Just East of Flagstaff


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:Pullman Loaf

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.

NOTES:

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.

NOTES:

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.

32 thoughts on “Just East of Flagstaff

  1. your sensual descriptions rate five star!

    Do these trains still run? Do they still serve such breakfast?

    I am holding out for an epic train journey west to east of my country … it’s expensive but I hear it’s well worth it! Most of my epic train travel has been done in India where the food and chai wallahs keep us well fed, only travelled second class once. Third class is my usual altho I once shared my ‘foreigner’ sleeper carriage with the previous PM and his assistant 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sadly, Kate, no. The only US passenger service today is government-run, and it’s as charming as you’d expect from bureaucrats. The legendary age of train travel flourished long before me and had evaporated well before I was born. Nonetheless, that bygone stylishness survives still in books and in the elderly’s fading memories. Though it’s thrilling to imagine what it must’ve been like once, hence this week’s entry.

      Count me among those who are rooting for your rail trip, Kate. I’ve heard just a bit of Australia’s trans-continental line; still, from what I understand, it’d be an enchanting kindness to add to your collection. Of course, I’d love to read your impressions afterwards!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. lol am waiting for a dear friend to have her hip op … known many years, she’s lost two husbands and cared for her alzheimers mother … this is a trip we always planned together.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. As part of a lifetime’s caring, neither of you should forget to look after yourselves too. The train trip would provide precisely that, as well as some well-deserved pampering too. You never can have too many good memories, and this excursion certainly would fill a whole new canvas!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Heh… Cinnamon is never optional.

    What an interesting trick, leaving the bread out. I might have to try that sometime. You know, you may make a true, syrup-blooded French toast enthusiast out of me yet with all this. Who knew?

    And by the way, do my eyes deceive me, or is that stars I see?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks, Rachel!

      You know, I’d love to know if leaving the bread out was foodie’s inspiration, or whether it came from a rail cook jerking bolt-upright one morning, “Oh crap, I forgot to put that loaf in the breadbox yesterday!” No matter whether it happened by genius or by inadvertence, the trick leads to some pretty magical places.

      Yep, stars, Rachel. Stars! Why don’t you give them a whirl? To my knowledge, nobody’s been tempted yet to leave a rating, and I’m eager to see how WP records the phenomenon.

      On a related topic, and in all seriousness, have you had any trouble lately accessing this site? I ask because after basking in ever-increasing audiences over the past couple years, I’ve been dismayed to see viewership (and the conversations it inspires) plummet since late summer. By now, I’m nearly back to where I was before the outside world stumbled upon the journal.

      It’s funny in a way, but back a few months ago, when it seemed readers, “Like”rs and commenters grew on trees, I fancied myself beyond adulation’s reach. Now, though, I realize what a ham I was. It turns out too, not only am I a cook currently, but I was a minor celebrity once.

      Once.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Huh. I could’ve sworn I did hit some stars. Could’ve sworn I hit “like,” too, actually, but I’m not seeing my pic, and it keeps reverting from “liked by you and this many people” to just “liked by this many people.” But then, I’ve been having issues with WP lately.

        It is funny, how that works. Ahh, the rule of relativity…

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Well, Rachel, WP now tells me someone named “wp-post-8130” provided star ratings twice, and I thank you for that.

        I’ve had the same problem on many sites, including yours, wherein the screen reacts to my hitting the “Like” button, but it doesn’t display my icon or record my support.

        The way I got around that is, I opened the comment option, which showed me as an anonymous user. Then I clicked on the the WP icon (a W’ in a blue circle) beneath the dialogue box, and that signed me on to WP. Thereafter, when I “Like”d the entry, it did register, including displaying my icon.

        Now that you described your travails, I wonder if that’s what happened to many of those who “disappeared.” Maybe (I’d like to think) they hit “Like,” but WP saw then as anonymous users and didn’t register their support. In which case, how many readers even know the site hasn’t recorded their presence for weeks?

        This has lead me to give serious hought to linking to Facebook, to provide another means of interaction which isn’t as dependent of WP’s tantrums.

        Thanks for illuminating, Rachel!

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Fairly good, Rachel, thanks for asking. And yours?

        We got a dusting of snow yesterday – the season’s first – and there’s something deliciously comforting about a pot of soup steaming away on the stovetop while flurries dance outside. Definitely one of cold weather’s top draws.

