Poor knights, a favorite dessert in Scandinavia and Germany, also doubles as a festive winter breakfast dish. Related to American-style French toast, the dish makes a sumptuous presentation comparable to the fanciest pastry.
The origin of the dish's name piqued my interest, of course. A friend who grew up in Germany during the war remembers eating poor knights. Since many medieval knights were penniless but still wore the trappings of wealth, my friend inferred that the name suggests even the poorest ingredients can make an opulent dish if the presentation is luxurious.
For a showy display of poor knights, place overlapping slices of the fried bread down the center of a long serving platter. Then pipe a thick ribbon of colorful fruit puree down the center of the toast. In Scandinavia, fruit favorites include wild strawberries, raspberries, golden cloudberries and garnet-colored lingonberries. For color contrast, spoon orange-flavored vanilla custard around the toast and pipe whipped cream that's been tinted rosy with cranberry juice in a simple design along the sides of the bread.
Instead of using packaged white bread, make poor knights with French or Italian bread, challah, brioche, croissants, even whole wheat bread. Stale bread is best because it retains its shape and does not absorb enough batter to become soggy. That's why the French call this dish pain perdu, or lost bread -- because they make it with bread that would otherwise be thrown out or "lost."
In the classic version of poor knights, the bread is soaked in a batter made of whole eggs and whole milk beaten with a wire whisk together with vanilla and cinnamon or nutmeg. While it isn't traditional, it is possible to bring the cholesterol level in this dish under control. Egg whites and low-fat milk can be substituted in the batter. The whipped cream can be omitted or replaced with yogurt. And the custard sauce can be made in a "diet" version thickened with cornstarch and using fewer eggs.
Toppings can also be imaginative. All-American cranberry sauce gourmet jams look stunning spread over the golden bread. And maple syrup or fruit syrup, honey, cinnamon-sugar, dried fruit compote, applesauce, fresh or frozen unsweetened berries, seasonal fresh fruit or powdered sugar all taste delicious with the fried toast.
While poor knights may be a bit too filling as dessert after dinner, it is a sweet and nutritious way to begin the day in cold weather.
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup sugar
2 cups hot low-fat milk
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup Mandarine Napoleon, Grand Marnier or Cointreau
2 eggs or 3 egg whites
2 cups whole or low-fat milk
1 teaspoon sugar
grated rind of 1 orange
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
6 slices stale bread
2 cups whole cranberry sauce, jam, berries or other topping
To make custard: Beat yolks with sugar until light and thick. Gradually stir in milk. Cook in a double boiler over boiling water, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard is slightly thick and coats the back of the spoon. Dissolve cornstarch in water and add 3 or 4 tablespoons of hot custard. Stir mixture into custard in pan and cook until thickened. Do not allow custard to boil or it will curdle. Remove from heat, strain into a bowl and continue stirring until cool. Stir in orange liqueur.
To make poor knights, beat eggs and add milk, sugar, orange rind, cinnamon and vanilla until smooth. Lightly soak bread slices in mixture. Lightly oil and heat a non-stick griddle. Grill bread slices until lightly browned on both slices. Place toast on a serving dish and top with cranberry sauce or other topping. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Spoon custard around bread. Makes 4 servings.