Every Christmas morning after we open presents at home, my family treks over to my aunt's house. We bring the French toast casserole and frozen berry medley (right side), and Aunty Pin provides the juice and breakfast casserole stuffed with potatoes, mushrooms, sausages and cheddar (on the left in the front). Note that this picture has fresh berries, because Aunty Pin insisted on fresh berries, even if said berries are expensive and sour (so tart that they need sugar) in the dead of December. And this year, she made an eggs benedict type of casserole (back left) as well, with fluffy eggs, ham and Swiss with hollandaise to drizzle over.
It’s a day filled with nibbling on the casseroles, watching sports, and playing various games. We’ve been known to spend hours into the darkening afternoon playing Solitaire Frenzy, Blokus, and The Great Dalmuti (no affiliate links). Solitaire Frenzy is basically two games of Solitaire at once; there’s one going on with the other players, and one with yourself. I lose a lot (my scores tend to go negative; this isn’t golf, however), but I still enjoy this one. You don’t need this special set, but Uncle French Toast has one and it makes you feel oh so professional. Blokus is kind of like the hard copy of Tetris, and the Great Dalmuti is a card game that requires you to get rid of your numbered (and thus, ranked) cards ASAP. We stay away from Scrabble, because there's one cousin who gladly kicks our sorry, sore-loser butts. For me, a board/card game amateur/lover, it’s paradise.
Back to the casseroles. To me, the word “casserole” has always had a bad connotation. I think of those limp green beans that no man wants to be compared to. I think of the cult of domesticity and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and June Cleaver. I think of semi-homemade crap, and which inevitably leads me to a Food Network star (take your pick of ridiculous or so true it’s scary).
The sausage breakfast casserole is like that. It features breakfast sausage and cream of mushroom soup and frozen hash browns. This one isn’t normally for me, though my cousins (Aunty Pin and Uncle FT's kids) always adore it. Mom and I concurred about how it tasted better than normal this year, perhaps because the cheese was super crusty and brown, and because it just tasted so good next to the eggs benedict casserole with hollandaise (which I don’t like even under supersmooth circumstances). Uncle FT and I, however, are on the same page; apparently he gushed about the French toast casserole and nut cups (another family favorite of mini walnut pies) when he was talking to church friends about his holiday traditions. And as we were leaving, he thanked us for bringing “the favorite casserole.”
And don’t worry; this one isn’t really a casserole in the way that I think about it. It’s more like a bread pudding masquerading as a French toast/casserole mashup.
I love how the bread is soft and yielding on the inside, but crisp and crunchy on the outside. The raisins plumpify in the smooth, creamy custard and the cinnamon from the bread seeps into the rest of the dish. Sometimes the bread floats to the top; in that case, you have this lovely custard layer beneath two milk lightened pieces of bread. If the bread and the custard mingle as one, then the melange becomes this wonderful pudding-y thing. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.
You can use whatever cinnamon raisin bread (or cinnamon bread, if you aren’t into raisins) you’d like, so long as it’s fairly thin, about ½ to ¾ inch thick. The casserole gets dry if the bread is much thicker. It’s tempered with the custard and berries, so if you have any lackluster cinnamon raisin bread kicking around, go for that. I like using a type that you would find at your local grocery store, that is made from plenty of unhealthy refined white wheat and has a squishy texture that elsewhere doesn’t work. If you have really good bread, say from a nice bakery, I’d suggest saving that for another day when you can truly appreciate the quality of the bread accompanied solely with a generous pat of butter. I could wax on about Greenlee’s cinnamon raisin bread, but you should just try it for yourself.
Because berries aren’t in season in the winter, we use frozen berries that we microwave until they’re warm and juicy (when not pressured by my aunt to use fresh berries). My favorite is the Trader Joe’s Very Cherry Berry Blend. If you don’t like cherries and blackberries and raspberries, I also like the Costco frozen blueberries. The berries cut through some of the richness and justify taking another piece of French toast casserole since you’re having fruit.
from Aunty Pin16 cinnamon raisin bread slices
1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature (I usually use ⅓ to ½ stick)
4 eggs, 2 egg yolks, room temperature (or 5 whole eggs if you’re lazy like me)
½ - ¾ cup granulated or brown sugar
3 cups milk, room temperature (whole please! 2% works in a pinch though)
1 cup cream, room temperature
1 T vanilla extract or amaretto or almond extract
2 cups mixed berries
Butter both sides of the bread. Place the bread in a 9x13" dish (no need to grease) and stack them (I usually do 2 layers of 6). Beat the eggs, sugar, milk, cream and vanilla in a medium bowl. Pour over bread. Bake at 325F for 25 minutes, or until the custard is set. When you insert a knife into the middle of the casserole in a custard-only spot, it should come out clean or very nearly. Cool for 15 minutes before serving with berries.