Most people - myself included - have one or two dishes that they hold close to their hearts. These dishes are considered the markers of big events like family gatherings, post-recital dinners or holidays.
For my folks, there's nothing more indicative of their successful American dream like a steak dinner (at a screaming good value, even better if a salad bar is included). Nothing screams Dickensian holiday like roast beef and a tray of steaming hot, bouffant Yorkshire pudding. Serial dieters dream of their first taste of cheesecake.
My special occasion dish - French toast.
Cooking for myself I've revisited dishes my mom used to make, things that have caught my eye and ego and things that I wished I had enjoyed more. It wasn't until I was an adult did I truly understand the joys of French toast. Especially when it's made from leftover holiday bread like say, an Italian Pandoro. Hey, you never know.
Let's set the scene. It was Christmas. Kwanzaa. Hannukah. The holidays. Basically a cold, dark time made even colder and darker with expectations of consistent holiday cheer. Not a suprising confession that I have no such endurance. I spurt out tidings of good joy, maybe bake a batch of cookies. But a whole series to make and give away? I cried myself through the whole process. If it weren't were for the Sting winter CD (note, it's not a holiday CD per se), I would've cried in silence.
In my desperation to survive the expectations and my longing to fulfill, I went a bit overboard. I was making up for lost achievement. One such extravagance was a stash of Pandoro. If you've never had the joy of seeing one it is a sight ot behold.
It's almost fake looking in its golden brown perfection. Once it's peeled away from the air-tight plastic pouch, it stands tall like a boastful tart. Traditionally, you dust it with confectioner's or powdered sugar (an envelope ready to shake comes dutifully in every box from Italy) and slice it in high, thin slices that you eat with your hands. It's good alone. A friend once suggested prosecco for good luck. That was some of the best advice.
Normally, one is plenty. In the store, they await festivities in what looks like a hat box. Opening it and eating it provides enough drama and flair for even the demanding holidays. From one you can feed at least eight people. So, I got myself two.
Come New Year's, I found myself with a spare. I considered aging the thing a la T.J. Maxx and enjoying the holiday cake vintage sometime in summer. But I reckoned I should consume it then and there. It was a new year, worthy of celebration. And besides, Italians would never think of eating the stuff when trees are green. Italians have such a wonderful way of seasonal eating.
I sliced the loaf equatorially and got a stack of golden stars. I cut the stars in quarters to spread the love and got a series of eggy hearts. I dipped each piece in a custard that can be thrown together in a hung-over morning and fried it all in butter until it smelled like a memory.
It's not the holidays now. But when it's rainy outside, as it is here, there's time to think. A lot. And memory lane travels not only back into the age where I loved Zac in "Saved by the Bell" but to the most recent cold seasons when I loved (and still do) my Voracious One.
I wish I saved another loaf.
PANDORO FRENCH TOAST
The only thing that varies from a standard French toast recipe is the toast in question. Of course, have French toast any which way you can, but if you happen to find a spare Pandoro in the cupboard, consider yourself one of the luckiest people around. If not, challah is wonderfully dense and slightly sweet. Brioche is classic. Egg nog adds a seasonal luxury to the batter. Serve these with drizzles of accentuating sweetness like the obvious and lovely maple syrup and dollops of bright creme fraiche (sour cream works, too). If Lyle's Golden Syrup is part of your pantry, even better. If you don't, get some now. I suggest breaking it out for this very special occasion. You're having French toast.
2 eggs (you need the ones made luscious from chickens who roam outside, dig in the dirt and live in your area), beaten * 1 1/2 cups heavy cream OR whole milk OR egg nog * some ground aromatics of your choice, like fresh nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon * a light swig of vanilla extract or cheery booze like rum, bourbon, Grand Marner * unsalted butter for sauteeing * 1 Pandoro, naked of powdered sugar and cut into hearts
Combine the eggs, dairy, aromatics and vanilla/booze in a large mixing bowl or pie plate. Basically, anything that will fit a couple of hearts so that you can soak the pieces with this lovely mixture.
Melt the butter in a non-stick pan (I love cast iron for a sexy crust) over medium high heat until you smell a bit of hazelnut-aroma coming from the butter. Working in batch, quickly dip and soak both sides of the Pandoro hearts in the custard and place into the hot butter. Cook over medium heat until golden brown and flip with a spatula to finish cooking on the other side.
Serve immediately or hold a whole pile of them in a warm oven until everyone is civilized enough to sit upright at the table. If the night before was particularly tough, protein never hurts. And nothing goes with sweetness like salty pork -- bacon or sausage is salvation.