After the best night you’ve had in years, eased to sleep by the train’s gentle swaying, you and your traveling companion dress and make your way to the dining car. After the steward seats you and hands you menus, you survey the options. Everything tempts, reinforcing how hungry you are.
French Toast is a renowned specialty of the Santa Fe Railway, and this finally makes up your mind for you. From across the table, your companion orders the same. Of course. You take a sip of juice, anticipating that first pillow of maple-drenched lusciousness. You close your eyes, lost for a moment in reverie…
This scenario. or something close to it, played out countless times over the decades on the Santa Fe line’s rails. Unsurprisingly, it’s among the hundreds of recipes James Porterfield collected in Dining by Rail.
It all starts with a loaf of special railway bread, baked in a lidded Pullman pan, named after the company that manufactured most sleeping and dining cars. The Northern Pacific Railway developed the idea, and it was so successful, cooks working aboard most other companies’ trains copied it:
If the bread is intended to make French toast, it sits out for a couple days, allowing it to become slightly stale, which actually is necessary for the best preparation. This gives it the airiness and the dryness needed for the bread to best absorb and retain the egg and cream batter in which it’ll soak. The toast then is pan-seared and is finished off in the oven, giving it a golden fluffiness.
With maple syrup added, each bite has a smooth, almost cake-like consistency. The toast’s tight crumb allows it to soak up and hold the batter, ensuring the last bite is as warmly dreamy as was the first. By the way, the maple sweetness is a perfect match for bacon, as pictured in this week’s photo. The pairing boosts the rating to an unprecedented 100.
Is it surprising that French Toast à la Santa Fe became the line’s signature dish, and that it gained hundreds of thousands of fans over half a century? Of course, there’s also something to be said about savoring it as the high plains and the forested mountains zip past the window at seventy miles an hour. The perfect exclamation point for the perfect night.
Northern Pacific Railroad Toast Bread (*1)
- 2 packages active dry yeast
- 3 tablespoons sugar
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1-and-1/2 cups warm milk
- 1 tablespoons salt
- 1 tablespoon dry malt (*2)
- 2 tablespoons shortening
- 5 cups flour
- 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
- 2 tablespoons butter at room temperature, for greasing loaf pan
In a large bowl combine the yeast with the sugar and the water and let stand for ten minutes, until bubbles just start to form. Add the milk, salt, dry malt and shortening. (*3). Whisk slowly until blended.
Add three cups of the flour and stir it in thoroughly with a wooden spoon. Stir in enough of the remaining flour until you have a moderately stiff dough. On a lightly-floured surface, knead the dough until it’s smooth and elastic.
Return the dough to the bowl and pour the oil on it. Rotate the dough so the oil covers it. Cover the bowl with a dish towel and let rise in warm draft-free place until it doubles in size, about 40 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375°. Punch down dough and let rise for another ten minutes. (*4)
Grease the inside of a loaf pan with the butter. Place the bread in a loaf pan and let rise for another 35 minutes. Bake for 40 minutes. If preparing bread for French toast, let it sit in the open for two days, until it becomes slightly stale.
1 – It’s not necessary to make your own bread, though I wanted to try it. Plus, it’s a good use of my Pullman pan. “Regular” store-bought bread is fine, though it usually isn’t cut as thickly as the recipe requires.
2 – Dry malt is a specialty baking ingredient that adds texture and a nice flavor. If you can’t find it, just skip it, though the bread won’t be quite so perfect.
3 – The way to do this is to add all the ingredients (it’s fine if the milk still is cold) to a small saucepan and heat it over a low flame. By the time the shortening is mostly melted, the milk will be sufficiently warmed. Now’s a good time to add it to the yeast mixture, and melting the shortening ahead of time will produce a smoother texture.
4 – The recipe was drafted with a Pullman pan in mind, which was nearly ubiquitous on board train galleys, and is considerably bigger than are standard loaf pans. If you’re using regular pans, split the dough into two equal portions before letting it sit for ten minutes. The recipe makes one “Pullman” loaf, or two standard ones.
French Toast à la Santa Fe
- 2 slices bread, cut 3/4 inch thick (*5)
- 1/2 cup light cream
- 2 eggs
- pinch of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon of cinnamon, optional (*6)
- 4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature, for searing toast
Cut each bread slice diagonally to form two triangles (making four, total). In a small bowl, whisk together the eggs, cream, salt and cinnamon (if using). Place the bread in the bowl and gently tilt to coat the bread.
Meanwhile, place a skillet over a medium flame and add the butter. As soon as the butter melts, lay in the toast in a single layer. Fry until golden brown, about two minutes, then carefully flip and brown the other side, about two minutes more. Remove the toasts to a paper towel to soak up excess oil. While that’s happening, preheat an oven to 400°.
After the toasts have been on the paper towel for ten minutes, transfer them to a baking sheet. Cook for five minutes, until the bread begins to puff.
Plate the toasts, add your choice of toppings (*7), and serve with bacon.
5 – Store-bought bread will be only half this thick. If you chose this option use four slices, or buy a whole loaf of French bread from the bakery and slice it to the required thickness. If you go the store-bough route. don’t forget to let the loaf sit in the open for a couple days!
6 – The original recipe doesn’t include cinnamon, though it should, especially for a sweet breakfast item. If you agree, make sure to stir in the cinnamon well.
7 – Maple syrup and butter are classic additions for a reason, and it’s hard to improve on them. A contender, though, is powdered sugar and berries. Honey is another option. I’ve even heard of applesauce and powdered sugar.