I used a fork to mix milk and egg together in a rimmed soup bowl, recklessly dotting the liquid with vanilla extract before combining the ingredients. Next I added a slice of bread to soak, well on my way preparing the first dish I ever cooked: French toast. I always liked how the square piece of bread neatly fit in the round bowl. It’s a vivid memory, from the time I was nine or ten.
While the bread soaked, I crept upstairs to my parents’ room to whisper in my mother’s ear that I was going to turn on the stove. That was the biggest deal to me because she trusted me to use the stove on my own, and I felt quite mature.
My mother made, and still makes, the best French toast. Her recipe is simple and straightforward: whatever bread is on hand, though admittedly challah tastes best, soaked in a vanilla-scented egg mixture for as long as possible, preferably overnight, then fried in a substantial amount of–egads, back 37 years ago–margarine. (At the same time that Mom was taking away our sugary breakfast cereals, margarine was thought to be "healthier.") She made it so frequently we had a nickname for it, in that familiar way families often have for beloved objects: FT. Today it is practically a requirement that she prepare FT when our extended family is together. Our family is Jewish, and French toast is not a Jewish food, but I've always felt that my mom making it for us continues to underscore the value of connecting to family. Sharing a meal acts as a conduit to shared heritage, shared history, shared experience.
Mom really taught me how to make French toast for myself so that she could sleep in on a weekend morning. I learned to turn over the slices of bread so that both sides had equal time to soak, noting how much liquid had already been absorbed. Once no liquid remained, I’d heat the sauté pan, the melting margarine heightening my anticipation. I’d slide the bread out of the bowl and into the pan with a satisfying sizzle. It took a little bit of practice to learn when to best flip the bread, but once I did, I loved seeing the golden brown mottling each side.
The gilding of the lily was a light drizzle of real maple syrup. We frequently took road trips to New England, and after visiting Vermont and learning all about maple sugaring, there was no Mrs. Butterworth's in our house. I’d sit at my spot at the kitchen table, enjoying the textural contrast of the crisp outside and slightly creamy inside, proud that I had mastered making my favorite breakfast.
So when my oldest son was nine or ten, I taught him how to make French toast. Turned out he liked making pancakes better, and he can whip up a mean batch with chocolate chips. It’s a joy seeing the same sense of satisfaction and independence in him as I felt learning to make French toast years before. That's kind of what parenting is all about.
Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer based in Briarcliff Manor, New York, whose interests include culinary history and culinary anthropology.
2 slices of bread, preferably challah
milk to taste
vanilla extract to taste
1 T. butter
Using a fork, beat egg in a bowl or pyrex dish that will hold the two slices of bread somewhat snugly.
Add milk and mix, then add and mix in vanilla.
Place bread slices in the egg mixture and let soak until about half the liquid is absorbed.
Turn over the bread slices so they can absorb the remaining liquid, a few minutes or even overnight in the refrigerator.
Once the liquid is absorbed, melt butter over medium heat in a frying pan.
Add the bread and let it cook for two minutes.
Once the bread is browned and can be flipped, cook the other side for two more minutes.
Serve with real maple syrup.