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For a French-toast master on his 76th

My father loved to play in the kitchen. For him, relaxing after a long day of patients and paperwork meant pouring a Scotch and taking up residence at the butcher-block island. Sometimes Burg would scour our overflowing shelves of cookbooks for ideas or techniques, but mainly he’d work by feel and taste, stewing, sautéing, melding this and that—and never keeping the slightest note of the path that led him from start to finished dish. Somewhere there may be an index card in his blocky handwriting, detailing the ingredients for his trademark vinaigrette or summertime potato salad, but it’s unlikely and, anyway, hidden forever in the dark recesses of an overfilled kitchen drawer. His experiments were many, and most were fruitful, but his was an uncalculating science: personal, sensual, ephemeral.

What I remember most clearly aren’t his lamb shanks or inventions involving endive; it’s Saturday breakfast. Burg, never a late sleeper, would rise early to prowl the local garage-sale scene—occasionally even scrounging up a dubious treasure, such as an ancient, leaden Sharp “Half Pint” microwave, which I promptly dubbed the “Half Ton”—but he came home in mid-morning to refuel, and to make breakfast for me. It was nothing fancy—I grew up on Bisquick pancakes and honestly, it’s hard to find a better batter today—but we did have standards. From an early age, I was trained to be a 100%-pure-maple syrup snob. As a native Canadian, Burg would have nothing else. He bought his chosen brand in an appealingly round-bellied plastic jug and stashed it in the door of the fridge, where it would beckon insistently until Saturday would roll around.

While I was very fond of the pancakes—fluffy and perfectly circular, thanks to our trusty pancake pan—it is Burg’s French toast that haunts me. He was a strong proponent of cooking French toast in oil rather than butter, and in fact, one of my most vivid memories of the last weeks of his life is a bedside conversation I had with him and my half-sister Lisa in the hospital, discussing the merits of oil versus butter in French-toast cookery. The hot oil, Burg claimed, seals the outside of the bread and turns it wondrously crisp and lightly puffed, while the inside melts to a near-custard. He was clearly onto something, because I’ve never had a better version than his. I’m not sure that I can equal it, but this morning, with the help of a loaf of challah I rescued from the freezer, I’ve come close.

Today would be Burg’s 76th birthday, and it seems only fitting to celebrate him this way. For one of the first times in weeks, the sun is shining—a little tentatively, but shining nonetheless. This morning reminds me of a poem I found in one of Burg’s bathroom drawers in the days after his death. It was written on the back of an index card—I suppose he did write some things down—and it must have been the fruit of a mid-meeting brainstorm, or maybe an early-morning revelation between garage sales. I don’t think he’d mind my sharing it, but if he does, well, I trust he’ll find some tricky, playful way to let me know. Or then again, since I’ve said awfully nice things about his cooking, maybe he’ll let me enjoy my French toast in peace.

Sunrise (A Too-Long Haiku)

The sun bursts
Out of the eastern night
And flames the sky
With joy—
Your smile.


(My Attempt at) Burg’s French Toast

1 cup milk (I used whole, but he probably used 2%)
4 large eggs
1 Tbs sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
¼ tsp salt
Mild-tasting vegetable oil, such as canola
6 slices bread (a bias-cut country French loaf, or challah, preferably), about ¾ to 1 inch thick
Pure maple syrup, for serving

Whisk together the first five ingredients in a wide, shallow bowl.

Place a large skillet, preferably cast-iron, over low to medium heat, and add enough oil to just cover the bottom of the skillet.

Two or three at a time, add the bread slices to the egg mixture in the bowl, allowing them to rest for a minute or two on each side. They should feel heavy and thoroughly saturated, but they should not be falling apart. When the oil is hot, place the slices in the skillet. They should sizzle a bit, and the oil should bubble lightly around the edges of the bread; take care, however, that the oil is not too hot, lest the egg mixture burn. Cook until the underside of each slice is golden brown, about 2 minutes. Turn the bread, and cook until the second side is golden, another 2 minutes or so. Remove the bread from the skillet to a plate lined with a paper towel, allow to rest for 30 seconds or so, and serve immediately—with maple syrup, of course.

