Alimentary, My Dear
French Toast Nuggets:
By Tamia Nelson
October 18, 2011
Seredipity happens. It can be nurtured and encouraged, but it can't be scheduled. A recent morning found me hard at work in my Test Kitchen. I wasn't cooking, however. I was cleaning out several years' accumulation of uneaten — and now mostly inedible — foodstuffs. But I also discovered a few things worth salvaging, including a partially emptied box of Bisquick that had somehow been lost to view. This was a find, indeed. Ready‑made mixes like Bisquick are a longtime camp staple, the basis for a whole menu's worth of favorite fare, including biscuits (obviously!), pancakes, and dumplings. So I wasn't about to let the remains of the box go to waste. But I couldn't risk taking it into the backcountry, either. When Bisquick sits around in an open box, the leavening agent eventually loses its puff. The result? Your biscuits are no longer quick to rise, and nothing dampens the start of a day on the water like flapjacks that are flatter than tortillas. I still didn't want to chuck good food away, though. So I decided to experiment. I had a scant cup of Bisquick, two eggs, some sliced strawberries that would soon be fit only for the compost, and a few hunks of three‑day‑old artisan bread. What could I make with these ingredients?
It was a Test Kitchen challenge, without a doubt. But I figured …
Here's the lineup I had to work with:
(The milk was a last‑minute addition, and the strawberries were chilling in the fridge.) I could have scrambled the eggs, baked a biscuit, and fried the bread, all in one skillet, but that felt like cheating. Anyway, the bread didn't look like it would stand up to much handling, and I wasn't keen on croutons. But what about French toast? Now that was something I could really get my teeth into. It would take care of the eggs, too. Which still left me with that orphaned cup of Bisquick. Stalemate?
Only then did it occur to me that I could dip the bread in a batter — made from the Bisquick, eggs, and milk — before frying it. And to make sure the bread didn't go to pieces, I could precut it into chunks the size of large strawberries. (Those off‑stage strawberries were influencing my thinking, I guess.) The result? French toast nuggets. Best of all, whatever I did in the Test Kitchen with my leftovers, I could do later in camp with fresher ingredients. And here's …
How I Set About Doing It
You'll need a skillet or griddle. I used the same cast‑iron skillet I often take into the backcountry, but a lighter non‑stick aluminum pan ought to work, too. Camp stove or fire? Either will do. You won't even need a spatula. A spoon will work as well — or better.
Now here's my list of ingredients in full:
- 1 cup Bisquick (or comparable biscuit mix)
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 eggs (fresh eggs are best, but you can substitute reconstituted powdered eggs)
- ½ cup milk (fresh or reconstituted)
- 3 to 4 thick slices of hearty bread
- Canola or corn oil
- Any toppings you choose
Fresh eggs and UHT (shelf‑stable) milk — rarely seen on HyperMart shelves in the States, but gradually gaining acceptance — are no problem on short trips, and fresh milk will keep for a day or two if you have a cooler. You'll need dried eggs and powdered milk for any trip that lasts longer than a weekend, of course, but both of these staples have a place in most trippers' menu plans. Still, French toast nuggets will probably never be more than an occasional treat on long expeditions. In fact, I'm most likely to make them on trips close to home, where putting miles under my keel isn't important. and fresh ingredients are easy to come by. As it happens, such trips are often the best ones of all.
So let's get cooking. Begin by cutting the bread into cubes. This increases the surface‑to‑volume ratio, maximizing the take‑up of batter. Small cubes are also easier to handle in a diminutive camp skillet.
Now it's time to make the batter. Using a fork, mix cinnamon and sugar with the Bisquick in a cooking pot (or large bowl, if you have one), then whisk milk into the dry ingredients. Lastly, blend in the eggs. The resulting batter should be thin and runny. If it's not, add a more milk, a little bit at a time — or if you've used the last of your milk, simply add water. You'll know you've got it right when batter drips off the fork as you lift it from the bowl. If it clings to the tines, it's still too thick.
Next, fire up your stove. Drizzle a little oil into the skillet (or onto the griddle) and heat over a medium‑high flame. (Use hot coals if you're working over a fire.) Then, while the oil is warming, coat the cubes of bread with batter. When things are going well, you'll have little or no batter left in the pot after you're done. The left‑hand panel below shows the batter‑coated bread. It doesn't look terribly appetizing at this point, does it? But things are about to change.
