Illustration: Emma Mckhann

For several years—I don’t even remember when I started, or why—I have been preparing a modified version of Paula Deen’s Baked French Toast Casserole on Christmas Eve, to bake on Christmas morning. You make a caramel-like sauce (which I put on the bottom of the dish; Dean puts her on the top), layer some French bread slices on top, then pour a cinnamon- and vanilla-laced custard over it. The magic happens when you let it soak overnight, and then you just bake it in the morning. The 10 minutes or so the night-before prep costs you is much smaller compared to the wow factor of eating this casserole the next day. It was perfect for a morning full of picking up wrapping paper and cowering from loud noises, when you’re already groggy from playing Santa the night before. Mimosas optional.

It’s not that I don’t ever make it during the rest of the year, but again, it’s usually tied to a special-occasion-to-impress, like when we’re staying over at a friend’s Michigan beach house. As a lucky guest, I figure the least I can do is throw a fancy, restaurant-worthy breakfast casserole together, and it’s always a huge hit.

But with my latest efforts to make my mornings with the kids less chaotic, I remembered my old friend the French toast casserole. One of the things I’d noticed is that the kids are much happier in the a.m. (not a usual occurrence, especially for my daughter) when I made an actual breakfast for them, on a higher level than toaster waffles and cold cereal with a banana on the side. Why then was I keeping French toast casserole in such rare rotation? It was something both kids loved (really, what’s not to love?), and automatically made them feel cared for. I know that’s attributing a lot of emotional strength to the most important meal of the day, but I really have seen a difference in the caliber of our mornings when I make an actual sunrise meal.

So, last night, I soaked my bread again. Christmas in April! (Well, there still is snow outside.) My modifications from Paula Deen—other than my genius idea of putting the topping on the bottom, so the bread just bakes into it—is eliminating things like corn syrup (who still adds corn syrup in this day and age? Paula Deen does...) from the caramel sauce, and sugar from the custard. Trust me, it’s all sweet enough. I increase the spice ratio. Instead of her eight eggs and three cups of dairy, I find that a ratio of six eggs and two cups works quite well. She adds pecans to her topping; I hardly ever have pecans on hand, but you could certainly make the whole dish more praline-like if you care to.

Happy bread, floating in custard (sauce is on the bottom)
Photo: Gwen Ihnat

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Basically, the whole thing boils down to some good baking spices and eggs, cream, and brown sugar. And the bread. The next time we have half a loaf left over from dinner, instead of making breadcrumbs, I’m going to use it to pull this casserole together for the next day. I usually serve it with fruit (trying to raise the health factor on the half-pound of butter and ton of cream in here). On those vacation/holiday events, I also add some bacon or sausage to cut through the sweetness. In fact, a long-running debate on our summer trip is that some of my friends actually add syrup to this dish (so does Paula Dean). I absolutely don’t get it, though if you have a sweet tooth, you could give that a try. But taste it on its own first; I bet you don’t need it.


French toast casserole

Adapted from Paula Deen recipe

  • 1 loaf French bread
  • 6 large eggs
  • 2 cups half-and-half
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • Dash salt

Topping:

  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
  • 1 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup chopped pecans (optional)

First, make the topping: Melt the butter in a pan and add the brown sugar and spices. Use a whisk to combine. (If you’re having a hard time with it, let it sit for a few moments. Once it cools, it’ll be easier to mix.) Then add pecans, if you’re adding those.

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Pour the sauce into a medium-size rectangular casserole dish, making sure it spreads to all four corners. Then cut the bread up in 1/2-inch size slices (about 20 or so), and spread them out over the casserole.

In a bowl, beat the eggs with the cream and the spices. Then pour over the bread, again making sure to cover completely and reach every corner. Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight. In the morning bake at 350 degrees for 40 minutes or until the bread gets crusty on top.