Yield: 6 slices, serving 2 or 3.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

As Moe's (Burg's)brother, visceral connections cause similar ideas to spring up simultaneously, although sometimes with the effect that ideas travelling through weather may have. My French toast recipe is identical except that I'm a 'butter' person, and do the recipe this way: Everything as you stated, all refrigerator-cold, and while stirring the mixture, add 2 tbsp melted unsalted butter. The butter instantly hardens into tiny flakes. Then dip the bread and place onto a non-stick pan. The butter melts within the batter and self-bastes the toast while it is frying. Maple syrup, and a shake of cinnamon-sugar. Ambrosia!

1:23 PM, April 09, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

My dear butter proponent of an uncle, thank you for sharing your method on this most appropriate of French-toast days. Just so you know, I *almost* did your version today, just as a test, but then I thought, nah, I've got to stay loyal to Burg. Maybe tomorrow, when it's no longer his birthday, I'll give your self-basting idea a go...

3:09 PM, April 09, 2005  
Blogger Phantom Scribbler said...

Delurking to say: what a lovely post.

And I'm glad I have enough leftover challah to try both versions.

3:37 PM, April 09, 2005  
Blogger TanTian said...

What a nice way to remember a birthday. And I KNOW your dad is right about Maple Syrup. My own Canadian heritage (I was born and lived my first 365 days there)has resulted in an extreme love for pure maple syrup and many tablespoons stolen from the syrup jug with the refrigerator door open.

6:06 PM, April 09, 2005  
Blogger amylou said...

Why did I have to read this post on a Sunday morning when I am both in a rush and have no real bread to speak of? How can I eat my cereal with any semblance of pleasure now?

I'll just have to plan ahead for next weekend so that I can make your dad's recipe.

And of course, long live bisquick pancakes!

1:14 AM, April 10, 2005  
Blogger Suebob said...

Awwwww. Brought tears to my eyes. "Who is remembered, lives," I have heard.

What better way to remember your dad than by sharing the love he showed you through his cooking?

My dad was a master of Bisquick. Mom was PTA president, and on meeting nights he would cook Bisquick masterpieces - pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse heads, or in our initials. It was the greatest fun and those are among my happiest memories.

9:22 AM, April 10, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks so much, Phantom Scribbler. I hope you'll report back to weigh in on the oil vs. butter matter...

TanTian, so glad to know that you're of the maple-syrup camp! I'm a grade-B kind of girl...how about you?

Oh Amy, I'm so sorry to have ruined your breakfast! I should have put up some sort of warning: "Notice to lovers of pancakes and French toast: do not eat cereal while reading this" or something like that.

And Suebob, I love the story about your dad's Bisquick art. Very sweet.

1:08 PM, April 10, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

My father is also a maker of french toast. His work would keep him away a lot, but as soon as he was back, he was at the stove.

He was always one to cut it into fingers and sprinkle it with sugar (with maple syrup on the side).

Even when we were rush, he would pack up these little fingers, crispy with butter and sugar while soft and squidgy on the inside, and we'd munch them on the way to school. I don't know if I always appreciated them then, but thinking about it now, those were a true taste of home.

6:55 AM, April 11, 2005  
Blogger Culinary Fool said...

What a really nice memory, Molly! With my mom's recent passing I've been treasuring all the things I learned from her. I've especially been happy to see her handwritng on the little 3X5 recipe cards I received from her over the years. Many are now stained with drips and splashes from use but I don't plan on replacing them! :-)

8:38 AM, April 11, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Tara, I love the idea of your father's French-toast fingers. Such a sweet memory. Can you still remember how they tasted and smelled? I was amazed the other day, when I made Burg's French toast, by how familiar the aromas in my kitchen were. I hadn't realized that the memory was so linked to my senses that way.

And Culinary Fool, I'm so sorry about your mom. Thank goodness for recipe cards...

8:58 AM, April 11, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

It is always so kind of you to respond, Molly! Not only is it the smell and taste I remember, but most specifically it was the texture of his toast that I can most vividly recall. He'd scent his custard with vanilla, so the soft sweet smell would waft up from the pan and make its way up to our bedrooms. To me vanilla is now, and ever shall be, a sleepy spice.

