Unlike its American cousin French Toast, which is often made with sandwich bread, Pain Perdu is made with thick crusty French bread. I like using a Bâtard or Pain de Campagne for this because they have the perfect ratio of crunchy crust to pillowy center with enough structure to ensure the bread doesn’t fall apart, even after being soaked overnight.
Another difference with French Toast is that Pain Perdu—like many things French—includes cream in the custard. If you want to go really crazy you could even make this with cream alone, but I find that using pure cream makes it a bit too rich, which is why I prefer using a 50/50 mix of milk and cream. Be sure to soak the slices of bread for at least 24 hours, flipping them over a few times in between to ensure the custard has been fully absorbed.
One of the most important things to make this dish shine is to sprinkle flour and sugar onto the surface of the bread. This may sound odd at first, but it’s this small detail that makes the difference between a soggy piece of bread breading and a marvelous slice of Pain Perdu with a crisp shell that gives way to a rich tender custard on the interior. The flour, along with the butter from the pan helps form a crisp crust, while the sugar caramelizes on the outside of the bread, giving it a gorgeous mahogany hue and deep caramel flavor.
In terms of flavorings, I went with vanilla and Armagnac, a marvelously fragrant French brandy, but you could get creative here. How about an orange flavored Pain Perdu with Grand Marnier, that’s drizzled with an orange butter emulsion, or a Raspberry Pain Perdu flavored with Eau de Vie de Framboise and topped with fresh raspberries and cream, or perhaps even an Almond Pain Perdu with Amaretto and slice almonds.
for Pain Perdu
- Make the custard for the Pain Perdu but whisk together the milk, heavy cream, eggs, sugar, Armagnac, and vanilla extract until the mixture is completely homogenous.
- Place the bread in in a deep dish or tray that is just large enough to hold the bread in a single layer and cover with the custard. If your dish is too large the custard won't soak into the bread completely. If you don't have a suitable dish, you can use a sealable plastic bag and press out the excess air. Cover and refrigerate for a day, turning the bread over a few times in between.
- Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F (230 C). Remove the soaked Pain Perdu from the refrigerator and flip one more time.
- Mix 1 tablespoon of sugar with 1 tablespoon of flour and sprinkle half the mixture onto the tops of the bread using a small sieve(such as a tea strainer) to ensure the flour gets sprinkled evenly.
- Add the butter to a cast-iron skillet and heat over medium heat.
- When the butter has melted and the foaming subsides, add the bread with flour-sprinkled side down.
- Dust the Pain Perdu with the remaining flour/sugar mixture and fry until it's well browned on one side (about 5 minutes). If your heat is up too high it will burn, so if it looks like it's browning too quickly, turn the heat down.
- Flip the bread over and put the pan in the oven.
- Bake for 8-10 minutes. Keep a close eye on it as the sugar will burn easily. You want the surface of your Pain Perdu to be very dark, but not burnt.