One last recipe before Christmas, and this one is meant to make your Christmas morning a snap. For the last three weeks, I have been sharing some sweet holiday treats. Ones you can use for dessert, or share as gifts. The baklava from last week was a new adventure for me, and I realized it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. In fact, as we get closer to Christmas, I tend to start making foods that are easier and easier. There is enough hectic activity with the season. I try not to add to it by making particularly complex meals. So that is where this weeks post comes in. Perhaps when you want the ultimate in ‘easy’ food, it’s Christmas morning. Everyone busy with sharing and each other’s company. To help, I offer the ultimate ‘heat and eat’ breakfast food, my Holiday Overnight French Toast.
Let’s get a few things out of the way first. Even though I call this a “Holiday” French Toast” it is a great option all year long. There is no requirement to wait for December to serve this. Perhaps you want it for a lazy weekend morning with the family. Excellent! Maybe you’ll be hosting a brunch for friends. Perfect! Or maybe it is a ‘just because’ treat. Why not!? The point is, I think you’ll love this so much, you’ll want it for more more than jus the holidays and that is OK!
Making it Dairy Free
The second thing that I’ve adapted a ‘typical’ recipe to account for particular dietary needs. I have one person in my life who has a dairy free diet. I have another who doesn’t like maple syrup. To make something we can all enjoy, I needed scrap traditional overnight French toasts and come up with something different. To that end, I have made this Overnight French Toast as a diary free meal. Additionally, I don’t use maple syrup anywhere in the recipe. I have adapted it from a French Toast Casserole recipe I’ve long used. It is one I used in my on-site cafe when I used to make breakfast for the people at a manufacturing plant. I have adapted both the scale, and eliminated the dairy and maple.
One more thing, I would call this a dish with flavors ‘inspired’ by the Mediterranean. Orange, Cinnamon, Apricots, and Almonds are all key parts of Mediterranean cuisine. This specific recipe, is my own adaptation and interpretation. I think that citrus and dried fruits are both classic holiday flavors and work well here. Feel free to swap out the nuts or fruits for any you have on hand or would prefer. This recipe is very flexible in that regard.
The “Formula” for Overnight French Toast
Any Overnight French toast is a ‘formula’ of pretty standard ingredients and process. Bread, eggs, ‘dairy’, a sweetener, and any fillings or toppings you might like. A typical recipe might include sourdough or baguette for a bread. Add milk or cream (or a combination) for a diary, and maple syrup for a sweetener. The milk and sugar would get combined with eggs, and any ‘flavors’ (vanilla or cinnamon). Then pour it over the bread. Wrap it up, store it in the fridge overnight, and cook it the next morning. Pretty easy. You could add nuts or fruit for a topping. Perhaps some whipped cream, or more maple syrup. That is the basic process this one follows as well. It is really hard not to have a delicious meal that is so simple here if you follow the time tested approach.
But there are a couple of problems with this for my purposes. The first is the milk and cream. That needs to go, but it needs to be replaced with something. There are a number of diary alternatives that will work. Soy milk, almond milk and coconut milk all come to mind. Or in fact, just about any ‘nut’ milk you want. I chose to use almond milk. This is because I will be adding almonds elsewhere in the overnight French Toast. I don’t want anything that wouldn’t be complementary. So I go with Almond milk. I choose the unsweetened variety so that I have more control over the sweetness of the dish. As a cook, I want be able to control the sweetness and flavor myself. This is sort of like why you almost always cook with unsalted butter, so you can control the salt levels.
Swapping out the Sweetener
Another problem is the usual inclusion of maple syrup. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE maple syrup. The real stuff. We buy ours direct from a farmer in Vermont, so it doesn’t get much more ‘real’ than that. But not everyone in my life likes maple syrup. The Elegant Baker doesn’t care for it, and almost always avoids it if she can. I think this overnight French toast will be more appealing to her if I scratch the maple syrup. But still going to need a sweetener. So I opt for honey instead of maple syrup. And a bit of light brown sugar, which brings a touch of molasses flavor, which in turn adds depth.
Next, I turn to the ‘flavor profile’ for my overnight French toast. I know I definitely want cinnamon, almonds, and a hint of citrus. Some fruits and nuts would also be good as well. I settled on almonds, apricots, and oranges. These flavors go famously together. To me they are evocative of the North African coast of the Mediterranean. Although this recipe doesn’t come directly from ‘anywhere’, the combinations of flavors will seem at once familiar, and exotic to you. Toss in some cinnamon and golden raisins and I think we have a winner!
Thinking about The Bread
After getting the flavors I want, it is time to turn our attention to the most basic ingredient in the dish. The bread. You might just think ‘bread is bread’ and that I can use anything. But that isn’t so. I have two specific criteria the bread needs to meet. First, it has to be dairy free. Many breads have dairy or milk powders in them, especially most mass market commercial bread. I need to find a bread that is dairy free and that meets the second criteria, which is …
The second criteria is a bread that is sturdy enough to hold up to being soaked overnight in an egg mixture. Slice it too thin, or get it too soft, (think grocery store white bread) and it will fall apart while cooking. Or become just too mushy to be appealing. So you really need a sturdy loaf of bread. There are a number of candidates that will work such as sourdough, baguette, challah, ciabatta, or brioche. All are sturdy enough to stand up to the egg mixture and retain there shape. And of course, its even better if you have access to a uncut loaf. No worry about the usually too thin slices from a pre sliced loaf.
