Overnight Cinnamon French Toast Casserole

We spent Labor Day weekend with lots of family at the lake. Those fun packed weekends call for delicious, big breakfasts that can easily feed a load of hungry mouths.  When my Aunt and I were doing a little menu planning the week before, I knew right away I wanted to make a french toast casserole.  

I had made this one for Christmas one year (which starred a Praline topping), but I wasn't sure how everyone felt about nuts so I searched around a bit for a nut-free version and found this gem from The Pioneer Woman on Food Network's website. 

This was super easy to make and I love that most of the prep can be done ahead of time, so that the morning of serving all you have to do is a quick assemble and then pop in the oven. It's perfect for entertaining and feeding a herd.

I'm also not a huge breakfast person (I've mentioned before that I will almost always choose lunch foods over breakfast ones), but I loved this - as did the rest of my extended family. This is way better than actual french toast in my book! The bread is light and fluffy and that vanilla definitely comes through. The crunchy, sugary, buttery topping is a wonderful contrast to the soft bread filling.

This can be eaten on its own or drizzled with a little bit of syrup to take it over the top.

A few notes:
- I would recommend instead of placing butter on individual pieces when serving, doing as I did: about 10 prior to the end of cooking time, I pulled the casserole out and placed very thin slivers of butter all over the casserole and then placed it back in the oven for the remaining 10 minutes.  This gave the top an extra buttery crunchiness instead of making the topping lose its crispness with melted butter at the end.
- I used closer to 3 tablespoons of vanilla extract in the bread mixture.
- I also added a pinch of both cinnamon and nutmeg to the bread mixture to add another level of flavor. Speaking of nutmeg, if you can, always grate the nutmeg fresh as you need it - the result is a world of difference.
- I hate mushy bread (aka anything resembling bread pudding) so I baked this for about 1 hr and 5-10 minutes. Even with the additional cooking time, this was nowhere close to being dry.

Overnight Cinnamon French Toast Casserole

1 loaf Crusty Sourdough Or French Bread
8 whole Eggs
2 cups Whole Milk
1/2 cup Whipping (heavy) Cream
3/4 cups Sugar
2 Tablespoons Vanilla Extract
1/2 cup All-purpose Flour
1/2 cup Firmly Packed Brown Sugar
1 teaspoon Cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon Salt
1 pinch Nutmeg
1 stick Cold Butter, Cut Into Pieces

Fresh Fruit (optional)

Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan with butter. Tear bread into chunks (or cut into cubes) and evenly distribute in the pan.

In a medium sized bowl mix together eggs, milk, cream, sugar, and vanilla. Pour evenly over the bread. Cover tightly and store in the fridge for several hours or overnight.

In a separate bowl, mix flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Add nutmeg if desired. Add butter pieces and cut them into the dry mixture until mixture resembles fine pebbles. Store in a Ziploc in the fridge if not using right away.

When you're ready to bake the casserole, preheat oven to 350 F. Remove casserole from the fridge and sprinkle crumb mixture over the top. (If you're using fruit, sprinkle on before the crumb mixture.)

Bake for 45 minutes for a softer, more bread pudding texture. Bake 1 hour or more for a firmer, less liquid texture.

Scoop out individual portions. Top with butter and drizzle with maple syrup.