Last week, I was invited to spend the weekend at a friend’s ranch outside of Waco, kids and all. My only contribution to the weekend was to handle breakfast one morning. The best solution for feeding a crowd, in my opinion, is a big breakfast casserole. I set about creating this one, and I have to say it is going to go into heavy rotation with my green chile and sausage breakfast casserole. This was well received and got good reviews from the wee ones, teenage boys, and adults, alike. Riverbend is the name of the beautiful ranch owned by the Whitlows, our hosts, and thus this sweet breakfast staple will forever bear that name. It was a truly inspiring landscape.
In my initial French Toast recipe, which is as basic as it gets, I think I shot off about not liking French Toast Casseroles or other “gussified” French Toast creations. I’m now going to modify that statement to say…I love French Toast Casserole. I still don’t need gussified. But sometimes you need these dishes that can be prepared the night before. We all need them. We especially need them around the holidays.
In my “research” I decided to stay loyal to one of my favorite components of my French Toast which is Texas Toast bread. This is plain old grocery store white bread except that it is 1 inch thick. It is famous for its place in Texas barbeque joints and Dairy Queen baskets. Also, I am nostalgic because this is the bread my mother always used to make French Toast. Many opine that there are superior breads, like Challah, for French Toast Casserole. To that I will simply reply that I look forward to eating Challah bread French Toast Casserole the next time I am at your house. You may substitute it in this recipe if you like. But do notice how nicely my artificially square bread fits into my dish. I like the geometric perfection. No gaps.
Now, this is very important. Three layers of Texas Toast makes a tall dish of bread. This recipe is designed to employ the entire loaf. Hide the end pieces in the bottom layers for appearance sake. After layering, custard is poured over it. In the oven it puffs up nearly 3 inches over the top edge of the dish. You need a nice, deep baking dish to accomplish this. Otherwise you will have major spill-over and you will be sore with me. So, be warned, this is a massive breakfast casserole.
I like this for several reasons. First, there is a layer of brown sugar and butter at the bottom. I owe this trick to Grace-anne Greenblatt, a friend of my Natalie and my Mona. These are the gals that I meet at the YMCA every (most…okay, many…) mornings to do penance for my buttery lifestyle. When I mentioned that I was working on a French Toast Casserole, they both blurted out, “you have to try Grace-anne’s casserole…it is the best one in the world.” I had already worked out a plan for the majority of the recipe, but when I saw that she put a layer of brown sugar and butter in the bottom of the pan, I had to follow suit. It is a stroke of brilliance.
After this, I layer the bread and put sugar and cinnamon between the layers as though I were making cinnamon rolls. This makes me very happy. It then spends the night in it’s custardy bath in the refrigerator. This all comes out a bit early in the morning to come closer to room temperature before being topped with brown sugar and pecans…and going into the oven.
This took every bit of an hour and fifteen minutes to bake, so plan (wake up) accordingly. You will also want to allow time for it to fall and settle a little before serving it…at least 15 minutes.
1 loaf of Texas Toast (yes, the entire loaf)
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
¾ cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2½ cups whole milk
1¼ cup heavy whipping cream
2 teaspoons vanilla
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons maple syrup (or light corn syrup)
1 cup pecans, chopped
Heat oven to 300 degrees.
To “stale” the bread: If your bread is new and soft, preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place the bread slices on a cookie sheet or rimmed baking sheet, slightly overlapping, and let them dry in the oven for 15 minutes. Turn the bread and bake for another 15 minutes. The object is not to toast the bread, but to thoroughly dry it out. But, a little golden color is fine. Remove the bread from the oven.
To assemble: Choose a deep 9” by 13” baking dish. Mix 4 tablespoons of melted butter and ¾ cup of brown sugar together. Spread the brown sugar and butter mixture into the bottom of the baking dish. In a small bowl, mix the sugar and cinnamon. Divide the loaf of bread roughly into three parcels, with one a little smaller for the bottom layer, and one a little larger for the top layer. Place one layer of bread into the bottom of the baking dish. Cut whole slices of bread as necessary to cover the bottom. Sprinkle half of the sugar mixture on the bottom layer. Add a second layer of bread, cutting slices as necessary to fill the dish. Sprinkle the remaining sugar mixture onto this layer. Finally, place the remaining bread in the dish for the top layer.
Blend together the eggs, milk, cream, and vanilla. Blend (or whisk) until there are no visible traces of yolk. Using great care, slowly pour the custard over the bread. The bread will absorb the liquid. Be sure to get all of the top layer wet. Use a spatula to lightly press down on the top layer to ensure that it gets soaked with the custard. Secure plastic wrap over the casserole dish and place it in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours and as long as overnight.
Prior to baking, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Remove the dish from the refrigerator to allow it to warm up for at least 30 minutes.
To prepare the topping: Mix the softened butter, brown sugar, maple syrup and pecans together. Distribute the topping evenly over the top of the casserole. Place the casserole on top of a sheet of aluminum foil and lift the edges. Place the casserole into the oven, ensuring that the foil is under it to prevent dripping. Bake until the middle of the casserole has an internal temperature of 170 degrees, about 1 hour and 15 minutes. The casserole will puff up significantly during baking. Remove the dish from the oven and allow it to rest for 20 minutes prior to serving. Expect it to deflate a bit during this period.