I love New Orleans. It seems like I love it more since Katrina. All the things we hold dear are more important than before, when we took them for granted.
Yesterday, I bought my grandson a bubblegum flavored snowball because blue is his favorite color. That led me to tell him how only children in south Louisiana know the joys of snowballs, gumbo, Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest and dozens of other things. He’s a lucky little boy, I said, because not everywhere do people boil crawfish, eat poor boys and savor king cakes. Why, even breakfast is a different story here.
How many times in his three years has he started the day with pain perdu? We usually call it French toast, the American version, but here, even that is different. Instead of sliced bread and pancake syrup, we tend to use stale French bread and Louisiana cane syrup. We add vanilla and sometimes a shot of brandy. It’s all part of the early start we give our children in developing taste buds and learning to relish good food.
The hurricane nudged me to cling to the old dishes, the heritage that cooks from the 19th century gave us, the culture of the kitchen and the art and entertainment that goes on there. I put making a gumbo right up there with loving Fats Domino, enjoying a sunny day in the Quarter and dining in the best restaurants in America.
I’m not sure why, but French bread is different here. Some say it’s the water that goes into it. I’m inclined to think it is the artisan recipes and baking techniques brought here by the German bakers whose families still influence our daily bread. The real thing has no preservatives – the reason it goes stale overnight – which is why Creoles bought fresh bread first thing every morning. Whatever was left that night went into the pain perdu and bread pudding that began and ended the next day. Heaven forbid that anything got wasted!
These local cooks did such a good job that famous chefs are still copying them. Chefs come to Louisiana like they go to France or Italy – to learn the cuisine and how to prepare it. Chef Jeff Tunks, who was executive chef at the Windsor Court Hotel, took Louisiana cooking to his Acadiana Restaurant in Washington, D.C. His menu features charbroiled oysters, crawfish étouffée, grits and grillades, barbecued shrimp, chicken and andouille gumbo, and turtle soup. Get this: For an appetizer, he offers pan-seared Hudson Valley foie gras with pain perdu and mayhaw jelly! Now that must have Washingtonians scratching their heads.
Pain perdu, or lost bread, is French for the age-old technique of reviving stale bread. The recipe appears all over Europe under different names. In England, it is known as the “poor knights of Windsor” and is called the same thing in native languages of Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Germany. Some histories trace it to ancient Roman days where it was considered a dessert.
Like bread pudding, pain perdu is a simple dish in which stale bread is soaked in an egg-milk mixture and sautéed in butter until golden brown. It is served with a sprinkling of confectioners’ sugar and drizzled with syrup. Also, like bread pudding, it can be dressed up for the finest occasion with very little effort. Fresh berries make a quick sauce for a colorful topping, and some cooks sandwich a fruit filling between two slices of bread before soaking and sautéing them.
Back in 1901 when the Picayune’s Creole Cook Book was first published, the recipe for pain perdu called for eggs, sugar and stale bread. Instead of milk, the ingredients included orange flower water, the grated zest of a lemon and three tablespoons of brandy, if desired. The finished toast was sprinkled with powdered sugar and nutmeg. Quite a lift for day-old bread!
PAIN PERDU (Lost bread)
8 slices dry French bread, 1 inch thick, one to two days old
1 1/2 cups milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 tablespoons butter
Louisiana cane syrup
Slice bread into rounds. In a large bowl, beat eggs, add milk and sugar, and mix thoroughly. Stir in vanilla and nutmeg. Place bread in mixture and soak for about two minutes. In a large skillet, heat half the butter to medium-hot. Drain four slices of bread and sauté about two minutes on each side until golden brown. Repeat with remaining butter and bread slices. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar – a small strainer works best for sifting and sprinkling the sugar. Serve with cane syrup on the table. Serves 4.
PAIN PERDU WITH BERRY SAUCE
The following recipe makes a dressed-up but easy version to
serve at brunches.
1 recipe for pain perdu (above)
3 cups berries such as strawberries or blueberries
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
2 tablespoons Grand Marnier or other orange-flavored liqueur
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 cups whipped cream (optional)
Prepare pain perdu according to directions above. Keep warm until serving.
To prepare the sauce, place rinsed and dried berries in a medium saucepan with sugar, water and liqueur and stir to mix. Add cornstarch and mix. Heat gently, stirring occasionally, until sauce has thickened. Cool to room temperature. This can be made ahead, refrigerated and brought to room temperature. Serve in a bowl as an optional topping. In another bowl, place freshly whipped cream, flavored with a little sugar and vanilla. You can place cane syrup and sifted confectioners’ sugar in other bowls, letting guests choose their toppings.
Note: If strawberries are large, cut in half or slice. If using blueberries that are not very sweet, you may have to add extra sugar.