Sunday, January 20, 2013

Panettone French Toast

Panettone is a classic Italian dessert bread/cake studded with raisins and candied citrus zest and usually enjoyed during the holiday season. It originally came from the city of Milan, and was something distinctive to Northern Italy, however, it's popularity has spread far and wide- there is actually more Panettone consumed in Southern Italy and places such as South America than it is in Milan. It has a texture that sits in an odd halfway point between a light, sweet bread such as a brioche, and a cake- it is soft and pliable inside, but still has structure and form like a bread. I had a leftover Panettone from the holidays, and I wanted to use it in a somewhat un-traditional manner- so making it into a french toast breakfast seemed like the way to go- not something you'd normally do with a Panettone, but it isn't really a huge stretch of the imagination- and I thought the kids would like it too.

A Panettone is an alomst comically tall round cake or loaf with a big domed top. Traditionally, it would be sliced into wedges, and served with a sweet creamy sauce of some type. Wedges just won't work for a french toast- so I went for large round slices, by turning the Panettone on it's side, and slicing it into rounds about a half inch thick, starting from the bottom. This will make big pieces of french toast- one piece should be enough for almost anyone- and they happen to come out about the perfect size and shape to fit exactly on my smaller breakfast plates.

To make a french toast, you need a custard. This custard, at least the way I had it as a kid, is simply eggs, and milk with a little flavoring if needed- basically scrambled egg, but probably with more milk than normal, and whipped to a froth. I'm not making a huge amount of toast, but they are huge slices, so I'll start with four eggs, eye up a reasonable amount of milk, and a dash of vanilla extract.

Don't worry if you run out, you can always whip up a little more. Grab a whisk and beat until smooth. You want your custard to be a little frothy so it stays light rather than clumpy like scrambled eggs when it cooks. It may be tempting to add sugar here- don't do it. The Panettone may not be cloyingly sweet, but it is about as sweet as it should be- adding anything more is taking a big chance with driving the sweetness too far over the top.

A word of advice- soaking your Panettone in the custard is the critical step here. Have your pan or flat grill hot and ready to go before you begin. The Panettone may look like a bread, but it is also a cake- it appears to have a robust, bread-like structure, but it is already very soft- it will soak up the custard very quickly, and easily become too soggy to hold together. Overdo it with the custard, and your slices may very well disintegrate into slop before they make it from the custard bowl to the grill. Just give it a quick dip on one side, flip, and get the other side wet, then put it right on the grill. Don't waste time, don't let it sit in the custard more than a few seconds. It will suck in the egg mixture like a sponge, so just let it go long enough to ensure you have an even coat on both sides, and get it on the heat.

Keep your grill or pan on the low side of medium. Despite their size, the slices will cook fairly quickly. Even though they are thick, they are quite airy, so the egg mixture really has nowhere to hide from the heat. Also be aware that because of the sugar content in the Panettone, it will get to a dark brown very quickly, and if you leave it on too long, or turn the heat up too high, you will risk scorching your breakfast.

Again, because of the sugary nature of the bread, it will get to a dark brown- I recommend peeking under the bottom to monitor when to flip- it will come up quickly- even though it won't seem like a very long time. It will get fairly dark by the time the eggs set- just make sure it stays at a dark brown, and does not cross into black, and you should be just fine.

To dress this breakfast, I simply drizzle on a small amount of light maple syrup (and since this is a very flavorful bread, you can even use something more neutral such as a corn syrup), then top it off with a mound of whipped cream, and garnish with a little sprinkle of dried, crushed orange peel. The orange peel gives a little note that ties into the pieces of candied orange zest in the bread itself. The grilling brings out some of the subtle bitter notes in the candied orange peel- which are balanced perfectly by the sugars carmelized on the surface, and from the raisins. The outside develops a nice thin crust, but the interior remains soft and velvety. The bits of raisins and candied fruit give little explosions of contrasting flavors. All in all, it turned out to be a fun twist on a very familiar breakfast item.

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