Step aside, challah and brioche.
French toast can be a polarizing breakfast matter. It’s not an everyday item like muesli or Greek yogurt. If you’re going to make it, you should make it right. But there’s debate. Brioche versus challah, varying milk-to-egg ratios, endless toppings from powdered sugar to berries—to keeping it completely bare. Then there’s deciding to bake it in the oven or fired on the stovetop.
When it recently came time to contribute a dish for a 12-person family breakfast, I knew I couldn’t just make any French toast for my ever-discerning Chinese grandparents, who “lovingly” criticize everything they eat. But amongst the Nutella-stuffed, the cardamom-infused, and the brioche believers, I stand by a trusty homemade tub of black sesame butter and a squishy loaf of milk bread.
This approach from Cynthia Chen McTernan’s A Common Table combines the best of two breakfast experiences in one—a nod to black sesame-filled sweets that spin around the lazy Susan at dim sum, and a standard Sunday morning breakfast at home, where French toast, scrambled eggs, and bacon are on heavy rotation.
Milk bread could easily be mistaken for white bread with its pale crumb and soft golden crust. Loaves of it are commonly found amongst pineapple buns and pork baos at Chinese and Japanese bakeries. But its fluffiness sets it apart with the addition of milk and tangzhong, a starter of sorts. It comes thickly sliced yet remains feathery-light to sop up the egg slurry responsible for turning any old bread into French toast. Similarly, fluffy alternatives for the bread include challah and brioche, but milk bread is deserving of a nonnegotiable spot in this ingredient list. It’s less eggy than challah, and not as buttery and heavy as brioche, giving it a distinguishable airiness of its own with a twinge of sweetness from a double dose of milk in the form of liquid and powder.
The use of tangzhong, a flour-water based roux, is what gives each loaf its signature springiness and unmistakable fluff. After mixing flour and water and allowing it to thicken over the stove, tangzhong acts as an absorbent to keep the loaf moist and squishy days after baking. Each tiny air pocket present in milk bread is an invitation for a drizzle of condensed milk or a hefty pat of butter ready to melt. Other incarnations of milk bread are seen in Hong Kong–style French toast served at cha chaan tengs made with peanut butter and condensed milk, or the famously elaborate Shibuya Honey Toast served at dessert cafés from Tokyo to Singapore that could rival a freakshake’s with its sky-high sugar-loaded toppings.
Between two pillowy soft pieces of milk bread lies an unapologetically rich filling of black sesame butter, more unctuous and smoky than your average peanut butter spread. Freshly toasted black sesame seeds, sugar, and butter get whipped up in a food processor, with the result resembling jet-black fountain pen ink.
This isn’t exactly a breakfast you can whip up with whatever you’re trying to use up in your pantry. But this French toast is classified under weekend cooking projects worthy of taking the time to fuss over and fully savor.