It’s ironic. The farthest away from Mexico I’ve been, the closest I’ve felt to my home country and the more I’ve gotten to know it.
Namely, there are 2,419 miles between my home in the DC area and the home I was born and raised in, in Mexico City (I’ve seen it in Google maps a thousand times with my boys), it’s a 44-hour drive if you go non-stop and a 5-hour flight with no connections.
It has been 15 years since we packed our bags to move from Mexico City to Texas. Since then, I’ve taken every opportunity to go back to visit. There is always something new to learn and something to rediscover. And there is always a dish that sticks with me in such a way that it has me running back home to make it for my boys. If they request it, time and again, it becomes a home staple that I hope to pass on.
That’s the case with the ultra decadent Yucatán style French toast, also known as caballeros pobres. I even included it on an episode called Brunch at the Jinich Home, from Season 3 of my TV series. It is very similar to a dish called Capirotada, in fact, some consider it Yucatan’s version of it.
We love eating it on Sundays for a late and lazy brunch. It marks the weekend for us, when we can linger at the table. When I don’t mind making things that may have a few more steps, or may be messier to prepare, all of which the boys love to take on.
Dany and I tasted it for the first time in Yucatán 5 years ago. As we sat down at Los Almendros, a classic restaurant in Mérida, I did what I always do – which drives Dany crazy – and asked the waiter 3 questions:
1. What’s your favorite thing to eat from the menu? I can hear Dany saying “what do you care what he likes to eat Pati, what if he has a completely different taste preference than you, or what if he is pushing things out of the kitchen that aren’t selling?”
2. What is the most traditional food on the menu? I can hear Dany saying “some dishes may be included to show the restaurant’s authenticity regardless of how good they may be…”
3. What is, by far, the best seller here? I can practically see Dany rolling his eyes…
For #1, waiter said “caballeros pobres!” The poetic and contrasting name of the dish hooked me: translates to “poor gentlemen”. For #2, he said “caballeros pobres, it has been on the menu since the restaurant opened in 1962, it’s a dessert that’s existed since anyone in Merida can remember.” By that point I was ready to run to the kitchen to get one. For #3, he said “everybody orders caballeros pobres.” Ok. Done deal.
I am a fan of the French toast food category. The Yucatán style, however, is in a league of it’s own.
It uses what is known in Mexico as pan francés or French bread, which is like a baguette but a bit thicker. Some versions use bolillos or teleras (just smaller in size). You are safe to use any crusty bread of your choice.
Then the thick slices are entirely soaked, drenched, in a mix of milk, vanilla and sweetened condensed milk. You heard that right: sweetened condensed milk.
You know you want it.
I made it for a class on Yucatecan food at the Mexican Cultural Institute. The 120 attendees were all oohs and ahs when I demoed the dipping of the bread in the sweetened condensed milk mix. Practically every one, wanted seconds, which I didn’t plan for.
There’s more. Instead of dunking the bread in beaten whole eggs, the eggs are separated. The egg whites are beaten until stiff peaks are formed, as in a meringue, then the yolks are gently added to form a thick coating: a capeado.
Hence, there may lay the gentlemen status of an everyday bread that is first soaked in a sweetened condensed milk bath, to be then fully dressed in a fluffy cape.
Once luxuriously dressed, it is crisped and browned to golden status.
That is not all: though at home we can happily eat it like that with a bit of honey, maple syrup or confectioner’s sugar.
The caballeros pobres are then sauced with a simple syrup flavored with true cinnamon, a few whole cloves and raisins.
You can make the syrup ahead of time and reheat it. You can also make it while you are dressing and browning the bread.
Wait: I am still missing the last garnish: chopped, crunchy, nutty almonds.
Ok, wait, again: Some people add sherry to the syrup. That takes it to adult territory, which would pair well for a grown up brunch.
Of all the versions of Yucatán style french toast this recipe below is my favorite. Crispy, chewy, moist. I prefer to eat it hot and with the warm syrup on top as a main dish for a weekend breakfast or brunch. However, in Yucatán it is traditionally served very cold and for dessert. Then again, I have to admit that I always make extra to have leftovers in the refrigerator, so I can sneak into the kitchen at just about anytime, to eat them cold.
Yucatán-Style French Toast
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For the syrup:
- 4 cups water
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup raisins or to taste
- 1 ceylon or true cinnamon stick
- 3 whole cloves
- 2 tablespoons Dry Sherry optional
For the toast:
- 6 eggs separated
- 1 cup milk
- 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 1 large French baguette or thick baguette of your choice cut into 3/4-inch slices
- 1/2 cup chopped almonds
- Place a medium saucepan with the water, sugar, raisins, cinnamon and cloves over medium heat. Bring to a simmer and let it cook until it achieves the consistency of a light syrup and the flavors from the spices have infused the liquid, about 35 minutes. Turn off the heat. If you like a hint of alcohol in your dessert, add the sherry. Remove the cinnamon stick and cloves. Cover to keep warm.
- Meanwhile, beat the egg whites in the bowl of an electric mixer or with a hand mixer over medium-high speed until they hold stiff peaks. Reduce the speed to low, add the yolks one by one and continue beating just until incorporated, so the volume will not decrease much.
- In a large bowl, combine the milk, sweetened condensed milk and vanilla, stir until incorporated.
- Set the bowl with the milk mixture beside the bowl with the beaten egg whites and yolks.
- Fill a large sauté pan with about 1/4-inch of oil and heat over medium heat until hot, but not smoking, and you see ripples in the oil when you tilt the pan.
- One at a time, dunk each piece of bread in the milk mixture until soaked, immediately dip into the egg mixture to completely cover, and place the coated slice in the hot oil. Fry for about a minute on one side, until golden brown, flip to the other side and do the same. Add as many bread pieces as will fit into the pan without over-crowding. When finished frying, place the bread pieces on a baking dish covered with paper towels to drain.
- Traditionally, the “poor gentleman” pieces are placed on a platter, covered with the syrup and refrigerated. But I think they are a thousand times tastier served hot! Cover the pieces with warm syrup, sprinkle chopped almonds on top and serve.
- If you have leftovers, cover the battered and fried bread pieces with the remaining syrup and almonds, and store covered in the refrigerator. I admit they are also fabulous cold.