I've said it before and I'll say it again: I love a good theme. I really do! Valentine's Day has long been one of my favorite holidays, even back in the single days. I think it takes me back to the days in elementary school where we covered cereal boxes in pink paper with red hearts and delivered all of our candy hearts and cartoon Valentine's to the rest of the classes little cereal mail boxes!
Even though I love to cook, I really like to make Valentine's Day a relaxing occasion (aka, no dishes please!). I've been dreaming up this Strawberries & Cream French Toast Bake for quite a while, but I thought it would be the perfect Valentine's breakfast not only because it's festive and colorful, but because it is 100% make ahead.
This french toast bake turned out even better than I imagined, and my sweetheart gobbled it up. It's almost a cross between a bread pudding and a french toast, with a buttery, golden crust, and a soft, pillowy center. The strawberries and sweetened cream cheese add so much flavor and decadence. The only day-of work required is to pop it in the oven and top it with a touch of maple syrup when it comes out. My kind of breakfast!
Ingredients (Serves 4):
* 1 lb. french bread loaf (I used a larger, oval loaf, as opposed to a baguette, so I had enough room to cut out hearts)
*1 1/4 c. milk (I used 1%)
* 1 tsp. vanilla
* 1 tsp. orange liqueur, optional (I used Cointreau)
* 3 oz. cream cheese
* 1 tbsp. + 1 tsp. sugar, divided
*6-8 strawberries, quartered (depending on size)
* 1 tbsp. butter, melted, plus more for buttering the casserole dish
*Maple Syrup, for serving
To prepare the french toast bake, begin by cutting out your toppers (in this instance, hearts). Slice four pieces from the center of the loaf, then use a cookie cutter to cut the shapes. Slice all of the remaining bread into one inch cubes. Butter a small casserole dish and place all of the bread in the dish, with the hearts on top.
To prepare the custard, whisk together eggs, milk, vanilla, and orange liquor. In a separate bowl, use a fork to stir together the cream cheese with 1 tbsp. sugar. Use your fingers to dot bits of the cream cheese throughout the bread, and distribute strawberries throughout the bread as well.
Pour the custard over the bread pieces and use your hands to press down the bread so it has a chance to absorb the liquid. Cover and refrigerate for at least an hour, or preferably overnight.
Preheat the oven to 375. Brush the tops of the bread with melted butter and sprinkle with the remaining 1 tsp. sugar. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until golden brown. Serve warm with maple syrup. Enjoy!