Every once in a while, my mom would come out to the kitchen — in the afternoon, in the evening, in the in-between meals — open the refrigerator and announce: “I’m hungry, but I don’t know what I’m hungry for.”
The phrase and its yearning became more understandable as I grew older. Usually, you can put a name — or a food — to your cravings and, depending on whether you have this food or need to make it or need to go get it somewhere, you fulfill the craving.
But, sometimes, you just don’t know what you want, you just know you are hungry.
This could apply to many things in life, sometimes we don’t know what we want until it presents itself.
As for eating, my mom would rummage around, take inventory in the fridge or freezer, and find something — make a sandwich out of some questionable tuna salad or ladle some canned fruit and frozen Cool Whip over a piece of cake. If it was my dad, his undefined hunger usually had a name: “fried egg sandwich.”
For me, the nameless hunger rears up from time to time. It can be when I’m by myself, tired, stressed, knowing I need to eat, but not really having a grasp of what I am willing to throw together (or what’s available in my kitchen) for sustenance. But, like my dad, I can pretty much count on one thing to fill the bill, anytime of day or night: breakfast!
No matter my level of fatigue or indecisiveness, I can stagger to the stove and make “toad-in-a-hole” and fill any hole in my appetite. Or feel I’m at least trying to be healthy with a mini spinach and mushroom omelet. Or throw bacon on a sheet pan in the oven (my favorite way to cook it) for a bacon-and-jelly sandwich (don’t knock it until you’ve tried it). Or even cook a pot of oatmeal, the homey steam from the bubbling grains calming and quelling any incurable craving.
But my ultimate don’t-know-what-I’m-hungry-for,-but-discover-I’m-hungry-for-it-when-I make-it breakfast item is French toast. It was always one of my favorite breakfasts growing up and still the item I might consider first when ordering breakfast out.
I make it a lot for myself, too. In the dark evenings, I become as absorbed in the process as the bread absorbing eggs and milk. Even when I’m too tired to think, I know the cure to my hunger — and pretty much anything else — is slices of bread soaked in fork-whisked, flavorful custard and fried to a golden brown in butter, then drenched in more butter and drizzled with syrup or jam. It is comfort in a pan.
Part of that comfort comes from ease and simplicity. French toast can be conjured in a few minutes from a few simple ingredients, likely on-hand, and from many different types of bread. When I was growing up, it was almost always from the sliced wheat bread we used for sandwiches, but sometimes homemade yeast bread, too. I have made French toast from French bread, sourdough, brioche, fruity panettone, raisin bread and even slices of banana bread.
I’ve soaked these slices in a simple batter of beaten egg and milk and a dash of salt, sometimes adding a little vanilla and cinnamon and sweetener. I’ve also made richer batters of heavy cream or half-and-half and added extra flavoring elements, like orange zest. Recipes exist (like the one I share here), but French toast can be whipped up without a measuring cup or spoon.
My only hard-and-fast rules (or preferences, really) are, to me, one should lightly toast the bread before dipping it in the custard, so the bread is drier and sturdier to take on the batter, and, to that point, one should also leave the bread in the custard long enough that it soaks up all that goodness (but not so long that the bread falls apart).
The end result is something satisfying and somehow reassuring, a meal in itself, as well as dessert. French toast, in fact, is considered dessert in France and is called pain perdu, meaning “lost bread,” according to “Joy of Cooking,” by Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker and Ethan Becker (Simon & Schuster; 1997).
I’ve made my French toast fancier and dessert-y, too, topped with fresh fruit or berry syrup and even whipped cream. French toast can be baked, honey-glazed and stuffed with a cream cheese filling and sprinkled with powdered sugar, if one wants to take it a step or two further.
But, mostly, I’m content with a couple of simple slices straight from the skillet, watching a little butter melt in pools on their golden surface with a syrup, honey or jam. I know, then, exactly what I’m hungry for, and while the bread may be “lost,” I am not.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
French Toast Recipe