Of course, stale is the traditional choice. Like panzanella in Tuscany or chilaquiles in Mexico, French toast is a classic in part because it uses an ingredient that people tend to keep around. But I have found thick slices of fresh bread to work just as well. They soak up slightly less liquid than stale bread, but, if the bread itself is delicious, the result is just as good. (Heresy alert: Maybe even better.)
While freshness may not matter as much, the type of bread does. As a child of the food revolution, I was raised exclusively on whole-grain bread, and I’m here to tell you that nothing ruins the custardy pleasure of French toast faster than a stray rye grain or wheat berry between the teeth. Sourdough, with its chewy crust and tang, is almost as bad. French toast is simply not the place for them.
Basic white bread is the clear choice, as are brioche or challah, which have extra fat in the dough. If challah is hard to find where you live, go shopping on a Friday; many supermarkets receive shipments that day. I have no problem with packaged, sliced white bread, except that the slices are usually too thin. It’s worth seeking out a whole loaf, so you can make substantial slices. Many bakeries, even the kind that grind their own flour and brag of centuries-old sourdough starter, stock whole Pullman loaves, white bread in an artisanal disguise.
Whether French toast should be sweet itself, or unsweetened, is a matter of taste. Many recipes include sugar (alongside Grand Marnier, amaretto and other cloying concoctions) in the egg-milk mixture. I prefer it unsweetened, to let the deliciously basic egg-milk-bread flavors shine through — the better to enjoy with maple syrup, preserves, sugared fruit and the like. Either way, French toast is not a dessert, so skip the whipped cream and chocolate sauce.
The final, irresistible flourish of restaurant French toast is in the lacy…