By now the oil should good and hot. Test it with a small piece of bread. If it sizzles when dropped in the oil, you're good to go. Place the cubes of battered bread in the skillet. Don't worry if some liquid batter drips into the pan, but don't crowd the bread unnecessarily. You want a single layer of cubes — no more. Fry the bread in batches if you have to — I did — keeping the finished batches warm by the fire while you cook the next. (The right‑hand photo above gives you a pretty good idea how much room each cube of bread needs in the skillet.)
So far, so good. But while I was working in the Test Kitchen, things suddenly took an unexpected turn, reminding me that cooking, like just about everything else in life, can be hazardous to your health. Hot oil is particularly nasty stuff, and even a few seconds' inattention can result in a painful burn. As I learned to my cost …
… when the bowl I was holding slipped in my fingers, sending several cubes of battered bread tumbling into the skillet at once, splattering droplets of hot oil over my forearm. If I'd been in camp instead of in my home kitchen, I'd have been mighty glad I took the time to assemble a medical kit — and I'd also have been grateful for the fact that most riverbank camps have a generous supply of cold running water near at hand! As it was, I just held my arm under the cold tap for a few minutes before returning to the stove. Another lesson learned.
You'll have to exercise care in other areas, too. You want to brown the batter‑coated bread cubes without burning them. It's not unlike baking biscuits in a skillet. When the first side has browned (take a look from time to time), turn the bread. Then, when all the cubes are uniformly brown on every side, remove them from the skillet. A further cautionary word is in order here. If the heat is too high, you'll burn the bread no matter how closely you watch it. The goal? A golden‑brown crust and moist interior. Experiment at home or in your backyard until you know how hot is too hot, but don't obsess over a few charred spots. French toast doesn't have to be perfect to be good. And one more thing: If you've got more cubes than you can fry in one go, add a little oil to the skillet between batches. Now wait a few moments for it get back up to temperature. Only then should you add the next batch of bread cubes. Is there batter left in the bowl when you transfer the last cube to the skillet? Just pour it directly into the pan, where it will cook alongside the bread.
OK. It's time to enjoy the fruits of your labors. Divide the golden‑brown nuggets among your companions. These fried treats are good just as they are, but your favorite toppings will make them even better. Possibilities include:
- Maple syrup
- Brown sugar
- Confectioners sugar
- Jam, jelly, or marmalade
- Cottage cheese or ricotta (weekend trips only)
- Berries or other fresh fruit
- Stewed dried fruit
- Canned fruit with juices
- Ice cream
I opted for maple syrup (left‑hand photo in the panel below), as well as the sliced strawberries that I mentioned at the start of this article (middle picture). Best of all, I uncovered the last of a bowl of whipped cream that had somehow escaped Farwell's notice (right‑hand photo). You're not likely to have whipped cream in camp, of course, but this was a Test Kitchen trial. And the whipped cream wouldn't have lasted much longer, in any case.
Ice cream would make a more than acceptable substitute on a weekend trip, and it can be made in camp. But enough idle dreaming. I had serious business to attend to: tasting my test batch of French toast nuggets.
And the Winner Is?
Anyone who gets a portion. The nuggets were a success, even though I charred a few edges. They had the flavor of cinnamon rolls married to the toothsome savor of French toast. A plateful is filling without being heavy, just the thing to set you up for a day on the water. And there's no reason not to have them for dinner, if you want. But what about leftovers? These aren't often a problem in camp, but if your companions' eyes prove bigger than their stomachs, don't despair. Any nuggets that don't get eaten at breakfast will still be tasty at lunchtime. Simply let the leftovers cool and then pack them in a plastic bag. They also make good snacks under way.
A few final notes about quantities and ingredients: Using what I had available at the time, I made enough nuggets for two moderately hungry paddlers. In fact, they'd probably stretch to three, particularly if there were other items on the menu. And you don't need a three‑day‑old artisan loaf. Any hearty bread will do, though thin slices are a no‑no. So a standard sandwich loaf wouldn't work well. Slightly stale bread is better than fresh, too. (For more tips on choosing and carrying bread, read "Bruschetta? You Betcha!")
Want an energy boost? Then add another tablespoon of sugar to the batter, and if you're in the mood to experiment, try adding small quantities of spices like cloves and cardamom, as well. But the basic recipe works for me. It's simple and good. Those are my watchwords, in camp and elsewhere.
Stale bread often ends up in the garbage at home, but camp cooks can't afford to throw away good food. Luckily, we can make a virtue out of this necessity — as I discovered not long ago, when I combined some old bread with a little leftover Bisquick to make French toast nuggets. The experiment was a success. Don't take my word for it, though. Try it for yourself. I'm betting that you, too, will soon be singing "Serendipity‑Doo‑Dah!"
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