The Right Bread
So what breads meet both criteria? Well, ciabatta, baguette, and challah are all traditionally made without any diary. Sourdough may be, but it can vary. Of the three breads above, I chose the challah. All three would work, but I like the soft outside and pillowy inside of the challah bread best. The ciabatta is a bit rustic for this application for me. The baguette has a soft inside and crusty outside that are all don’t really work for me (I know, kind of picky sounding!). One last note, if being dairy free is essential for you, be sure to check the ingredients on any bread you get. Even breads that are ‘traditionally’ dairy free may end up with milk powders or the like when manufactured commercially.
I am very fortunate to share a kitchen with the Elegant Baker. She made a loaf of challah bread for me. This gave me access to a wonderful, fresh (although I let it dry out a bit) and unsliced loaf of bread. So on to the overnight French toast!
To make this happen, start on the night before Christmas, just before you settle down for your long winter’s nap. Take a few minutes (really, that’s all it is) to put this together for the next morning. Start with the bread. You can slice or cube your it – I prefer cubing, so that’s what the recipe says below. But you really can’t be wrong. Put in in a large bowl and set it aside while you make up the mixture you’ll pour over it.
In a large measuring cup or bowl, add your almond milk, egg, OJ, honey, sugar and orange zest. Whisk it until it is all combined. Then add in the apricots and raisins. Now pour it over the bread in the bowl and mix it altogether. Push down gently on the bread to get as much of it submerged as possible. Wrap it up and put it in the fridge, and move on to preparing your streusel mix.
Streusels often contain butter, but I needed to change that to be dairy free. I substituted olive oil for the butter. Combine it with flour, sugar and cinnamon. Carefully stir to make sure the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened. Then add your fruits and nuts, wrap it up and put it in the fridge until the morning. Now — go look for the miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer!
The Trick to Keep it From Being Soggy
Ok — so here is the one trick that I use to keep my overnight French toast from getting too soggy. Although this is supposed to go from fridge to oven, I add one tiny step. I don’t put my mixture in the casserole dish the overnight. I leave them in the bowl I mixed them in. The next morning, I scoop them into the casserole dish (not dump them). Any liquid left at the bottom of the bowl, I discard. That is what hasn’t been absorbed by the bread and it will just sit in the bottom of your casserole dish and make everything soggy. Get out any bits of nuts or fruits, and add them back to the casserole.
Come Christmas morning, there is almost no work. Just put the overnight French toast mix in the casserole, cover with the streusel, and get ready to bake. I cover with parchment (you can use foil) for the first half of the cooking to keep the nuts and fruits from burning. You just need to lay your ‘cover’ on top, no need to wrap it up. You’ll want steam to escape while protecting the topping. Remove the cover half way through cooking.
When your overnight French toast is done, pull it out of the oven and let is sit for 5 -10 minutes to cool down a bit and to ‘set up’. Then dig in. I like to serve large squares of this sprinkled with powdered sugar. There is no reason you can’t top with maple syrup, another fruit syrup, or just have it plain.
So on Christmas morning, we will be having our overnight French toast with nice Bellini as we open presents with family over “zoom”. We will enjoy their virtual company and share the holiday cheer as best we can in the current world.
I wish you happy holidays and a merry Christmas!
Overnight French Toast
- 1 challah or Baguette (About 1 lb/450g day old bread)
- 1¾ cup unsweetened almond milk 500 ml
- ¼ cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- 7 large eggs
- ¼ cup honey
- ¼ cup light brown sugar
- Zest of 1 orange
- ½ tsp kosher salt
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ cup dried apricots chopped
- ½ cup golden raisins
- ½ cup all purpose flour
- ½ cup light brown sugar
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
- ¼ cup dried apricots chopped
- ¼ cup golden raisins chopped
- ¼ cup sliced almonds
The Night Before
- Cut challah bread into one inch cubes
- In a large bowl, combine the almond milk, eggs, orange juice, honey, brown sugar, orange zest, salt and cinnamon.
- Whisk until fully combined
- Add the challah cubes, apricots and raisins to the almond mik mixture and toss it all to combine.
- Gently press down to ensure all the bread is covered in and soaking in the milk mixture
- Cover with plastic wrap and place in a refrigerator overnight (or at least 2 hours)
- Prepare the Streusel topping by combining flour, sugar, cinnamon and olive oil, stir to distribute the olive oil and make sure the dry ingredients are thoroughly moistened
- Add the apricots, raisins, and almonds then cover and refrigerate overnight.
The Next Morning
- In the morning take the bread and topping mixtures out of the refrigerator and let stand while the oven preheats
- Preheat oven to 350F/180C
- Lightly grease a 13×9 casserole dish with cooking spray
- Move the bread mixture to the casserole dish, leaving behind any liquid left in the bowl.
- Evenly spread the bread mixture throughout the casserole
- Sprinkle Streusel topping evenly over the top of the bread
- Loosely cover with parchment paper or foil and place in the oven for 20 minutes
- After 20 minutes, remove parchment (or foil), rotate the pan in the oven, and cook an additional 20 – 25 minutes
- Remove from oven, and serve topped with powdered sugar (or maple syrup)