Last weekend I was making a variety of desserts for a Leap Day wedding reception, and nearly forgot that we had invited some friends to join us for breakfast on Sunday.
I adore baking, especially when it comes to brunch foods, but after hours of fussing over French macaron cookies and angel food cake, I was looking for something less challenging to make for our guests, but still delicious.
I recalled a photo I'd found on Pinterest some time ago, of a gooey, decadent-looking French toast casserole and I went in search of the recipe. I found several versions online for inspiration, and after showing them to Tony and Gio, I knew we had a winner.
The tantalizing visual of this breakfast treat was what initially attracted me to this dish, but after reading the recipes I knew it was just what I needed. I love that this dish can be prepared a day in advance and baked just before serving. I could get it ready the night before our breakfast date, and it was so easy it hardly interrupted my baking routine.
We used store-bought French bread for this dish, and if I'd had more time I would have tried to track down some brioche or Challah bread, which I love using for French toast. I find that denser breads, even stale, work better for French toast.
We sliced the bread into 1-inch thick pieces, cutting them on a slight bias for added elegance presentation. The recipe I used as a guide called for 1 cup of fresh orange juice, but instead of squeezing our own or splurging for freshly-squeezed, we opted for a good-quality version from our grocer's cooler.
But make sure to buy one orange, as you'll need this on hand to grate the orange zest. We doubled the amount of zest in our version, and Tony also added 2 tablespoons of orange liqueur. The alcohol will cook off as the dish bakes, and the liqueur adds wonderful aromatics and depth of flavor to the casserole.
The bottom layer of the casserole will become the top once it's served, and this is where the razzle-dazzle really come into play. The caramelized topping is created by mixing together brown sugar, melted butter and corn syrup, and this mixture is then poured into a greased 9-by-13 baking dish. Once it's evenly distributed, chopped pecans are sprinkled over the mixture, followed by the bread slices, which are snugly packed into a single layer.
The French toast part comes next, when a liquid mixture of eggs, orange zest, juice, liqueur (optional), milk, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla is poured over the sliced bread. Use the back of a spoon or your hands to gently press on the bread slices to help them absorb the liquid. Cover and refrigerate for at least one hour, or overnight, and bring to room temperature for 20 minutes before baking.
Bake in a 350-degree oven for 35 to 45 minutes until golden brown. Let stand for five minutes and serve with caramel pecan topping facing up. We gently divided the casserole into servings, which we dusted with a light sprinkling of powdered sugar.
This dish was so easy to make we almost felt guilty when our guests devoured it and then asked for the recipe. We love this new twist to a classic breakfast favorite, and I wouldn't be surprised if it makes an encore appearance on Easter Sunday.
Orange Pecan French Toast Casserole
1 cup packed brown sugar
⅓ cup butter, melted
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
⅓ cup chopped pecans
12 slices French bread, 1-inch thick (brioche or Challah also good)
2 teaspoons grated orange zest
1 cup orange juice
2 tablespoons orange liqueur (optional)
½ cup 2 percent milk
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Powdered sugar for dusting
Grease a 9-by-13 baking dish with butter or cooking spray.In a small bowl, stir together the brown sugar, melted butter and corn syrup until combined. Pour into a greased baking dish and spread until evenly covered. Sprinkle the pecans on the sugar mixture, then add the bread slices, snugly packing into a single layer.
In a medium bowl, use a whisk to mix the orange zest, juice, liqueur (if using), milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, vanilla and eggs. Whisk vigorously until well combined. Pour mixture over the bread and use the back of a spoon or your hands to gently press the bread slices to help absorb the liquid. Cover dish and refrigerate for at least 1 hour, or overnight.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove dish and let stand at room temperature, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Bake in oven for 35 to 45 minutes until golden brown. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Dust with powdered sugar and serve.
"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 11-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at email@example.com and their blog at www.thelostitalian.areavoices.com.