Pain perdu is very, very close to my heart. I first had it at the Fat Duck when I went there for my anniversary with G. I then cooked it for her for breakfast several times before it was the star part of the breakfast in bed I made her just before I proposed. I think it’s her favourite breakfast and it’s certainly the one closest to my heart. It helps that it is totally and unequivocally delicious, with it’s rich, sweet almost gooey interior and a crisp caramel outside. It was at the Fat Duck that I saw it used not as a breakfast but as a dessert and it got me thinking about how I could combine G’s favourite breakfast with one of mine – egg and soldiers, something I did for a Springtime Lunch.
I have great emotional connection to egg and soldiers as well actually. It may sound strange but lots of food has real emotional resonance for me as it brings back memories. My dad always used to claim the eggs spoke to him because his soft boiled eggs were always perfect – every time. I distinctly remember the great pleasure of buttered, toasted bread (crusts on!) being dipped into runny egg yolk with a little sea salt on it. In particular sitting on the deck of our little house next to Pearl Beach in Australia, with silly egg cups shaped like springs which meant that after you’d eaten the egg you could fire it out of the egg cup like a cannon. I’m sure we all have food memories, but for me that is a truly happy one.
However, when it comes to breakfast as dessert dipping caramel into egg yolk is unlikely to be very nice, but I really wanted to capture the experience of dunking crisp toast into a viscous liquid – a textural and flavour contrast. When I combined that concept with the my belief that springtime food should be all about strong individual it suddenly became obvious that I had to share my recipe for lemon custard (the recipe for which is almost identical to the filling of the lemon meringue tart I posted a while back). This custard has a really vibrant colour and flavour, it sings of lemon and flirts with that boundary between sweet and tart. I honestly could drink it – in fact I’ve been flirting with idea of making a warm lemon milkshake, a bit like a hot chocolate (if I make it I promise I’ll share it!). Plus the whole thing can be made almost a week in advance and freezes really well!
In essence, to make the lemon custard, you combine all the ingredients from the lemon meringue tart recipe for the filling but then cook over a very low heat in a heavy bottom pan until the custard coats the back of the spoon. That term “coats the back of the spoon” is a very often mis-used and mis-leading phrase. When I first started cooking I vividly remember making custard and reading that phrase and thinking that everything coats the back of a spoon, and when I dipped my spoon into the custard I was making – which at the time was no thicker than milk and was essentially a raw egg milkshake – the spoon came out covered and so I thought it was done. In truth, “coating the back of a spoon” means that when you swipe your finger across the back of a coated wooden spoon, the gap remains. I.e., the liquid is viscous enough to defy gravity. The low heat is very important though, you really don’t want to accidentally scramble the eggs. Whereas with a normal custard if it all goes lumpy and pear shaped you can rescue it by straining, here if you strain you’ll lose the lemon zest.
The pain perdu is best made from stale bread (which makes it brilliant for leftovers). In fact, if I’m using fresh bread I always slice it the day before and leave in the fridge to dry out. It can be made in under fifteen minutes and you can do all bar the very last step of coating in caramel beforehand. This dessert/breakfast ticks so many boxes that if I were ever to open a restaurant (one day maybe) it would be a very early inclusion in the menu. It certainly was a perfect way to finish off the springtime lunch – people enjoyed it so much they all had seconds and some even had fourths. It paired really well as a light finish to the meal, finishing where the ham and the monkfish left off.
Pain Perdu (for the lemon custard recipe, the ingredients list can be found here)
Ingredients: [Note this recipe is based on the Heston at home recipe that can be found in Heston’s book]
- 1 white loaf, crusts removed
- 1 vanilla pod
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 280ml whole milk
- 30g caster sugar
- 4 egg white
- 3 egg yolks
- clarified butter (regular butter works fine)
- 100g caster sugar (for the caramel)
- Slice the white bread into your preferred shapes and leave overnight in the fridge to dry off – if you’re starting with stale bread then just slice it
- Mix the milk, 30g sugar, eggs together and whisk until fully combined
- Add the cinnamon stick and the vanilla pod and seeds (make sure to scrape out the seeds and then add separately)
- Leave this mixture to infuse for 30 minutes – or overnight (can actually stay for a couple of days but not much more)
- Leave the bread in the mixture for 20 minutes then drain on a rack for 5 minutes
- Fry in clarified (or regular) butter until golden, trim off any stray frilly bits if you want a really perfect finish. At this point you can stop and finish it later. In fact I cooked all the bread to this stage before guests arrived for the Springtime lunch and only had to make the caramel to serve dessert.
- Make a dry caramel (no water), it should be a nice amber colour
- Dip both sides of the bread into the caramel and leave to harden on a totally non-stick surface. I use a silicone mat, but greaseproof that’s been oiled also works
- Serve with the lemon custard (I used the egg shells from the custard and sterilised them in the oven to make the egg and soldiers effect)