German French Toast

A recipe qua love letter.

When I first moved to Berlin—or rather, came on a one-way, first-class train ticket to visit my new love some two-and-a-half years ago, and never left—I vaguely recognized “Danke” from multi-lingual thank-you notes. You know the ones, decorated with the word “Thanks” in seven languages, different sizes and fonts scattered across the page like hands waving in a group—all saying the same thing, all the better for their blithe redundancy. I had learned French in high school, which was of no use to me now—except in fostering the hope that I could learn German, too. This in spite of having lived in Holland for three months, interrupted in the middle by one glorious month in Lisbon, without picking up even the ability to recognize Dutch or Portuguese. (Now I know: Dutch sounds like German without being German, and there are no other common European languages like that. Portuguese sounds Slavic without being Slavic, and there are seven other common European languages like that.)

Mark Twain once wrote of “The Awful German Language” that “Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.” Twain’s beef aside, learning German isn’t all that different from learning French. You have to soak in it for a while, getting soggy in the batter of your stupidity before the lattices of the brain loosen. Then you can jump in the frying pan of real conversation, browning and firming up what seeped in there somehow. If you can learn French, you can learn German. Except perhaps in Berlin.

Berlin to me is a city of love and sweetness. Probably in the first case because I came here for love. But also because it has this vibe of kindness, silliness, celebration, and having time for life. It’s not unusual to see musicians busking in Mauerpark on Sunday, just far enough away so you can make out the different tunes. Or someone wearing gold lamé pants on the subway—or a man wearing lipstick, or a gorgeous young woman in (weather permitting) a summery dress and no bra. I threw away the only bra I came to Europe with years ago; no one has ever catcalled me here, regardless.

The culture of safe self-expression extends even to the corporate world. Local ads for public transit announce that the buses and trains are good here, “Weil wir lieben dich“—because we love you. To be sure, the love doesn’t extend to every grumpy, middle-aged grocery store clerk glaring and double-checking your cart for attempted shoplifting because you seem foreign. But it spreads pretty far and wide in Berlin. So much so that this is the first place that feels like home.

Forgive me for I have been born American: Home is English-speaking. It’s bad, but it’s a good problem to have. My German is coming along slowly, because in Berlin, I can usually get away with feeble attempts and switching to English.

And home is love and sweetness. So not everyday—not even every week in the era of keto-paleo-low-FODMAP-low-carb goody-goodness—but every once in a while, home requires the decadent sweetness of French toast. Not real, American French toast—the kind made with gluten, stale imitation-French bread, and childhood disappointment. But German French toast, modifying the classic recipe of love and sweetness to suit the times and our tastes.

If you can make French toast, you can make German French toast. Start with gluten-free sandwich bread, freshly freed from its airtight seal. Toast the bread slices two by two while mixing five eggs, two extra egg yolks, half a cup of milk or rice milk, one dash of salt per egg, and a similar sprinkling of cinnamon and nutmeg. Soak the toasted slices two by two while readying the toppings on the table: maple syrup, cinnamon sugar, cherry preserves, 100% dark chocolate broken into bits for toast-top melting, white miso paste, and rainbow sprinkles. Then cook the soaked toast with extra egg batter spooned over the top and sides to spilling, letting the pairs of pieces brown on medium-high heat in a non-stick pan with a small bit of light cooking oil.

It helps to have at least two and preferably three extra lovely people on hand for good company and quality control. That way, it doesn’t matter that you have to keep toasting, soaking, cooking, and flipping the rest of the batches while the first one, two, three pairs of French toast are done, and need to be eaten while they’re hot. I actually enjoy keeping on cooking while people are eating. I have to explain every time, but I’m happy to keep saying it and feeling that it’s true: There are very few things in life that I enjoy more than cooking good food for good people.

What is the opposite of YOLO (you only live once)? This is not a rhetorical question. I am still actively looking for a better way to say: You only eat too much sugar on rare occasions, so it’s less poisonous than if you did it all the time. Carpe the occasional glucose dump? Eat, drink, and be merry today, for tomorrow we may diet? I don’t know and, by the time I sit down with the last two pieces and cooked leftover egg batter, to show how to melt unsweetened chocolate on top, smother it with miso paste, pour maple syrup over, and enjoy being myself in front of my dear ones, no matter how weird I am—I don’t care.

German French toast tastes like sustainable indulgence. Aber ich muss noch Deutsch lernen.