Sunday, March 20, 2016

Baked Praline French Toast Casserole

"A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its' old dimension." Oliver Wendall Holmes, Jr. My bucket list remains in a constant state of revision with more things being added rather than being removed from it. Recently one of those significant 'must visit' places was finally checked off of my ever-changing, organic bucket list. Finally all my vicarious trips to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon came to their timely end. Needless to say they paled in comparison to staying in and witnessing the canyon's incredible beauty close-up and firsthand. With access to the rim's hiking trails just a short walk from our lodge, we spent from sun up to sun down walking the trails in the canyon. As the sun rose and set, we were mesmerized by canyon's vistas as they transformed into breathtaking works of nature's art. Neither my imagination nor the iconic images legendary photographer Ansel Adams shared with the world truly captured the majestic beauty and aura of what should be one of the seven wonders of the world.

On the drive from the Grand Canyon to the home of friends inTucson we stopped in Sedona. Although technically removed from the bucket list many years ago, the striking red stone formations and the intensely spiritual aura of Sedona puts it on my list of those 'worthy of multiple return visits' places. In other words, once is not enough. Signs of spring's return along with the panoramic views of the scenic red rocks had me wishing we had more time to spend in this magical paradise. With my head spinning and heart racing from the time spent in the Grand Canyon and Sedona, being on sensory overload never felt so good.

And after spending several days with close friends in Tucson (along with a road trip to Bisbee and Tombstone) on this relatively short-lived vacation, it was time to return to life in the midwest. Thankfully Mother Nature helped to ease this transition by gracing us with several days of spectacular cloud filled blue skies. Not that they compared to those Arizona skies, but something was better than nothing.

Not only does my bucket list contain places to go and experiences to have, there are, what else, foods to eat and dishes to make (for the first time as well as again and again). For awhile now I have been wanting the Baked Praline French Toast Casserole to make a repeat appearance at the breakfast table. The perfect opportunity (to be the perfect aunt) came when my niece stayed over for a couple of days during her spring break last week.

This is one of those casseroles you partially assemble the night before. Making it one of those perfect for entertaining kinds of dishes.

The inspiration recipe called for using a sixteen ounce loaf of french bread. However, you could also make it with challah or brioche. Having made this casserole using all of these breads before, trust me when I say you will not go wrong with whichever bread you choose.

One inch thick slices of bread are quickly dipped into an egg-milk mixture and arranged in overlapping slices in a buttered casserole dish. Any remaining liquid is poured evenly over the bread. The important take away here is that you want the bread fully coated before covering the dish and refrigerating overnight. Note: You can also first arrange the bread slices in the dish and then pour over the egg mixture, spooning it between each of the slices and ever so lightly pressing down on the bread so it briefly submerges into the liquid. Either option works.

The praline topping is assembled and put onto the casserole right before baking. However, you can make it the night before, covering the bowl with plastic and refrigerating. While this makes the final assembly much easier, remember to take the butter-brown sugar-pecan mixture out of the refrigerator at least 30 minutes before spooning over the casserole. Don't forget: Toast your pecans before chopping them.

The Baked Praline French Toast Casserole bakes in a preheated 350 degree oven for 40 minutes or until the bread has puffed and the top is a medium golden brown.

If there was ever a breakfast casserole to cause your heart to race and head to spin, this Baked Praline French Toast Casserole would be the ONE! When soaked overnight and baked the next day, the bread takes on a custard like (almost bread pudding like) texture while the crunchy praline topping sends your taste buds into a state of pure bliss. And who doesn't want to serve a wickedly delicious, indulgent, memorable, easy to make breakfast (or brunch) to their family and/or friends?

To add to the casserole's decadence, serve with pure maple syrup or honey. Once you taste this Baked Praline French Toast Casserole, you may never look at ordinary french toast the same again. Not even if its' topped with freshly whipped cream and strawberries. This casserole will forever (for the better) change your french toast taste buds. So if there was ever a breakfast/brunch dish to move to the top of your food bucket list or one to send your heart racing and head spinning, this would be the one.

Baked Praline French Toast Casserole (slight adaption to Baked French Toast Casserole shared in Marcia Adams' Heirloom Recipes cookbook)

1 loaf (16 ounces) french bread, challah, or brioche (day old if possible)
8 large eggs
2 cups half and half
1 cup whole milk
2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/2 to 1 teaspoon cinnamon (I used 3/4 teaspoon of cinnamon)
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

Praline Topping
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed
1 1/4 cups toasted, then chopped pecan halves
2 Tablespoons light corn syrup
1 teaspoon cinnamon
Pinch of kosher salt

Optional but highly recommended: Maple syrup or honey for serving

1. Generously butter a 9"x13" (or equivalent) casserole dish. Set aside.
2. Slice bread into 1 inch thick slices. Set aside.
3. In a large bowl, combine the eggs, half-and-half, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, and kosher salt. Mix until well combined (no yellow egg streaks).
4. Dip each slice of bread into egg mixture and begin to line the prepared casserole dish in overlapping slices. Pour remaining egg mixture evenly over the bread slices. Cover dish tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
5. To make praline topping, mix the butter, brown sugar, chopped pecans, corn syrup and cinnamon in a medium bowl until well blended. Note: If making night before baking the casserole, cover and refrigerate overnight.
6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees (F).
7. Place casserole on large baking sheet.
8. Spread or drop spoonfuls of the praline topping evenly over the bread.
9. Bake for 40 minutes or until the casserole is puffed and medium golden brown. Remove from the oven and serve with maple syrup or honey.
Note: Serves 7 generously and 10 adequately.

Sunrise in the South Rim of the Grand Canyon at Maricopa Point.

 Nearing sunset at Yavapai Point on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.

Desert View Watchtower, designed by American architect Mary Colter (1932), on the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

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