1 of 6
Gibbs Smith
Seven Layer Strawberry Torte

Father's Day and French toast make a great combination. French toast is simple to make, and it's hearty enough to satisfy a dad-size appetite.

And it's not just for breakfast anymore, according to Donna Kelly, author of "French Toast: Sweet and Savory Dishes for Every Meal" (Gibbs Smith, $16.95). In fact, about a third of recipes in her book are savory dishes, such as Southwest Chipotle Cornbread and French Toast Pizzas.

"Who doesn't love French toast? It only calls for three ingredients — bread, eggs and milk — so it's very versatile," said Kelly, who spends her workdays as a Utah County prosecutor and much of her free time cooking.

She said this popular breakfast food comes from the original French recipe pain perdue, or "lost bread." It started as a way to use up stale bread, by dipping it in an egg-and-milk mixture and cooking it.

"The concept lends itself to an almost infinite variety of flavors and versions," she said.

French toast can be made into egg-rich brunch casseroles or stuffed with everything from fruit to nuts to sausage to whipped cream, or topped with all kinds of syrups, sauces and streusels. When cubed, it becomes a sturdy dipper for fondues.

One of her favorite recipes is called Southwest Chili and Cheese, a casserole that borrows from Kelly's upbringing in Tucson, Ariz., and her love of Southwestern cuisine.

"It's fabulous, it's totally my own brainchild, unlike a lot of recipes where you get the idea from someone else and then work on it to make it your own," said Kelly. "It's got a nice fluffy texture, and it's got cumin, which is my favorite spice."

Should you be treating Dad to French toast on Father's Day, Kelly has four general rules to keep in mind:

1. It's always better if you use stale bread. "The bread has to be dry to absorb the custard mixture, which is what makes the classic French toast texture," she said. "If you use fresh bread right out of the package, it will get too soggy and fall apart while cooking."

To make fresh bread more "stale," leave the slices out on a wire rack for several hours or overnight, so the air circulates on both sides. Or in a pinch, dry it in on the racks in your oven at 200 degrees for 20 minutes.

2. Always cover the pan with a lid while it's cooking. "That way, the toast will cook all the way through the middle before it starts burning on the outside."

3. The best batter ratio is three eggs to 1 cup milk. "Not enough eggs, and the French toast doesn't have any texture," said Kelly. "Too many and it won't absorb into the bread."

4. Don't use large amounts of sugar in your egg batter. "It will cause it to burn," said Kelly. "If you want sweet in French toast, buy sweeter bread."

Kelly uses cooking as a stress reliever from her legal career. In the past few years she has written or co-authored several cookbooks in Gibbs Smith's popular "101 Things" series — "101 Things to Do With a Tortilla," "101 Things to Do With Chicken," "101 Thing to Do With Canned Soup" and "101 Things to Do With Tofu."

"I try out all my recipes on my family," she said. "Every Sunday night I have 15-30 people for dinner, they're friends of my own kids, mostly college students who don't have anywhere else to go."

No wonder there's a sign in her home that says, "Donna's Test Kitchen."

In honor of Father's Day, Kelly offers this story of her own father's cooking prowess:

"On my 16th birthday, my mom had just gotten home from the hospital from giving birth to my youngest sister. She was in no shape to make her traditional 'from scratch' birthday cake. So my dad, with his positive 'can-do' attitude, but no cooking skills of any kind, took the challenge."

He painstakingly put together the batter and carefully placed the cake in the oven. Unfortunately, Kelly's brothers came home from school and decided to broil hot dogs and turned on the broiler without looking inside the oven.

"When the billows of smoke filled the kitchen, we all realized the cake was, literally, toast," Kelly continued. "Undaunted, my dad started from scratch once again. But this time, he mistakenly put two tablespoons of baking powder in the batter. He realized the mistake and tried to compensate by adding more flour, but Cake Number 2 turned out like cornbread and was inedible."

Party time was drawing near, so he rushed to get a store-bought mix cake in the oven. "He frosted it still hot, but at least it was edible and somewhat resembling a birthday cake!" Kelly said. "Now, every time I see a cake mix cake, I think of my dad, who taught me that the most important ingredient in any home cooking is love."

SURPRISE INSIDE

4 large eggs

1/2 cup cream

1 tablespoon cinnamon

1/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla, divided

1/2 teaspoon salt

12 thin slices day-old firm white bread

8 ounces cream cheese, softened

1 tablespoon pure maple syrup

Butter for cooking

In a bowl, whisk together eggs, cream, cinnamon, sugar, 1 teaspoon vanilla and salt until frothy. Pour half of the egg mixture into a 9-by-13-inch pan. Place 6 slices bread in pan, completely filing pan. Using a hand mixer, mix together cream cheese, maple syrup and remaining vanilla. Place 2 heaping tablespoons cream cheese mixture on the center of each bread slice in the pan. Place remaining bread slices on top. Press firmly so that cream cheese flattens slightly but doesn't ooze out. Pour remaining egg mixture over top and then let soak for 10 minutes. Heat a little butter in a small frying pan over medium-high heat. Using a wide spatula, remove French toast sandwich from soaking pan and place in frying pan. Cover and cook 2-3 minutes on each side, or until lightly browned. Serve drizzled with Decadent Vanilla Cream Syrup. Makes 6 servings.