        Not sure what part of the world you call home. For a while I thought it was the US, but your writing “behaviour” in a recent response suggests otherwise. Point is, I was going to ask you about the snow, but if you’re elsewhere…

        Oh, and I really do appreciate your continued interest, Rachel, and you overcoming WP’s hurdles to maintain it. It means much, especially now, as so many have gone MIA in the last month or so. Even if many find their ways back eventually, I still am giving serious though to establishing an auxiliary on Facebook.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. My holidays, or my work? Holidays have been fine; And my birthday was a few days ago, so I now have that poetry-dedicated journal, which I’ve been writing in, so that’s nice. I don’t have a day job as yet, though. I ought to, by now, but… Well, for better or worse, I suppose I’ve been a bit spoiled.
        Although, speaking of birthdays: happy birthday. 🙂

        You got snow already? We (and yes, we live in the US, though I have a tendency of borrowing phrases and the like from here and there, if that’s what you mean by writing behavior. Unless you mean the general off-ness. That’s just the result of spending more time in my own mind or communicating in sibling shorthand than talking with my peers) haven’t had much snow at all these last few years. When we do, it’s usually very late or early in the year, and typically doesn’t survive more than a day. Ah, what I wouldn’t give for some snowman-worthy weather…

        By all means, think away. If you do decide to go the Facebook route, you have my wishes of good luck.
        And it’s my pleasure, by the way. Thanks for putting up with me. 😜

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Hi, Rachel. Oh, no, I meant ‘behaviour,’ as in the word itself, as in that’s what you typed in one of your responses. That’s what fed speculation you weren’t in the US, as I had thought, but that you were somewhere that flavoured their spellings with ‘our”s. Little matter, as all is clear now.

        As for the job situation, when you do finally take the plunge, you’ll be surprised, simultaneously, at how little time and how much buying power you have. That last part grants, not so much cash, but freedom. All sorts of things suddenly will be possible. Of course, finding time to take advantage of this is another matter altogether.

        Which is one of the reasons I still am a bit leery of Facebook, as I understand it consumes time like nobody’s business. As I already spend a couple hours a day blogging and visiting others, I have no desire to increase that. Still, the (possible) uptick in visitors, as well as “recovering’ some of those who’ve left, does appeal. Back-and-forth I go on this. Stay tuned for the final decision.

        Oh, and thank you for the birthday wishes!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. OH! Ha! It’s never had much impact on me, and I can never remember which spelling is which, so I don’t really think about which I’m using, I’m afraid.

        Ahh, those black holes of time… I once again wish you luck (and/or sudden prescient understanding of any and all consequences… Whichever works best).

        You’re welcome. I hope you had a good time.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. Well, I appreciate all your advice, Rachel.

        What we have here is my first dip into the ocean, or at least the first serious foray. Up to now, it just had been emails, chats and, of course, random surfing. Now, though, I’m getting an idea of the options available, and, my, do they overwhelm! Naturally, I’ll plot my own course, but that doesn’t prevent me from gathering opinions.

        Ah, how I must remind you of yourself. Yeah, when you were, like, twelve…

        Liked by 1 person

      8. Also, “enjoyable.”

        That’s sort of the entire point, isn’t it, Rachel? You lost yourself in the moment (or, moments,” plural; there were so many of them), and you shared the experience with someone near-and-dear. How much do you want to bet, decades from now, your sister and you will ask each other, “Remember that time we…”

        Plus, I applaud your choice of scripted entertainment, in contrast to “reality” TV that’s all the rage. Of course, it too is scripted, though without the artistry. Nice move, that, giving a shout-out to fellow creatives.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Tamara!

      All of this is based on stories I’ve read (and heard) about what rail travel was like in the “good old days.” Alas, this was decades before either one of us appeared.

      Still, it’s much more than mere speculation, though traces of dreams do animate the scene. The picture painted probably is what it was like, and certainly is what I’d like to imagine.

      Either way, in the 100% real non-daydreaming world, the French toast was superb, and I’m usually not much of a breakfast person, aside from the occasional apple.

      I’m glad it stirred your imagination too, Tamara!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh how lovely it would be to spend a significant amount of time riding the rails… writing and eating while glancing out the window at the passing scenery. Maybe one of these days… Til then I can at least enjoy a good French Toast. I’m so grateful to the French for letting us know it’s perfectly ok and in fact normal to enjoy rich and decadent food. 🍽

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Majorly cool to contemplate, right? These vignettes do get at what it must’ve been like, but unless you set the time machine for 1952, they’re just speculations, alas. Well-informed speculations, I would hope, but still…

      One thing that’s 100% real is the food. Recipes and anecdotes dining car cooks and stewards left for us then, brought back to us today.

      Yes, you’re right, JoAnn. Let’s hear it for the French (now there’s something you don’t hear all the time). They’ve taken something as base as excess, and they’ve made it sublime. They’ve given culinary indulgence style, flair and elegance.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Much appreciated, Angela!

      Truth is, I usually am not much of a breakfast fan, and I’m even less of a baker. Thus, this was a pleasant surprise.

      Part of that happy development came, no doubt, from neglect being part of the recipe. Leave the loaf out to begin getting stale? I can do that! Check!

      Liked by 1 person

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