Filed under the very large category of Things Pretty Much Every New Yorker Already Knew About But Was News To Me (don’t bother trying to hail a cab after noon on a Friday, filthy stoops are irresistible for the chill-minded set, etc.), the City Bakery on 18th Street has some astoundingly good French toast on Sunday mornings. It’s also astoundingly expensive, as things will go at a bakery with sweets like you can’t find anywhere else and an iron grip on its original recipes. Their version is a ridiculously thick wedge of battered bread with a caramelized lid that requires no syrup or other accompaniment — well, except maybe some crispy salty strips of bacon — to make it sing.
Of course, I’m not trying to make their French toast, I would leave that to their expertise. I instead set out to make the French toast I began fantasizing about the second I had my first bite, a crème brûlée set within a thick slice of bread, one that would keep the burnt sugar lid but gild the caramel lilly even further and set it on a base that was more bread pudding-like than, well, honestly, imperfectly soaked/dry-centered French toast. (The sole City Bakery French toast flaw, in my opinion. Blasphemy, I know!) And I knew exactly how I’d do it. One thing I’ve learned when making French toast over the years is that as tempting as really, crazy thick French toast is, no matter how low you keep the pan temperature and how long you keep it on the stove, it’s very hard to cook it until it is set in the middle before burning the tops and bottoms. The solution is baking, which is brilliant in that the center is guaranteed to set and you’re guaranteed to enjoy cooking it more because it doesn’t require you to stand over a griddle dipping and flipping slice after slice for surely long than an entire tray of the same needs to bake. I could add “no butter” as a benefit but, come on, we’re making crème brûlée French toast here; this is no time to feign an interest in our arteries.