One of the challenges for many cooks (myself included!) during the Christmas holidays is figuring out what to serve overnight company for breakfast or brunch. A dish that is simple to prepare, that can be mostly assembled in advance, and that delivers a bit of dazzle is what we all want. This casserole of baked French toast topped with a glorious mélange of fresh and dried fruits will definitely fit the bill.
All you have to do is to arrange slices from a good peasant or country loaf in a baking dish, cover them with purchased eggnog, then refrigerate overnight. At baking time, you spoon apple wedges, diced dried apricots, and dried cherries that have been sautéed in butter and brown sugar atop the soaked bread, and add a sprinkle of walnuts. Then this breakfast gratin goes into the oven to bake unattended for about 40 minutes. Oh, did I mention that the fruits can be sautéed a day ahead?
Crispy bacon or sliced ham, fresh juice, plus pots of coffee and tea would make fine sides to serve with this dressed-up version of French toast. I have two different sets of company arriving in the next few days. Guess what I’m serving for the first meal of the day!
Baked French Toast with Apples, Apricots, and Cherries
2 to 3 tsp unsalted butter for the baking dish
A one- to-two day old loaf of country or peasant bread (See note.)
2 1/2 cups purchased eggnog (See note.)
Apple, Apricot, and Cherry Topping
3 large Granny Smith apples (1 3/4 pounds), peeled, cored, and cut into
1/2 in-thick wedges
8 tbsp unsalted butter plus 1 tbsp, melted
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 cup dried apricots cut into 1/2 inch dice
1/4 cup dried sour cherries
3/4 tsp grated lemon zest
1/2 cup coarsely chopped walnuts
1. Butter a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Cut the ends from the bread, and then cut the loaf into 3/4-in thick slices. Cut the large slices in half and arrange the bread on the bottom of the pan in a single tight layer. (Save the ends and any extra slices for another use.) Pour the eggnog evenly over the bread. Cover the dish with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour or preferably overnight.
2. For the topping, heat 8 tbsp of the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat. When hot, add the brown sugar and cinnamon and stir to combine for 1 minute. Add the apple slices and cook, stirring often, until slightly softened, for about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the apricots, cherries, and lemon zest, and cook 1 minute more. (Apple mixture can be prepared 1 day ahead; cool, cover, and refrigerate. Reheat before using.)
3. When ready to bake, arrange a rack at center position and preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
4. Remove the baking dish with the bread slices from the refrigerator, and turn the slices over. Spoon the apple mixture evenly over them, and then sprinkle with the walnuts. Bake until the apples are tender when pierced with a sharp knife and lightly browned around the edges, for about 40 minutes. Cool 5 minutes. Brush the top of the dish with 1 tbsp melted butter. Serve warm.
Note: Whole Foods’ pain de campagne or pain au levain work well in this recipe.
Note: If eggnog is not available at the supermarket, whisk together 4 large egg yolks, 1/2 cup sugar, and 2 cups light cream to blend. Use 2 1/2 cups of this mixture in the recipe.
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