.com/index.html Jon

    The best french toast you ever had is in Corvallis, OR at the Sunnyside Up Cafe. Nuthin’ fancy, just the basics the way food used to be before the factories started churning it out: farm fresh eggs, heavy cream, a sprinkle of nutmeg and stale challah from a local organic bakery.

    Here’s a picture.

    If you want it fancy we also do a version where we substitute Bailey’s Irish Cream for the heavy cream and serve it with homemade <a TARGET="_blank" href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maple_cream"maple cream.

  • Vivian

    I love to make French toast from whole wheat bread. I add cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla to the egg and milk dip. For Christmas morning, I prepared the evening before a glass baking dish of 2 layers of bread and poured the egg mix over it. Put the dish in the fridge over night. In the morning I put this in a 350 oven covered for 40 minutes. One recipe suggested removing the cover after 30 minutes and covering it with a mixture of butter and maple syrup and putting back in the oven. I thought this was unnecessary.

  • Jeff

    The W Cafe in Gunnison Colorado has the BEST french toast in the world. I do not know how they make their batter, but it has a bit of a pancake batter taste to it. I went to Western State College a bit ago, and use to get there once in awhile for the best french toast ever. Lucky for any other skiers out there it is only about 30 minutes south of Crested Butte.

  • Danny

    I vote for the Village Coffee Shop in Boulder, CO. Best french toast I have ever eaten… it almost tastes fried and it is the best hangover cure EVER (much needed after a Boulder Friday night). Their hash browns are unbelievably sinful and Boulder (not the coffee shop exactly) also has the best, lip-burning-est Green Chile…mmmmm. No wonder I lost twenty pounds when I left :)

  • Jef

    Do the French eat French Toast? http://t.co/f9RDeBp

    Best French toast: when I was a kid my friends Swiss mom, a “Swiss Army Wife”, made the best French toast I’ve ever had. She would use sourdough french baguette sliced thick and after dipping in egg, salt and pepper, she would almost deep fry them in butter until there was a golden brown crust all over. Served with a cup of coffee (which I wasn’t allowed at home), it had to be one of my fondest childhood taste sensations.

  • Larry

    Our local coffee shop in Sonoma makes its French Toast by dipping the bread in ice cream – vanilla I presume. Yummy!

  • Reney

    If you’re ever on the west side of MI stop by Colonial Kitchen in Dorr. They make a French toast, which I believe they dip in pancake batter. It’s a bit different, but definitely comfort food and delicious (with requisite aluminum syrup containers). I love getting in when I go home w/ their American fries.

  • Leslie

    When my kids were little, we made French Toast all the time. I used whole grain bread dipped in egg and milk batter and fried in butter. I’d sprinkle it with cinnamon, cut it into sticks and give them a plate with a dollop of yoghurt and a dollop of apple sauce to dip into. It was a yummy and healthy breakfast. Much later they discovered syrup and I’d add that too, but they still liked the apple sauce and yoghurt combo. Now they are grown up and both avid cooks of healthy food.

    • http://leah-onesnap.blogspot.com Leah

      love this idea, thank you!

  • Don

    In Greenland I once ordered what was translated as “toast of Paris” which I thought would be french toast. Turned out to be a ham sandwich, not even any cheese.

    • Michelle

      A clear cut case of intentionally misleading the consumer! I would have thought the same as you … Hope, once the disappointment subsided, it was a good sandwich …

  • http://leah-onesnap.blogspot.com Leah

    Make the french toast with eggnog if you want something special. Or local farm fresh milk. I always use cinnamon and sugar in my egg bath. Just a touch. I also always use white bread and real maple syrup. nomnomnom

  • Catherine

    On Christmas morning, I always make French toast with panettone. Or would that make it Italian toast? :) Either way, it’s a decadent treat.

    • jMack

      Wow! That sounds amazing! I have tried it with egg nog and the overnight in the ‘frig, feed multitudes on christmas morning, but this might be the ultimate.

  • http://www.dearnoone.blogspot.com amanda

    The absolute, hands-down best French Toast I’ve ever had was in a tiny, nondescript diner of sorts in Sydney, Australia. I probably wouldn’t be able to find it again, but I still dream of it. The toast was perfectly crunchy and soft, drizzled with honey and a thick plop of mascarpone cheese. So good.

    The second best is a tie between two of my favourite local diners: Fred’s Place in Sausalito, CA (they DEEP FRY it!) and Bubba’s in San Anselmo, CA (it’s a “creme brulee” French Toast, so it has a hard caramel crust and is all around divine).

    • Michelle

      I am salivating! Love the idea of the mascarpone cheese. I used to live in Sydney and I too have phenomenal food memories from my years there .. brunches at “Balmoral Beach Cafe” lives on with me to this day.

  • JoeT

    Challah French Toast @Zaftigs Delicatessen, Brookline MA. For real.
    http://www.zaftigs.com/

  • jMack

    I toast the bread a little first then really let it soak in the bath. I have no guilt in a drizzle of real Vermont syrup (which sometimes goes into the bath, too.)

  • http://jamsandjewels.blogspot.com YveeB

    The year before last we stayed in a B&B near Burlington, VE. The landlady served us french toast made with croissants. Divine. Noone could ever claim there was any nutritional value in them just lots of good fat and sugar. Eaten in moderation (so difficult) these are the way to go in my (and my family and anyone I have ever served them to’s) opinion.

  • http://www.largepot.net/large-pot/ancient-greek-pottery/ large pottery urns

    Just came and read, this is wow! I was seek from many
    blogs, but here is the best, I love it.