Early on in our relationship, Kris came to the sobering realization that virtually everything I ordered at a restaurant would be better than what he got.
This goes beyond the playful scenario of stealing food from someone’s place. This was a deep-seated concern that continues to haunt him to this day. Recently he’s gotten in the habit of insisting that I order first so he could mimic whatever choice I made, instigated in part by an early morning breakfast we had in London earlier this year.
We’d taken a 7 am commuter bus to the station to drop off our luggage, to be picked up later that night when we returned to board an overnight coach to Edinburgh. On our way, we happened to go by a block lined with pastel colored cafes, so when we unburdened ourselves of luggage our empty and uncaffeinated tummies led us in a beeline straight towards it.
Seated in a cramped table in a cafe roughly the shape (and size) of a shoebox, smelling buttery flakes of croissant and the strong aroma of freshly pulled espresso, Kris ordered himself an egg dish while I had the best plate of french toast I’d ever had.
Thick slices of challah rimmed with poppy seeds, golden with the color of eggs, and topped with crispy, sugary pieces of banana.
Weeks after we’d returned, I was waiting for a friend for lunch at a local Washington bakery when I found on the discounted day-old shelf a loaf of challah bread dusted liberally with poppy seeds. The plan was set to recreate that breakfast, this time that we both could share. If you can’t find challah bread with poppy seeds don’t worry! I don’t think they lend any noticeable taste to the final product, but for the sake of authenticity, how could I not?
The recipe serves 3-4, and it can be spread out even further if you serve it with fresh fruit salad or quiche as part of a brunch (this makes a pretty decadent little centerpiece). Start by slicing the bread into 2” pieces, and leave to stale slightly for a few hours if you have the time.
Whisk in a large pan the eggs and cream (one egg per slice plus one, half a cup of half & half or cream per four slices), as well as a splash each of vanilla and almond extract, a pinch of salt, and spices. If you like this sweeter, you can add in a few tablespoons of brown sugar, but not too much. This toast needs to stay on the griddle for a while, and too much sugar will cause it to burn before it’s ready.
Lay the slices in the batter and let them rest for ten minutes before flipping them over, and leave for another 10 minutes to soak up the custard.
Preheat your griddle to just a hair under medium heat. While it’s warming up, slice the bananas in half lengthwise and press lightly into a thin layer of brown sugar. Don’t let these stay too long, or the fruit will turn to gushy mush.
Butter the hot griddle liberally, and lay down your toast! If you can fit them, add in the bananas as well or lay them in a separate pan if there’s not enough room. Cook these slices for a good 7-8 minutes until the bottom turns a dark golden brown.
Flip your toast and your bananas! And your lid if you haven’t already because your kitchen is smelling bonkers by now. At this point, gently flip the banana slices. I couldn’t do this without breaking a slice, so don’t worry if they come out in pieces. They’re tasty pieces!
And here we are, a little taste from a London Cafe. Serve with a dusting of powdered sugar and a drizzle of syrup, and some good dark coffee. French toast keeps warm well if you were to be making this for a big group. It’d go great with a skillet frittata, fresh fruit salad, or link sausages.
Spiced Custard London Toast with Caramelized Bananas
Yield: 8 slices (4 servings)
Prep: 20 minutes
Cook: 20 minutes
Total: 40 minutes
A loaf of challah bread (poppy seeds optional), sliced to desired thickness
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup brown sugar (optional)
2 tbsp cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom (optional)
½ tsp salt
1 tbsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract
4 ripe bananas
½ cup brown sugar
Prepare the custard: Whisk together the eggs with the brown sugar until a thin paste forms, and then whisk in the cream. Beat in the seasonings and extracts. Pour into a casserole dish and lay slices of toast in. Let rest for ten minutes, then flip and let rest another ten.
Make the bananas: While the toast is soaking, slice the bananas in half lengthwise. Sprinkle a wide plate with the brown sugar, and lay the bananas cut-side down. Let rest while the griddle heats.
Heat your griddle or nonstick frying pan to medium heat, and generously grease with a couple pats of butter. Lay toast down, and sprinkle with more cinnamon if desired. If there’s room, add your banana slices to the griddle as well. If not, cook them in a separate pan, but make sure you butter it first!
Check toast at around 7 minutes, and if ready flip! Toast should be a deep golden brown. You don’t want to undercook this, or the custard in the middle of the bread won’t bake and you’ll end up with mushy toast. Leave that job for the syrup. You can also flip the bananas around if you want them browned on both sides. If not, remove them to another plate. They’ll begin to crisp as the sugar starts to cool
Cook toast for another 7-8 minutes, and plate it up with a few slices of caramelized banana. Dust with powdered sugar if desired, and serve hot with maple syrup and a bucket-sized mug of coffee. As all breakfasts should be served.
The recipe can easily be halved or doubled. Toast keeps warm well in an oven set on the lowest setting.
Spices are optional. It’ll taste like vanilla toast if you choose to omit them altogether, and there’s nothing wrong with that! You can also add in other spices. Cloves, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger would all go well with this.
If you want to lighten the recipe, exchange the 1 cup of cream with ¾ cup of 2% or nonfat milk. The sugar in the custard can be omitted altogether, or you can use a few tablespoons of honey. Grease the pan with a light coating of nonstick spray instead of butter. Serve with more fresh fruit instead of syrup, or just eat it as is!