It was another rainy and cool day in Paris, making it the perfect day to serve up some pain perdu, lost bread as the French call it, or “French toast”, as we Americans call it.
The facts and history don’t seem to back up our anglicized name, as its origins date much further back than the foundation of a French state. En fait this delicious French dessert or American breakfast staple can be traced back to medieval times when the recipe (and I use that term loosely) first appeared to make inedible, stale loaves of bread more appetizing. Times were tough back in the day, and the masses could not afford to throw away any bit of edible anything, so the otherwise “lost” bread was battered, buttered, rescued and revived instead of being thrown out.
It doesn’t appear that the French were the first to dip their bread in a milky-egg mixture and fry it up. The English had their own versions (suppe dorate and tostees dorees) during the Middle Ages, and later a similar dish called “Poor Knights of Windsor”. There are even some “French toast” recipes traceable to ancient Roman times, which ironically, the French named pain a la Romaine (Roman bread).
It is also interesting that pain perdu was not just a meal for the poor man. Indeed the wealthy kept this staple on their menu too. Of course, the rich had their chefs make it to order, which meant only the finest white bread could be used—the crust cut off and discarded—before it was dipped in a mixture of beaten eggs, sugar and rose water, fried in butter or lard and topped off with more saffron and sugar infused rose water.
Like the medieval peasants, I also grew up making pain perdu with stale bread we could not afford to throw away. And boy, did my dad make a mean Sunday morning French Toast (and “Eggs Over Bread”), another poor man’s delight.
In France, I have learned that the best and most authentic way to make pain perdu is with day-old brioche (a lightly sweet bun or loaf-that the boulangers of France do so well), sliced thickly and dipped in eggs, milk, or better yet crème, seasoned with a little sugar and nutmeg, and gently fried in, what else, salted butter from Bretagne.
C’est délicieux! Que pensez-vous?
From: The Medieval Kitchen, Recipes from France and Italy by Odilie Redon (dated to 1450)
- Take slices of white bread, trimmed so that they have no crusts.
- Make these slices square and slightly grill them so that they are colored all over by the fire.
- Then take eggs beaten together with plenty of sugar and a little rose-water and put the slices of bread in to soak.
- Carefully remove them, and fry them a little in a frying pan with a little butter and lard, turning them very frequently so that they do not burn.
- Arrange them on a plate, and top with a little rose-water colored yellow with a little saffron, and sprinkle with plenty of sugar.
C’est délicieux! Que pensez-vous? It’s delicious. What do you think?
pain a la Romaine: Roman bread
pain perdu: French toast, literally: lost bread