Oats+almonds+maple syrup=

Almond GranolaI’m a huge fan of Cook’s Illustrated .. how fun would it be to work in America’s Test Kitchen??!!  Kind of a long story as to how I ultimately became a fan – next time we’re cooking together in my kitchen I’ll share it with you.  Anyhow, my husband and I were hosting his Foundation co-workers for an all-day strategy meeting and I wanted to pull out all the stops with breakfast.  Check out this Cook’s Illustrated recipe for homemade granola.  It was a huge hit, and is super easy to make.

simple ingredientsAlmond Granola with Dried Fruit

Store-bought granola suffers from many shortcomings. It’s often loose and gravelly and/or infuriatingly expensive (right??!!). We wanted to make our own granola at home, with big, satisfying clusters and crisp texture. The secret was to firmly pack the granola mixture into a rimmed baking sheet before bakbaseing. Once it was baked, we had a granola “bark” that we could break into crunchy clumps of any size.  Makes about 9 cups.

Chopping the almonds by hand is the first choice for superior texture and crunch. If you prefer not to hand chop, substitute an equal quantity of slivered or sliced almonds. (A food processor does a lousy job of chopping whole nuts evenly.) Use a single type of your favorite dried fruit or a combination. Do not use quick oats.

hand-chop almonds

1/3 cup maple syrup 
1/3 cup packed light brown sugar
4 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vegetable oil
5 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
2 cups raw almonds, chopped coarse
2 cups raisins or other dried fruit, chopped (I used cranberries, banana chips, dried figs and raisins)

stir togetherAdjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Line rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Whisk maple syrup, brown sugar, vanilla, and salt in large bowl. Whisk in oil. Fold in oats and almonds until thoroughly coated.

Transfer oat mixture to prepared baking sheet and spread across sheet into thin, even layer (about 3/8 inch thick). Using stiff metal spatula, compress oat mixture until very compact.

press firmly in panBake until lightly browned, 40 to 45 minutes, rotating pan once halfway through baking. Remove granola from oven and cool on wire rack to room temperature, about 1 hour. Break cooled granola into pieces of desired size. Stir in dried fruit. Granola can be stored in airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

Decadence: excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury

Creme Brulee French ToastI wish I could have had the opportunity to be Susan Campoy’s sous chef. Seriously! In 1985 she opened a restaurant called Julienne, and it’s definitely on my Top Ten list of places to dine. So, when I had the chance to cook breakfast for Curt’s co-workers, the Julienne’s cookbook was my first place to go.

Leslie the chefHow fortunate to have a fabulous sous chef to cook with! I bribed Leslie with a glass of pinot, and she graciously stepped in to assist.

Julienne’s Creme Brulee French Toast is the definition of decadent. I decided this just had to be on our menu.

French breadCreme Brulee French Toast with Creme Anglais and Fresh Fig Compote
Serves 8-12

1 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon light corn syrup (I substituted real maple syrup)

Checking the caramelFrench Toast:
15 extra-large eggs
3 cups heavy cream
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1/4 cup Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 1 1/4-pound loaf French bread, cut into 3/4-inch-thick slices
Creme Anglaise (recipe follows)
Fresh Fig Compote (recipe follows)
Fresh raspberries, for garnish

To make the caramel: Whisk the brown sugar, butter and corn syrup in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until the ingredients are melted and well blended. Simmer until the sauce thickens and darkens, whisking occasionally, about 15 minutes. Pour the caramel into a 13x9x3″ baking dish and set aside to cool completely.

Caramelseparating eggsTo make the French toast: Whisk the eggs, cream, half-and-half, Grand Marnier and vanilla in a large bowl. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the custard. Reserve the bean for another use (perhaps ice cream??!!)vanilla beans

Arrange enough of the bread slices on top of the caramel to form a single layer, trimming the bread to fit if needed. Pour half of the custard over the bread and gently press the bread to submerge it in the custard.

seeds from vanilla beansArrange a second layer of bread slices on top of the first layer, then pour the remaining custard over, pressing again to submerge the bread in the custard. Set aside for 1 hour to allow the bread to absorb the custard.

French breadDo-ahead: The French toast can be made up to this point 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. (If you do this, be prepared for a longer baking period, or better yet pull the dish from the refrigerator a bit early to bring to room temp before baking).

DSC_0081Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake the bread pudding uncovered until it puffs in the center and becomes golden brown on top, about 45 minutes. Cut the bread pudding into squares and invert the squares onto plates so that the caramel side is on top. Spoon the remaining caramel sauce from the baking dish over each serving.

Under the broilerPour the creme anglais over each serving. Broil until the creme anglaise begins to brown in spots, about 1 minute. Drizzle the fig compote alongside each serving. Garnish with raspberries and serve. (I mis-read the recipe and placed the bread pudding under the broiler without the creme anglais, then poured the creme before serving .. it was still amazingly delicious!)

Creme AnglaisCreme Anglaise
You’ll find a million uses for this classic dessert sauce beyond this French toast: drizzle it over fresh berries, pair it with a chocolate flourless cake, or even pour it into an ice cream maker and churn it to make homemade vanilla ice cream.

Makes about 4 cups
1/2 cup sugar
10 extra-large egg yolks
2 vanilla beans, split lengthwise
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk

Combine the sugar and yolks in a large bowl. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla beans into the sugar mixture. Reserve the beans for another use. Whisk the sugar mixture to blend well.

Heat the cream and milk in a heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until small bubbles appear around the edges of the pan. Remove the pan from the stove and whisk half of the milk mixture into the egg mixture in a slow steady stream. Slowly whisk the yolk mixture into the remaining milk mixture in the saucepan. Whisk constantly over medium-low heat until the custard thickens enough to coat a spoon, about 5 minutes (don’t overcook!). Strain the custard through a fine sieve and into a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate.

Do ahead: The creme anglaise can be made 2 days ahead. Keep refrigerated.

Susan Campoy’s recipe calls for a fresh berry coulis to be served alongside the French toast, but since I had a few plump, fresh figs from my friend Nancy’s tree, I decided to make a simple fig compote.

Fig CompoteFresh Fig Compote
Makes 1 cup

1 pound fresh figs
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
6 tablespoons dark brown sugar
6 tablespoons honey
Pinch of kosher salt

FigsCut stem off each fig, slice fig in quarters, and place in medium heavy-bottom saucepan. Add butter, brown sugar, and honey. Simmer until figs are tender, about 10-15 minutes over low heat, stirring frequently, until syrup begins to bubble.