Happy New Year! We rang in 2011 in the good company of 25 friends, mostly old friends from college, their significant others (now newer friends), and some brand new friends made during the weekend. It's all part of a tradition started years ago, post-graduation, to stage a friend reunion annually around the New Year's holiday. After college, friends spread out, so once a year we try to come together over New Years. In year's past we have collected in Chicago, in Austin, in Denver, and this year the group gathered in the Hill Country outside San Antonio.
It's amazing - absolutely astounding - how wonderful it feels to get together with long-time friends and feel like no time has passed. Conversation flows fluid and easy, dormant "inside" jokes are resurrected, and the weight of the adult world fades just a bit with the revitalized memory of those good old days. I saw friends that I haven't talked to in a year or more, and we could jump right into meaningful conversation, personal stories and thoughts, and the intimate little details of our current lives as though we had been a part of each daily routine during all the passed time. It makes for a really wonderful New Year's , at once very nostalgic and emotional, and simultaneously raucous and carefree.
I volunteered to handle the food. Folks paid me, and I in turn planned, shopped for, and prepared all meals and snacks. When I signed up for the gig, I thought "how hard could it be." As the date arrived and eater started praising me on my forthcoming bravery, I felt nervous. What had I gotten myself into? But the weekend arrived and with my talented husbands untiring support we prepared really nice meals for our small army of beer drinking buddies.
And better yet, we got through the weekend with only one out-of-control grease fire, which quite frankly is sort of an accomplishment given the amount of beer that was consumed and the overall revelrous nature of the group. I blame the fire on crazy old Paula Dean, who packs her recipe with about as much fat as will fit in a pan. For breakfast, I made a triple batch of her French Toast Casserole with Praline Topping, which is a really delicious meal for a crowd. And the triple batch calls for not two, not four, but SIX sticks of butter. It also calls for not two, not four, but SIX cups of half and half.
Well, I overfilled the pans, and as they baked, the butter liquefied, melding with the half and half, and then promptly boiled over onto the bottom of the oven. To alleviate the problem, we put some tinfoil down in the oven. Only we made a mistake, put the tinfoil on the heating element, and then allowed butter and half and half to pool in the foil. Folks, let's just say this combination starts a grease fire of paramount proportions. PARAMOUNT. Let me also tell you that cheap Hill Country rental properties apparently do not come equipped with smoke detectors OR fire extinguishers.
Good friends John and Ted acted as brave firemen, saving our breakfast from the depths of the smokey flames. Lucky, it was fully baked. We retired as a group outside into the sunshine and the chill to eat and allow the house to clear out from the black clouds of smoke, the product of flaming butter and Paula Dean's fatty ambitions. Breakfast was delicious, and 2011 started with a jolt of adrenaline, a sweet smothering of maple syrup, and the praise and admiration of well-fed good friends. All in all, a happy start.
Baked French Toast Casserole with Maple Syrup
Modified from a recipe courtesy Paula Dean.
This is no slouch of an indulgent recipe. Paula Dean's recipe calls for half and half and whole milk, plus nearly a carton of eggs and an excess of butter. Don't get me wrong, it's delicious, but we found we could swap out some of the fattening elements for less fattening alternatives with favorable results. Additionally, she called for the bread to be layered in full slices more like traditional french toast, and we found big cubes 1 1/2" square worked just as well and seemed to fit more substance into the pan. Finally, we nearly quadrupled the amount of spices she suggests in both the casserole and the topping. All of our changes are noted in the below recipe.
1 loaf French bread (13 to 16 ounces)
8 large eggs
1 cups half-and-half
1 cup whole milk
1 cup skim milk
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
heavy Dash salt
Praline Topping, recipe follows
Slice French bread into large (approx. 1 1/2) cubes (Use any extra bread for garlic toast or bread crumbs). Arrange bread cubes snugly but not packed in a generously buttered 9 by 13-inch flat baking dish, leaving some room between pieces for liquid. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt and beat with a rotary beater or whisk until blended but not too bubbly. Pour mixture over the bread slices, making sure all are covered evenly with the milk-egg mixture. Cover with foil and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Spread Praline Topping evenly over the bread and bake for 40 minutes, until puffed and lightly golden. Serve with maple syrup.
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1 cup chopped pecans
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and blend well. Makes enough for Baked French Toast Casserole.