If I close my eyes I still can feel the excitement surrounding my childhood Christmases. I smell the tree, see the lighted village on top of the piano with its tiny twinkling houses, skaters on the mirror pond and laughing children sledding down the cotton hillside. I can taste the ground nuts in the Russian teacakes, inhale the spicy smell of gingerbread cookies fresh from the oven, feel the drippy pieces of pineapple I poked into the ham for our Christmas Eve celebration with aunts, uncles, cousins and friends away from home. In my family Christmas was a festive, food-filled season, and I loved it.
Times have changed. Our children and theirs have created their own cherished traditions and my food tastes are quite different from those of my childhood. The season still is my favorite though, and every year I love thinking up special foods to help celebrate.
A version of traditional French toast, this recipe is made with thick slices of brioche soaked in cream and eggs, then baked at high temperature. Translated into efficient/convenient, that means prepped and cooked all at once so that this one day the cook gets to eat at the table with the rest of the family.
- This is bread pudding in a different form. Because brioche is made with egg, it‘s much lighter texture than regular bread and produces fluffy, delicate “toasts.” It also has a very thin crust that doesn’t need to be removed. Brioche can be found in most major supermarkets, good bakeries and specialty food stores.
- A very adaptable recipe, it can be cooked and served in individual ramekins if the bread is cut into small pieces instead of slices. The flavor of almond can be substituted for vanilla. Note the piece covered with sliced almonds in the photo. Choose one or the other, but not both. I make it with vanilla and serve it with heated pure maple syrup. If you prefer almond flavor, mix a few drops of almond extract into simple syrup (1/8 tsp. to ½ cup) and substitute that for the sugar in the cream mixture. Then put sliced almonds drizzled with a little more almond syrup over the top before it goes into the oven. Almond syrup is available at larger supermarkets and specialty food stores.
- Because this is a bread custard baked at a high temperature it will brown and have an almost crusty bottom surface. I bake it in a heavy fry pan (cast iron, plain or enameled is great) that absorbs and reflects heat. For a larger group a heavy roasting pan will work. It is important that the slices absorb all of the uncooked custard so make enough volume and give the bread at least 30 minutes to absorb it all.
- I serve it with bacon and fruit. Tangerines are my idea of a Christmas fruit, and so are cranberries. I cut them in half and macerate them briefly in a little finely granulated sugar and 1 tsp. of Balsamic vinegar glaze. Other toppings might include apricot, berry or fig jam with a little crème fraiche, streusel topping (put on before baking) or Crème Anglaise.
- With the exceptions of professional athletes, loggers or 14-year-old boys going through growth spurts, one piece of this bread is ample for most eaters.
A large loaf Brioche cut in ½” slices (cut ends off and discard)
4 large eggs at room temperature
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 cup whole milk
2 tsp. pure vanilla extract (or ½ tsp. pure almond extract)
¼ cup granulated sugar (or ½ cup almond syrup)
1 stick unsalted, melted butter to spread a light coat over the bottom and sides of the baking dish (I use a roasting pan large enough to hold 8 slices of bread or a large, heavy metal skillet with 3 ½” high sides
For Almond Flavoring, sliced almonds to cover bread slices
Powdered sugar for garnish
- An hour before cooking beat the eggs, whipping cream, vanilla and sugar (or almond syrup) until well combined.
- Using a cooking brush, generously paint the bottom and sides of the baking pan. Preheat oven to 400º for large pan and (375º for ramekins).
- Place bread slices in the pan in a single layer (or cut cubes and put them in ramekins up to about ½” from the top). Pour all of the beaten egg/cream mixture over the bread making sure it covers all of the bread and surrounding spaces.
- Let the uncooked mixture set up for 30 minutes before putting it in the oven. During that time spoon unabsorbed cream mixture over the slices. If you are using ramekins, place them in a roasting pan and pour boiling water into the pan to a level half way up the ramekins.
- Bake in the center of the oven. After 10 minutes brush melted butter over slices (drizzle it over almonds) without removing the pan from the oven. Bake another 15-20 minutes. The bread should puff up and be browned and bubbling with butter. Check doneness by piercing a toast with a cake tester. If necessary continue cooking for another 5 or 6 minutes.
- Remove from the oven. Using a sharp edged spatula, cut around slices of bread and transfer slices among preheated plates. Serve ramekins directly on a plate.
- Using a small hand held strainer, sift powdered sugar over each portion and serve immediately.