Big Little Recipes

A One-Ingredient Swap for Your New Favorite French Toast

It's the best thing since sliced bread.

February  5, 2019

A Big Little Recipe has the smallest-possible ingredient list and big everything else: flavor, creativity, wow factor. Psst—we don't count water, salt, black pepper, and certain fats (specifically, 1/2 cup or less of olive oil, vegetable oil, and butter), since we're guessing you have those covered. This week, we're making a three-ingredient French toast that's unlike any other.

If I had to pick between French toast, waffles, and pancakes, I’d pick French toast every time. Waffles are a close second, but crispy, creamy, just-fried, butter-topped, maple syrup–drenched French toast unites two of my favorite things in all the land: custard and bread.

Well, sometimes. Because this French toast—that ruined all other French toasts for me forever—doesn’t really call for bread. It calls for babka.

Which is a type of bread, technically. But it’s a far cry from the bread most French toast recipes call for: challah, brioche, or store-bought sliced. All of these are enriched in one way or another, which is fancy-baker-speak for: The ingredient list includes more than just flour, water, yeast, and salt.

You'll want to eat the babka as soon as you slice it—but just you wait, it's about to get even better. Photo by Ty Mecham

Challah has eggs, oil, and some sort of sweetener (usually sugar or honey). Brioche has eggs, butter, and sugar. And store-bought sliced has, well, a bunch of stuff (probably oil, maybe something milky like whey).

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Since this is the sight of great food I hope you don’t mind a bit of sharing....I also had a version where they used bread pudding for the bread (called it baked French toast). And one day, when out of bread I used panettone and topped it with maple syrup (from my friends harvest). All kinds of yum! Now I have a third favorite French toast!!! Thanks so much for the great ideas as always!!!!”
— Carla

But what do none of these breads have? Swirls of chocolatey goodness and a streusel crust. That’s where babka comes in.

Babka hails from Eastern Europe and went mainstream in the States circa 1994, largely thanks to Seinfeld. As Elaine says, “You can’t beat a babka!” And you can’t. Serious Eats defines it as a “half-yeasted-bread, half-cake hybrid.”

I’ve been eating babka all my life, but never saw a French toast take until recently—at Russ & Daughters Café, the restaurant sequel to the 105-year-old appetizing shop in NYC’s Lower East Side. While the café’s menu hinges on bagels and smoked fish, it also includes wildcards like kippered salmon mac and cheese, falafel latkes, and two kinds of French toast: chocolate babka and cinnamon babka. The former is served with sour cream and berries. The latter, apple compote, candied walnuts, and crème fraîche.

"The fourth generation owners—Josh Russ Tupper and Niki Russ Federman—came up with the idea many years ago, while working at the counter in the shop," where they sell about 150 babkas per day, Russ & Daughters' Director of PR, Communications, Brand & Design​ Jen Snow told me. "They had never seen it made anywhere before they developed their recipe in their homes."

So, why does babka make such a standout French toast?

Let’s call it the Custardy Deliciousness Theory (CDT). The whole point of French toast is that it’s custardy. After all, you’re soaking the bread in custard (eggs or egg yolks plus milk, half-and-half, or even cream). This custard creates a bread pudding-y interior and a golden-brown crust. Oh, and it tastes really good.

Now, if you use an unenriched bread (think classic sourdough), all the French toast’s custardy flavor and texture must come from the custard itself. If you use an enriched bread, like brioche, then you’ve got an A+ head start, thanks to the eggs and butter in the bread. And if you use an ultra-enriched bread, like babka, then you reach Peak Deliciousness (PD)—a French toast that’s practically pan-fried cake. And what could be better than that?

A chocolatey French toast that's practically pan-fried cake. This is best of all. Marbled throughout the babka, chocolate takes an otherwise humble breakfast recipe and makes it lazy weekend–worthy. (Permission to eat this in bed: granted!) It’s sort of like stirring chocolate chips into pancake batter or cookie dough. Adding chocolate just makes things better. And French toast was already amazing to begin with.

Which would you pick: French toast, waffles, or pancakes? Tell us why in the comments!
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Emma was the food editor at Food52. She created the award-winning column, Big Little Recipes, and turned it into a cookbook in 2021. These days, she's a senior editor at Bon Appétit, leading digital cooking coverage. Say hello on Instagram at @emmalaperruque.


Barbara C. November 4, 2019
We get babka at Publix; both chocolate and cinnamon. It’s normally on a table in front of the cold cases.
Fran S. March 15, 2019
But where do I find babka to buy? I don't think I have ever seen it in a store.
Emma L. March 18, 2019
Hi Fran! Copying this from the recipe headnote, hope it helps:

"A note about sourcing: I usually buy chocolate babka at Jewish delis, but some supermarkets sell it as well. If you can’t find it wherever you live, feel free to substitute another sweet, swirly bread (think cinnamon-raisin). It’ll be different, but still delicious."
Toddie November 4, 2019
Hi Fran. Don't know if you have a Trader Joe's nearby, but mine carries delicious babka. Might be because I'm in Brooklyn but it's worth a try.
Barbara September 3, 2023
I buy babka in Trader Joe’s
Carla February 13, 2019
This sounds so yummy!!! Since this is the sight of great food I hope you don’t mind a bit of sharing....I also had a version where they used bread pudding for the bread (called it baked French toast). And one day, when out of bread I used panettone and topped it with maple syrup (from my friends harvest). All kinds of yum! Now I have a third favorite French toast!!! Thanks so much for the great ideas as always!!!!
Peter J. February 10, 2019
Re your question on French toast vs. waffles, etc. I have a hack that doesn't force you to choose: I cook my French toast in a waffle iron. It gives you a good crust with dimples to hold the syrup and an almost creamy center. It would probably work great for this recipe.
Emma L. February 11, 2019
Well, I know what I'm doing this weekend!
Peter J. November 4, 2019
My other hack is using panettone when it goes on sale after Christmas.
Olga O. February 6, 2019
That looks so good! Which recipe for babka did you use? I've yet to bake one.
Emma L. February 6, 2019
Thanks, Olga! I actually didn't make the chocolate babka—I bought it. You can usually find them at Jewish appetizing shops or delis, or some supermarkets. But if you want to make it yourself, here are a couple recipes: