Every year at this time Marci, my baby sister, gets together with her high school friends for a gift exchange. As a newlywed who received just about every gift on the planet (let’s just say I’ve often wanted to go shopping in my parent’s basement where most of the gifts are stored), Marci decided she wanted to host the gift exchange for the first time and finally get to use some of her new pieces. Seeing as she was late offering, she used me to cinch the deal: Jackie will cook for us…
That did it, I was booked (albeit this gig didn’t pay, but I didn’t mind – I consider these girls my friends as well). I chose to go with a brunch theme knowing I could give them a wide range of sumptuous foods that my sister would be able to finish cooking/reheat. I had tickets to the Bears game and couldn’t be there myself (FYI: photos courtesy of baby sister).
The menu: Baked Challah French Toast with Praline Topping and Strawberry Syrup; Fontina Cheese Frittata with Leeks, Mushrooms and Spinach; and an Orange & Fennel Salad Over Mixed Greens. I got Marci to make banana bread, and told her to save me a piece, and she asked her friends to bring fruit for dessert.
They loved it! Marci managed to squirrel away a piece of the French toast for me but had no such luck with the frittata, reporting that even her pickiest friend went back for seconds. And the dishes were so simple for her to finish that didn’t even get one emergency phone call, although I think that had to do with the detailed, two-page instructions I gave her to follow.
The frittata recipe came from Bon Appetit although I exchanged half a bag (about 4 oz) spinach for the asparagus. Also, I recommend using high-quality (read: pricey) fontina cheese. Follow the directions as written except add the spinach four or five minutes after adding the mushrooms. I chose to make the frittata in a cast iron skillet for both practical and aesthetic reasons: it can be used on the stovetop and in the oven, and it makes for a rustic and appealing serving piece.
All week I’d been debating whether or not to post the French toast recipe. Marci’s been asking, saying the girls loved it so much that they wanted a copy. But here’s the thing: it’s decadent, extremely rich and… let’s just say not the healthiest. Not that I wouldn’t make it – it’s a special, once-in-a-while treat – but I was worried they’d be upset I fed it to them. Marci finally talked me into it, reassuring me it would all be fine.
Baked Challah French Toast with Praline Topping and Strawberry Syrup (serves: as many or as few as you want)
* This is the perfect brunch recipe as every element can be prepared the night before and then assembled and heat the next morning.
Nonstick cooking spray
1 loaf challah bread, cut into 1-inch thick slices
8 large eggs
2 cups half-and-half
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon salt
½ pound unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 cup strawberry preserves
¼ cup water
½ pint strawberries, hulled and quartered
Coat a 9- by 13-inch baking dish with nonstick spray. Arrange the bread slices in 2 rows, overlapping the slices (there may be a few slices leftover).
In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and until blended. Pour the mixture over the bread, being sure to coat evenly. Cover the dish with a few layers of foil and place it on a baking sheet in the refrigerator. Top evenly with weights (i.e. soup cans, saucepots filled with water, etc.) and refrigerate overnight.
Next, make the praline topping by combining all ingredients in a bowl and mixing well. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
The next morning, remove the French toast and praline topping from the refrigerator about 30 minutes before baking. Preheat the oven to 350F.
Spread the praline topping evenly over the top of the French toast. Bake until to top is puffed and lightly golden, about 50 minutes to 1 hour. Note: keep the baking sheet under the dish because the filling may bubble over the top.
Make the strawberry syrup while French toast is baking: combine the strawberry preserves and water in a small saucepan over medium heat. Stir until warmed through and thinned to a syrup-like consistency.
To serve, sprinkle confectioners’ sugar over the French toast, scatter with strawberries. Serve the syrup on the side.