French toast is the gold-standard of slow Saturdays – a hot cup of coffee in one hand, a sizzling skillet on the stove, and Billie Holiday crooning in the background. There's nothing like the soothing repetition of whisking eggs and cream, cutting rich egg bread into impossibly thick slices, combining the two, and watching the toast sizzle in a pool of butter. That is the dream until you have two toddlers begging for breakfast before your feet find your slippers. I'm here to tell you that you can have all the things that French toast offers without hovering over a hot pan at 6:30 in the morning.
Make-Ahead French Toast Lets You Have It All
To achieve the ultimate breakfast experience, simply combine French toast luxury with the ease of make-ahead bread puddings. There's no consensus on what makes a bread pudding different from a French toast casserole, but in my mind it's how you cut the bread. I cut challah or brioche bread into thick slices rather than cubes and stand them on their ends — that way the bottom of the casserole keeps that creamy, custardy texture, while the tops of the bread get nice and crisp.
Traditionally, French toast and bread puddings are made with dry "day-old" bread. If you have the time, slice the bread a few hours or a day ahead of time to dry it out, or dry it in the oven. It's an extra step that allows the bread to soak up even more of the sweet custard, but you'll be fine cutting up that loaf of bread you bought with best intentions at the beginning of the week and skipping the drying step all together.
For an autumnal spin, serve an apple-cinnamon variation of French toast casserole. Whisk a generous amount of apple butter into the custard, then scatter diced apples between and around the slices of egg-soaked bread. Choose juicy, crisp Pink Lady or Honeycrisp apples for a balance of sweet and tart. Since they also keep their shape when baked, you won't feel like you're biting into a pocket of applesauce.
Make the apple-cinnamon French toast casserole ahead for family or for a house full of guests, then take the time enjoy a slow, serene morning as the scents of sweet apple and cinnamon fill your home.
Apple-Cinnamon French Toast Casserole
For the French toast casserole:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
6 large eggs
2 cups half-and-half
3/4 cup apple butter
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon, divided
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 (1-pound) loaf challah or brioche bread, halved lengthwise, then cut into 1-inch-thick slices
2 large Pink Lady or Honeycrisp apples, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 4 cups)
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
For the cinnamon-sugar topping:
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed and chilled
For serving (optional):
Assemble the casserole: Brush a 9x13-inch baking dish with some of the melted butter. Place the remaining melted butter, eggs, half-and-half, apple butter, 1/2 teaspoon of the cinnamon, vanilla, nutmeg, and salt in a large bowl and whisk until combined.
Dip the bread slices in the custard one slice at a time. Arrange the slices in four rows by slightly overlapping each bread slice. Depending on your loaf of bread, you'll use about 5 slices of bread per row. Alternate the direction of each row for an attractive presentation.
Place the apple, sugar, and the remaining 1 teaspoon of cinnamon in a medium bowl and toss to combine. Tuck the apple cubes in, around, and between the bread slices. You'll want a taste of apple in every bite, so make sure to fill any open spaces. Pour the remaining custard evenly over the bread and apples.
Make the cinnamon-sugar topping: Place the flour, sugar, and cinnamon in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Add the cubes of butter. Using your fingertips or a pastry blender, work the butter into the flour mixture until crumbly, then sprinkle evenly over the casserole. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
When ready to bake, take the casserole out of the refrigerator and uncover. Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Bake until puffed and golden-brown, 35 to 40 minutes. To serve, scoop onto plates and dust with powdered sugar and drizzle with warm maple syrup if desired.
- Storage: Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
- Make ahead: The casserole can be assembled up to to 24 hours prior to baking.
- Bread drying: Dry the bread by spreading the bread slices in an even layer on a wire rack set over a baking sheet and leaving them at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Alternatively, bake in a 275°F oven for 10 minutes until the bread is dry but not browned. The bread can be dried the day before assembling the casserole and stored at room temperature.