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The Big Book of Breakfast: Sticky Bun French Toast

Scrumptious sticky-bun flavor in a French toast casserole that can be assembled a day ahead, and then baked until golden on Christmas morning. I had a couple of issues with pan size and bread size, but they were really my fault.

The recipe calls for 8 pieces of day-old bread. My grocery store sells thickly-sliced egg bread that's labeled "French Toast Bread," and that's what I used. But the slices were too big to fit in one layer in the specified 9-by-13-inch pan, so I used a 10-by-15-inch pan instead. This was a mistake, since the layer of caramel and nut topping was stretched too thin. Don't use a pan that's bigger than 9-by-13-inches. If the bread slices you're using are too big to fit 8 pieces in the pan, use only 6.

Any thickly-sliced (1-inch is optimum) firm white or egg bread will work. Try challah, or sweet French bread, or cinnamon-raisin bread for a variation. If you don't have time to let the bread sit out for a day to get dry, you can dry it in a 250-degree oven for about 30 minutes. Don't try to make the French toast with fresh bread, as it will be too soft and the slices will fall apart in the egg custard. Don't skimp on the milk fat, either. Whole milk is the best choice, but if you just can't bring yourself to use it, 2% is okay. Whatever you do, don't use skim milk! It's Christmas; don't be a Scrooge when it comes to rich, tasty breakfast.

For a holiday brunch that features other selections, I think one slice of French toast per serving is sufficient, and you can count on being able to serve 6 or 8 people, depending on the size of the bread you use. For an everyday breakfast, 2 slices per person might be more appropriate.

As I've noted in the recipe, you need to work quickly to spread the sticky bun topping across the bottom of the pan, since it will set up very quickly and become difficult to work with. If you have trouble with it, set the pan in a low oven for a few minutes until the topping becomes spreadable again. Similarly, you need to remove all the slices of French toast immediately when the casserole comes out of the oven. When hot, the bread and topping slide easily out of the baking dish, but as soon as it starts to cool down, the topping will begin to stick stubbornly to the pan. If you can't serve the French toast immediately, remove the slices, invert them onto an ovenproof serving dish, and keep warm until you're ready to serve.

Check the French toast at about 40 minutes; don't let the caramel get too dark, or it will taste unpleasantly burnt.

Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 40 to 50 minutes
Yield: 4, 6, or 8 servings

1/2 cup butter
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp light corn syrup
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
6 or 8 slices (1-inch thick) day-old bread (French, challah, etc.)
6 large eggs
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp ground cinnamon
Dash of ground nutmeg

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the butter and brown sugar and stir until melted. Add corn syrup and cook, stirring constantly, until mixture thickens, about 2 minutes. Stir in nuts. Pour into a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, working quickly to spread the caramel evenly across the bottom (it will start to harden as soon as it hits the baking dish, so work fast). Arrange the bread on top in a single layer.

In a medium bowl, combine the eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Pour over the bread. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight. Let dish sit out at room temperature for about 30 minutes before baking.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake, uncovered, until golden on top and crispy around the edges, about 40 to 50 minutes. To serve, remove each slice with a spatula and invert onto a plate so that the sticky bun topping is face-up.



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