The sugar topping was always key to my father's french toast. He seems to have followed your father's method (though with butter) - acheiving a golden crust with a tender center. That final sprinkle of granulated sugar was like the topping of a crème brulée. The perfect chrunchy, crystalline foil to the custard within.

Your post, and this conversation that followed, are both lovely testaments to your father - and parents/guardians everywhere. You're just more eloquent than the lot of us.

9:27 AM, April 11, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Tara, I beg to differ on the eloquence issue! Your comments are beautiful. And I love the idea of vanilla as a "sleepy spice." I might have to steal that someday...

7:29 AM, April 12, 2005  
Blogger tara said...

Steal away - I'd be honoured (Canadian spelling). A compliment from Molly, you've made my day!

7:54 AM, April 12, 2005  
Anonymous Dave said...

Took me two days to get to the end of this Molly; kept puddlin' up. I hope my daughter has as fond a recollection when I'm gone. Nice post.

1:03 PM, April 12, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Dave, your puddling up makes me feel like I'm going to start puddling up. Thank you for your comment...

And don't worry for a minute: from everything I've seen, your daughter will no doubt have many, many fond memories.

3:37 PM, April 12, 2005  
Anonymous keiko said...

Molly - this is the loveliest post I've ever read and I'm in tears...! I read your past post about your father as well, I could tell how much he loved you (and you loved him). I miss my family too, I haven't seen them for almost three years...!

8:14 AM, April 13, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks so much, Keiko. I hope that you get to see your family soon--three years is just far too long...

5:45 PM, April 13, 2005  
Blogger girlwonder said...

the memories that we carve out for ourselves are so amazing. like food, they are often delicious and satisfying or, sometimes empty and leave us longing.

i think there is so much beauty in what you shared with your father, that to be able to have that kind of bond with him is so....beautiful.

6:25 PM, April 13, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, girlwonder. You put it beautifully.

4:55 PM, April 14, 2005  
Blogger kelli ann said...

thank you for such a lovely post... these days (it's just past sugaring-off up here) we're topping our French toast with slices of apple fried in butter & medium-grade syrup. in QC it's called "pain doré" and in France "pain perdu"... what a wonderful way to eat "lost" challah!

8:59 PM, April 25, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

kelli ann, I'm on the first plane up to Quebec for some pain dore with apples and medium-grade. Sounds delicious!

11:27 PM, April 27, 2005  
Anonymous B. Baltimore Brown said...

I am a father of 3 (soon to be 4! Go Team Brown!) and we have the tradition of Saturday breakfasts as well. My specialty is pumpkin pancakes and the kids love to eat them when they resemble creatures. Our breakfasts have become legendary with my kids friends so we usually have a few extra people for breakfast after Friday night sleep-overs.

I've been searching for a good French Toast recipe and this sounds excellent so I will give it a whirl this Saturday and let you know how it goes. I may have to experiment with some apple butter on my toast (after I've tried maple syrup of course!)

8:43 AM, August 02, 2005  
Blogger Molly said...

I hope you don't mind my saying so, B. Baltimore Brown, but you have a wonderful name. And it also sounds as though you have a wonderful pancake recipe--and some very lucky kids! Any chance you might be willing to share (the recipe, not the kids)? I hope Burg's French toast is a hit this Saturday--I look forward to hearing a full report!

11:06 PM, August 02, 2005  
Blogger Cherry Blossom said...

Hi Molly
thank you for your wonderful blog and a book i had to read from start to finish in one go.... when i arrived at the french toast i could hardly sit at the couch i looked what kinda brad i had around and found 2 slices of day old raisin bread.... well i made your recipe with a hue success my son was thrilled and of course being half canadian i only use real maple sirup... thank you so much for starting this blog that had such a big impact on your life and gives us so many interesting recipes, tidbits of your life and a warm friendly feeling wehn opening to your site... i have ben reading food blogs for years and after reading your book i started my own little one... thanks for everything. Waving to your from Germany Alissa

12:13 AM, May 06, 2009  
Blogger michaela said...

molly-i made burg's french toast yesterday for mother's day breakfast. i used raisin studded challah, but normally like croissants.

i don't disagree about the generous use of oil. thanks for sharing.