DECADENT VANILLA CREAM SYRUP

1 cup cream

1/2 cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

4 egg yolks

1 tablespoon vanilla

1 cup vanilla ice cream

Bring cream and sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. In a small bowl, mix together flour, egg yolks and vanilla. Add a few spoonfuls of the boiling cream mixture, and then add the egg yolk mixture to the cream mixture, stirring constantly for 3 minutes. Add vanilla ice cream and continue to cook another 3 minutes, stirring constantly until thickened. Serve warm. Store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Makes 2 cups. — "French Toast," by Donna Kelly

SOUTHWEST CHIPOTLE CORNBREAD

3/4 cup cornmeal

1/4 cup flour

2 teaspoons chipotle chili powder

3 large eggs

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

9 1/2-inch thick slices sturdy day-old cornbread

Canola oil

1 15-ounce can black beans, drained and rinsed

1 2-ounce can red enchilada sauce

6 ounces queso fresco (Mexican cheese), crumbled

1 tomato, diced

1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped

Mix together the cornmeal, flour and chili powder, and then spread on a plate. In a pie pan or other shallow pan, whisk together the eggs, milk and salt. Dip cornbread slices first in egg mixture and then in cornmeal mixture. Heat a small frying pan with a little oil to medium heat. Cook in pan for 2-3 minute on each side, or until browned. In a blender, mix together black beans and enchilada sauce and then heat in microwave about 90 seconds. Place a cooked cornbread slice on a plate and top with black bean sauce. Sprinkle with cheese, tomato and cilantro. Makes 8 servings. — "French Toast," by Donna Kelly

SOUTHWEST CHILI AND CHEESE

3 Anaheim chili peppers

1 jalapeno pepper

8 cups cubed day-old French bread (about 1-inch cubes)

8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, grated

4 ounces sharp white cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, grated

1/2 cup thinly sliced green onion

1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro

6 large eggs

2 cups milk

1 tablespoon cumin

1 tablespoon chipotle chili powder

1 teaspoon salt

Slice chilies and jalapeno in half lengthwise and remove seeds and pulp. Grill or broil, cut sides facing away from the heat, for 3-5 minutes, or until skin is blackened. Place in a zipper-style plastic bag and allow to sweat for 5 minutes. Remove skins and dice the peppers.

Toss bread cubes with chilies, cheeses, onion and cilantro. Place in a 4-quart casserole that has been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Mix remaining ingredients together and then pour over bread mixture, making sure all the bread cubes are saturated. Bake, uncovered, at 375 degrees for 35-40 minutes, or until lightly browned and almost set in the center. Serves 4-6. — "French Toast," by Donna Kelly

SEVEN-LAYER STRAWBERRY TORTE

8 cups sliced fresh strawberries

1 cup sugar, divided

3 large eggs

1 cup milk

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla, divided

6 slices pita bread (8-inch diameter)

2 cups heavy cream

In a bowl, mix strawberries with 1/2 cup sugar and set aside. In a pie pan or other shallow pan, whisk together the eggs, milk, salt and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Soak each pita in egg mixture about 2 minutes, or until softened.

Heat a 9-inch frying pan sprayed sprayed with nonstick cooking spray to medium-high heat. Cover and cook soaked pitas 1-2 minutes on each side, or until lightly browned. Cool and then sprinkle 1 teaspoon sugar on each pita. Whip cream with remaining vanilla and sugar until thick, and peaks form. Place a pita on a 10- to 12-inch serving platter. Spread 2/3 cup whipped cream and 1 cup sliced strawberries over top. Repeat layers to make one tall stack, ending with whipped cream and then a strawberry on top to garnish. Refrigerate 1 hour before serving. Makes 6-8 servings. — "French Toast," by Donna Kelly

STREUSEL TOPPED

Casserole:

4 eggs

2 cups milk

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 tablespoons vanilla

1/3 cup sugar

1 large loaf day-old French bread

Streusel Topping:

1/3 cup brown sugar

1/4 cup butter

1 tablespoon flour

1/3 cup quick oats

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup chopped pecans

In a bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, cinnamon, salt, vanilla and sugar. Pour half of the mixture into a 9-by-13-inch pan, sprayed with nonstick cooking spray.

Cut bread into slices 1 1/2-inches thick, and then lay in pan, filling completely. Pour remaining egg mixture over top and then cover and refrigerate and bring to room temperature, about 30 minutes. Bake, uncovered, at 450 degrees for 15 minutes. Mix topping ingredients together and then sprinkle over casserole and bake 10 minutes more. Makes 6-8 servings. — "French Toast," by Donna Kelly


E-mail: [email protected]