Pain perdu is predicated on the existence of “forgotten”, leftover or stale bread. It is another example of the essential frugality of the best cuisines: nothing should ever be wasted. The uses of stale bread – in soups, in salads, as breadcrumbs, or soaked in milk and used as a stuffing – are legion in French and Italian cookery, where bread remains the dominant staple. The addition of eggs and sugar, of course, means that pain perdu is not just the prudent use of leftovers but something of a treat.
In our luxurious, not to say decadent, age, we go a step further and make our pain perdu out of things such as brioche and panettone. It is just about possible to imagine that, like Marie Antoinette, we might just have such a thing as “forgotten” brioche – the odd half loaf that could conceivably have been left over from a rather smart dinner party with foie gras a few nights previously. But even harder to envisage is “forgotten” panettone.
For one reason or another, I have contrived to have a panettone or pandoro (fruit-free Veronese version) in the house at Christmas for some years now. However, I have never had “leftover” panettone. The minute the cake has been ceremonially broached it has enjoyed a very short life, often being polished off by revellers returning from parties at some time in the night.
For a long time bread and butter pudding was the fashionable thing. Anton Mosimann revived it when he was at The Dorchester and his version was spoken of in the same terms as Joël Robuchon’s mashed potatoes or Ferran Adrià’s just about anything. What had been a nursery staple of our childhood – made with truly terrible bread, well buttered and either sprinkled with sultanas or embellished with marmalade – became a gastronomic “must have”.
A few of us started making it with panettone: the simple expedient of pouring a mixture of eggs, sugar, milk and cream over some sliced panettone and baking it in the oven remains a relatively foolproof method of producing an indulgent pudding. However, the wheel has turned full circle. Old French chefs greeted the arrival of bread and butter pudding with mutterings that it was “just British pain perdu” and now pain perdu has been restored to the limelight. I see it on brunch menus, appealing to the Anglo-American sweet tooth and served with bacon and maple syrup.
It crops up on plenty of dessert menus too, usually over-embellished: I cannot say that a dish – seen and raved over on television – of banana pannacotta, chocolate ice-cream and raspberry foam with pain perdu appeals to my sense of gastronomic grammar.
However, it cannot be a bad thing that more and more chefs have decided that pain perdu should no longer be forgotten.
It takes a bit of courage to dip the cake in the milk and sugar mixture. It looks as though it will fall apart but it will hold together, just. Recipe for six.
70g unsalted butter
½ tsp chilli flakes or 1 red chilli, seeded and very thinly sliced
8 star anis
½ small panettone
● Cut the pineapple across the base and across the top just below the stalk. With a sharp serrated knife split the pineapple in half down through the middle and then split each half in half again to produce four long segments. With a small sharp knife cut between the skin and the flesh down each side of the segments and remove the flesh. Then cut away the hard central stalk of each segment. Split the segments in half lengthways and then in half crosswise to make 16 “chips” of pineapple.
● Melt half the butter in a large frying pan, add the chilli and star anis and warm them gently to infuse the butter. Add the pineapple pieces and turn up the heat so that each browns and caramelises. Turn the pieces over and repeat. Drain the pieces on kitchen paper and keep warm.
● Bring the milk and sugar to the boil with half a teaspoon of vanilla extract and allow to cool. Cut the panettone into slices at least a centimetre thick. Beat the eggs very well in a flattish bowl. Melt the remaining butter in the cleaned frying pan. Soak each piece of panettone carefully in the milk and sugar mix, dip very thoroughly in the egg mix and then lift into the foaming butter. Fry as many pieces as you have guests and serve immediately with the pineapple and vanilla ice-cream.
Rowley Leigh is the chef at Le Café Anglais