Brunch truly is one of life's great pleasures, isn't it? It promises so many things: a leisurely meal, permission to sleep late, booze at breakfast, and a menu pulling from the best of both breakfast and lunch. What's not to love?
Well, there is the matter of the WAIT. Here in San Francisco (and in many other places, I suspect), all of the above can be had, but usually only after paying a toll of one to two hours of waiting impatiently and hungrily for your turn at a table. It's no wonder brunch tends to last so long and end so tipsily. We've earned every second and every mimosa. And while I do enjoy the occasional weekend brunch, it's a pretty rare event for me, because I am someone who does not respond well to hunger and standing makes me cranky. The wait is tolerable if there is a bar and there are seats to wait in at said bar, but otherwise, I am that person pointedly staring at other's empty plates or, if I am waiting outside, fighting the urge to press myself up against the plate glass window and free up a table by being a total creeper (has anyone tried this? Does it work?).
Unlike people, food doesn't usually do anything faster when you stare at it, but it sure smells good. So instead of going out, I usually opt for breakfast at home where I can press myself up against the glass window of my own oven*. And just because you aren't eating at a certain place doesn't mean you can't enjoy their food! Another great thing about brunch is that it is mostly breakfast food, which, let's be honest, no one has really reinvented the wheel on in about 100 years. It's also almost all pretty simple to cook, so there is no reason not to make it yourself.
For this edition of brunching at home, I tried to replicate one of my favorite San Francisco brunch dishes, the custard french toast at Nopa. There, two giant slabs of french toast will arrive to your table, adorned with melting butter and seasonal fruit, and when you first cut into it a warm, dreamy river of custard will ooze out. It's french toast to the max. The rest of the city seems to agree, because unless you plan weeks in advance, this french toast will only be yours after about 2 hours of waiting. Fortunately, the recipe isn't a secret. I found it easily online and set to work trying it out, with my own addition of pumpkin since its seems to be the law this time of year.
So about this recipe. One glance will tell you that you are in for a decadent treat. It uses almost a dozen eggs, a pint of cream, whole milk, and butter, and an entire loaf of bread. Oof. This is why you don't want to peek under the hood when it comes to restaurant recipes. But, after making the recipe, I felt that half of the cream and eggs were completely unnecessary, since I had an entire baking dish full of the mixture after making my batch of french toast. And while I'm looking forward to the pumpkin crepes I managed to spin off, it seemed a bit excessive. So the second time I made it, I cut the custard by half and I noticed no difference in the final result. I also wonder if they are baking the french toast for less time in the restaurant, since my custard was completely cooked and no oozing occurred. Even so, this is probably the best french toast I've ever made. It takes a little more attention and effort, but the reward is worth it.
Pumpkin Custard French Toast Recipe
1 can pumpkin puree (or pumpkin butter, see notes)
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
6 slices bread, 1-1 1/2 inches thick (sourdough, brioche, or other, see notes)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup cream
1/2 cup milk
splash of vanilla extract
Reduce the pumpkin puree. In a small sauce pan over medium low heat, stir together the pumpkin, brown sugar, salt, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and ginger. Cook, stirring frequently, until mixture has reduced and darkened considerably, about 40-45 minutes. Let cool.
Preheat oven to 500 degrees. Once pumpkin puree has cooled, whisk together eggs and sugar until well combined, then add salt, cream, milk and vanilla. Whisk in half of the pumpkin puree until combined.
Place bread slices in a large baking dish and pour the custard over the slices, flipping them a few times to make sure each side is fully coated. Let bread sit in the custard mixture for 10 minutes, then carefully flip each slice and let sit for another 10 minutes. Transfer slices to a wire rack set over a cookie sheet to drain, and heat an oven-safe, non-stick or cast iron skillet over medium high heat.
Melt some butter in the hot pan, then place a few slices of the bread in the hot pan and let cook until beginning to brown on one side (make sure not to crowd the pan). Flip the slices over to the non-browned side and move the skillet to the hot oven and bake for 4 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven, flip the slices, and bake for another 4 minutes.
Remove the pan again from the oven and flip one more time, baking for another 4 minutes.
Repeat the process with the remaining slices, keeping cooked slices covered to stay warm (if you need to, all slices can be placed on a cookie sheet and rewarmed in the oven just before serving).
Serve warm with maple syrup or other toppings of your choice.
Cooking the pumpkin puree with the sugar and spices is a method I lifted from Flour Bakery, and it essentially gives you a lightly sweetened pumpkin butter, which means the extra left over can be used just that way (or in another batch of french toast!). If you don't want to do this step, you can substitute 2/3 cup store-bought pumpkin butter, but you may need to reduce the sugar in the custard mixture to compensate for the sweeter pumpkin butter.
I've made this recipe with both sourdough and brioche, and both were delicious, so use whatever bread you wish. The sourdough is denser and therefore did not soak up as much custard, but the end result was a little chewier, which I liked. Brioche will definitely soak up all of the custard and give you a richer, more delicate result.