I’m one of those people who doesn’t think of themself as a sweets person, but still orders dessert most of the time when out for a meal, and is then haunted for years by the perfection of some of those dishes. Recently I’ve been pining for the perfect torrija, the Spanish cousin to French pain perdu (what we call French toast), that I had nearly two years ago at Elkano, a restaurant in Basque country. It was a small block of brioche-like bread, saturated in a sweet custard, with a crunchy brûléed sugar top, served in a pool of the lightest crème anglaise I’ve ever tasted, with a spoonful of milk ice cream on the side and a slightly dated milk foam over top. Once you broke through the sugar shell, the bread was like pudding—it was perfect. Of course, there’s no travel now, and I can’t even start a quest to find the best torrijas in New York, so if I wanted torrijas, I was going to have to make them myself.
Traditional and Modern Torrijas
The torrija that blew me away at Elkano—with its milk foam, brûléed sugar crust, and quenelle of ice cream—was decidedly modern in its presentation. On a different visit to Madrid years before around Easter time, I had enjoyed more straightforward versions of torrijas at the aptly named La Casa de las Torrijas, where they serve snack-sized portions of milk- and sweet wine–soaked torrijas. After soaking, these torrijas were coated in lightly beaten egg, deep fried in olive oil, and sprinkled with granulated sugar right before serving.
They were completely different from the iteration I had in Basque country, but still so delicious. The fried egg coating was delicately chewy compared to the crunchy sugar topping of the torched torrija, and the center had a more familiar French toast–like structured softness that still required a little wrist muscle to cut through the bread with a fork, in contrast with the other’s spoonable custardy interior. It was more a sweet mid-afternoon snack, while the Elkano one was a dessert through and through.
To get a better understanding of what was what in the world of torrijas, I reached out to two Spanish chefs, Barcelona native chef Marc Vidal, of Boqueria in New York, and Chef Anthony Masas, who cooked for years at El Bulli before moving to the Dominican Republic where he is now the culinary director at the Casa De Campo resort. Both confirmed my hunch that the olive oil-fried torrijas I had in Madrid were more traditional—of course, it doesn’t take a certified culinary sleuth to suspect that people weren’t rescuing stale bread in the old days with spoonfuls of milk foam and blowtorches. But both chefs favor the more modern approach to preparing torrijas at their restaurants; deep frying in olive oil gets expensive, and requires dedicated kitchen space and staff, which isn’t the most practical for establishments that aren’t known as the “House of Torrijas.”
The Bread and Soaking Liquids
I asked Vidal and Masas about their preferred bread and soaking liquids for torrijas, explaining that I had come across recipes that called for soaking stale bread in sweetened dairy (some with just milk, others with a mixture of milk and cream), others that called for dairy mixed with eggs, and yet more that included sweet wine. Both chefs like to use soft but dense breads like pullman or brioche, which can soak up a lot of moisture.
Basque food expert Marti Buckley notes in her excellent cookbook Basque Country that brioche has become the bread of choice for ogi torrada, the Euskara (Basque) term for torrijas. Because pullman and brioche loaves are both readily available in the States, I decided to go with those as my torrijas breads of choice.
As for what to soak the bread in, I ran a series of side-by-side tests that included varying ratios of all-dairy mixtures ranging from all-milk to a half-and-half mixture of milk and cream; custard bases with egg; and even fried up some traditional milk-soaked and egg-washed torrijas to see how they stacked up. I settled on a custard base made with whole milk that is infused with vanilla, cinnamon, and orange zest and then whisked with egg yolks. It strikes the right balance of eggy richness without being heavy, and it gave me the opportunity to turn the soaking mixture into a crème anglaise–like sauce for the finished dish, eliminating waste.
Do You Need Stale Bread to Make Torrijas
When developing our recipe for French toast, Daniel ran his own series of tests comparing fresh, stale, and oven-dried bread to see if you really needed to start with “lost” bread. The answer was no, oven-drying fresh bread works fine for regular French toast. Because this recipe for torrijas involves such thick slices of bread (2 inches thick to be precise), I decided to run some tests of my own just to make sure that oven-dried bread would still cut it.
Historically, torrijas, just like pain perdu, was a dish born out of necessity and frugality—leftover stale bread was saved from getting tossed away by soaking it in milk or wine, coating with eggs, cooking it, and then sweetening with sugar or honey. Torrijas are traditionally made during the semana santa, the holy week at Easter time, and while its association with the holiday is not completely clear, Marti Buckley explains that some theorize that it was a way to use up an abundance of bread baked during Lent. The religious connection to torrijas may be shrouded in mystery, but we can figure out if in modern times it should still be made with stale bread.
I ran a side by side test with pieces of three-day-old bread that I staled on a wire rack against a one-day-old loaf that I cut into pieces the day of testing and dried in the oven. The pieces started with the same weight, and were soaked in one-minute intervals, with their weights recorded after each interval. As you can see in the photos above, the stale bread initially soaked up much more of the custard base than the oven, but over the course of a few minutes those numbers evened out. There’s only so much liquid that a piece of bread can absorb. So if you have stale bread, use it, but if you just have a fresh loaf of pullman, there’s no need to wait for days for it to go through the retrogradation cycle. Pop it in a low oven to dry it out and you’re good to go.
One note: Because fresh, oven-dried bread isn’t actually staled but just lightly dehydrated, it does end up more delicate after soaking. I had to be very careful removing the 1-day-old piece of bread from the custard base, while the 3-day-old bread was slightly easier to maneuver. In either case, for these thick slabs of torrija, you want to push the soaking time to the limit so as to achieve that pudding consistency at the center. After soaking, I want my torrija bread to be like me at the end of 2020: barely holding it together.
The Sauce Is In the Soaking Liquid
As Kristina noted in her recent treatise on pastry cream, there is a lot of overlap in the custard extended universe. Combine dairy, eggs, and sugar and you have a base for soaking bread for French toast. Gently heat that base until the egg proteins denature and coagulate and you have pourable crème anglaise. Chill, churn, and freeze that mixture and you’ve made ice cream. Or add starch and cook to make pastry cream. In this case, I wanted a sauce to pair with the torrijas, so crème anglaise was the name of the game.
After soaking oven-dried pieces of bread for torrijas, I simply take the leftover custard base and gently heat it to 175°F, until the yolks have thickened the sauce to a spoon-coating consistency. It’s a little more work than your standard weekend French toast, but this no-waste approach rewards you with a rich and silky sauce for a pull-out-all-the-stops torrijas that reaches show-stopping dessert heights. Foam not included.