10:37 AM, May 11, 2009  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading this recipes just reminds me of how poor a culinary fare I was raised on. I've still never had french toast!
[Laura R]

8:20 AM, October 23, 2009  
Blogger kookiegoddess said...

Made this today with a fruit loaf bread which is studded with candied orange and raisins. It was utterly scrummy and I can now see that the oil method does work beautifully.
Thanks, and to the previous poster, get into the kitchen and make yourself some memories!!! x

5:34 AM, January 08, 2010  
Anonymous shedilly said...

Hi Molly, I am new to commenting but a seasoned recipe user, thanks. My dad was also a weekend cook for us 8 kids and FrenchToast was a fav, as well as Bisquick pancakes. One big difference, well, two, cuz of the cost he made our syrup from Mapeline flavoring and our FT was only eaten with a cinnamon/powdered sugar dusting and plenty of margarine. 8 kids, eeegad! Also in the memory, he made half powdered milk mixed with milk from the jug...to stretch it, you know. He is 84 years old and still working and takes a weekly 30 mile bike ride. Long live dads!

10:33 AM, February 21, 2010  
Blogger Melissa said...

I recently found your book at the library and completely enjoyed it -- I had the wonderful opportunity to read a good portion of it with a sleeping baby in my arms all in one sitting yesterday. This morning I woke up and headed straight for the kitchen after dreaming of your French Toast recipe. And it went over so well. It was amazing. The whole family loved it. Thank you.

10:04 AM, June 26, 2010  
Anonymous Kamalei said...

Thanks to you Molly, and your dad for this great recipe. I just made it this morning and it was honestly the best french toast I have ever made. The oil really did make it crisp on the outside and puffy and custardy on the inside. I will never use another recipe again!

2:11 PM, July 18, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love IS lovlier the second time around and I wanted to make some-thing very special for the special man in my life this weekend.We are both 73 going on 16! I have been searching - and when I read your comments about your Dad along with the recipe to fry the toast in oil - I was convinced that I had found something delicious and special. Remembering back, I think my mother used to fry the toast for us because I remember the old cast iron skillet she used. Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories of your Dad and for helping me recall a lovely rememberance from my childhood. And - thanks for the wonderful recipe.

12:48 PM, October 15, 2010  
Blogger Junsui said...

Ever since I read your book, I've used this as my go-to French toast recipe. l'm simply in love with it; it leads to something that's both crunchy and custardy and melts in your mouth!

10:25 AM, July 06, 2011  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say that I am a fan of Berg's French toast, but I have my own twist and I'm curious to see other's French Toast aficionado's opinion..... instead of 1 tsp of Vanilla, I double it to 2 tsps of vanilla and add 2 tsp of Almond (or more depending on my modd)! I happened to come across this "Amaretto" taste when I was eating French toast at the once popular Larry's Market Cafe (RIP). Ever since that first bite, I've been in search of the recipe. I asked the chef what her secret was and she said Amaretto. But Berg's recipe is by far the closest to French Toast perfection once I add my Amaretto flavor. Ahhhhh....a pefect Saturday morning breakfast. Or Wednesday dinner, or Sunday's lunch reheats. Amy Turnnbull Ballard, Wa

12:30 PM, March 01, 2012  
Blogger Tbs said...

Hi Molly,
I finally tried your french-toast rule of frying in oil.total game changer. Crispy on the outside, custard-y and fluffy on the outside. Thank you for elevating breakfast to a new level!

7:27 AM, March 24, 2013  
Blogger Vanilla and Honey said...

I read your book, then found your blog, and this morning I made your Dads French toast. It was so delicious....and I will make it for my dad next time I get a chance...My dad Bill used to make us chorizo and eggs and potatoes on Sat mornings...he also would make us jelly omelets with my grandmas boysenberry jam. Not sure if that's a real thing or something he made up...

9:55 AM, August 03, 2013  
Anonymous Clare Honn said...

Craving French Toast and feeling nostalgic for my departed Pops, I recalled your dad's recipe in your book and promptly made it this AM. Perfection. I've never quite "nailed" French Toast; now I have. Thank you Molly and Burg.

8:40 PM, February 15, 2015  

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