What started out as French toast, a morning favorite at Yotam Ottolenghi’s house, evolved into this warm, fruity treat.
LONDON — Years of close observation have taught me this: People are least adventurous in the morning. Even those who would normally thrust themselves into anything new are likely to stop at breakfast. “Oh, that looks great,” they say, “but not so early in the day.” It takes quite some time for our taste buds to wake up, it seems.
The transition from sleep to fully awake therefore needs to be eased into, perhaps with a comforting morning meal. What that looks like can be very different depending on where you are from. My French and Italian friends, on the minimalist end of the spectrum, are horrified by anything beyond a continental breakfast. A cup of coffee (and a flaky pastry, if one absolutely must) is as much as they can stomach in the early hours. Anything cooked, highly flavored or rich gets a negative response.
Where I’ve traveled in Asia, on the other hand, the kind of comfort that sets you up for the day can be a full-blown meal, not dissimilar to what’s eaten at any other time. In different parts of India, I had rich dals and curries, served with rice or flatbreads that could be baked or deep-fried. In Thailand and Malaysia, things often kick off with intense savory flavors: rice and noodles, often as porridge or soup, seasoned liberally with chile condiments and garlic, grilled meats and steamed Chinese-style savory buns.
The Middle Eastern way is different, yet again. Generally speaking, there is not as much breakfast cooking going on. In Jerusalem, where I grew up, a popular morning spread included fresh vegetables, herbs, young cheese and yogurt, olives and flatbreads. Cooked egg, often an omelet, is the exception. And eggs, in general, seem to be the one player with a truly cross-cultural breakfast reach.
In my adopted culture, the full English breakfast consists of fried egg, grilled bacon, mushrooms, tomatoes and beans. I always found the beans puzzling in this context — too filling and too sweet — but their sweetness points to another major cultural variance on the breakfast table: sugar, either plain, or in some kind of syrupy form, or as fresh or cooked fruit.
It seems to me that for many, particularly in North America, it is that sweetness that has become the most customary form of breakfast. A stack of thick pancakes with maple syrup, a bowl of oatmeal or breakfast cereal with milk and a dusting or two of sugar, fresh or cooked fruit with yogurt, jam on buttered toast — all are expressions of the kind of comfort that sugar brings to the breakfast table.
During the recent lockdown, when I was often cooking three daily meals for my children, sweetness became the defining mark of breakfast in our house as well. French toast became the embodiment of both my children’s joy and my wish not to waste a thing. My eggy bread, as we call it in Britain, was the perfect kitchen raid, using up old bread, any fruit that had seen better days — quickly cooked with some sugar and vanilla and spooned over — and a pot of yogurt or cream lurking at the back of the fridge.
Over time, with natural evolution and deeper rummaging through cupboards, my variations on French toast moved farther and farther away from the austere concept of the continental breakfast. My skillet berry and brown butter toast crumble sits happily somewhere between breakfast and dessert, holding on to some aspects of the original eggy bread — stale bread, burned butter and cooked fruit — while being its own deliciously rich thing. Not necessarily to everyone’s liking early in the day but, then again, you can easily hold off for a few hours and have it as brunch, once you are fully awake and feel brave enough to try something new.