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Memory Lane: Perfect Challah French Toast with Pop-Pop

When my preschool was closed for some obscure Jewish holiday, my mom would leave me at the mercy of her father. Me and him, we were responsible for each other. A hug from Pop-Pop could not have possibly broken any ice between us, and he proved entirely inept at the banter adults learn to offer to children, usually in the form of a series of questions relating to lost teeth and birthdays. I don’t know how we first arrived, miraculously, at an activity we both enjoyed. It must have brought tremendous relief: he had found something to do with me!

The French toast, it was a dance. We’d make a production about the decision to make it, as if the possibility of its preparation had to be, each time, freshly conceived. Have you eaten? He’d ask. I hadn’t. My answer was independent of whether I had ingested a bowl of Cheerios an infinite hour before.

I’d watch as he’d scour his kitchen for the potential makings of a breakfast worthy of his growing granddaughter, perhaps mumbling something about the ineptitude of his daughter for having failed to feed her daughter. Linoleum cabinets were opened and shut, the fridge—naked except for a single magneted snapshot of me sporting a baseball hat and holding a mini golf club—meticulously raked. One by one he’d assemble the components of our meal: eggs, milk, vanilla, cinnamon, and the crucial stale challah. What could we put together with all this, he’d muse. First with prompting and later with none, I’d suggest French toast.

One morning, there was no challah. He cursed his indefensible failure as he extracted a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread from his breadbox. “Your mom didn’t tell me until last night you were coming,” he confessed, “and the Jewish bakery was closed.” I excused his failure to keep up the charade of the French toast’s spontaneity. By now, challah French toast was tradition.

We could make pancakes instead, he offered. But I insisted on French toast, with or without the chewy challah. As always, he instructed me precisely. Put the butter in the pan. That’s not enough butter. That’s too much butter. You just want to coat the pan. He taught me every time to crack the eggs, as if he had never taught me before. Flick your wrist, not your arm. Hard, like you mean it. The batter had to be half egg and half milk, or else it would be too watery or too eggy. He put the fork in my fist and wrapped his own leathery palm around my hand. It was important to whisk the batter, not stir it, and my hand would tense up in his concentrated grip as we slammed and clopped the fork together back and forth across the bowl.

It was important to let the challah soak up the egg and the milk. It was important to wait for the butter to get bubbly and hot. If a drop of water spattered in the cast iron, I could transfer a thick piece of sopping bread from the bowl, which he’d hold up, to the pan, and sprinkle it with cinnamon. But not too much cinnamon. Flipping the toast at the precise moment was his job, as years of experience had endowed him with intuition to know when it had grown a golden, perfect skin.

We would set the table before we cooked, real maple syrup and butter, knife with the sharp part facing out, so we could eat as soon as our flawless breakfast was ready. Pop-Pop slid the finished, steaming challah right from pan to plate. He taught me, as if he had never taught me before, to use a knife and a fork properly, switching hands to cut then to eat, perhaps mumbling something about the ineptitude of his daughter at having failed to teach her daughter proper table manners.

Pop-Pop was particular and picky, but he admitted that the cinnamon raisin bread made perfectly acceptable French toast. Maybe even delicious French toast. Maybe. Next time, though, I should make sure my mother gave him plenty of warning that I was coming. Or at least that she call before the bakery closes at eight.

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