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poor knights, for one

stale bread and some apples
This is the story of a New York kind of toast.

But first, a brief history of reclaimed bread. Bread has been a food staple since ancient times. Although the earliest archaeological evidence of flatbread dates back some 30,000 years, today’s leavened bread was most likely invented in ancient Egypt sometime before 3,000 BC.

Food was a precious commodity in ancient times. To prevent bread from hardening in the desert heat, the ancient Egyptians scorched slices on a hot stone to prolong its shelf life. The Romans quickly adapted and popularized this preservative practice: "Toast" is derived from Old Latin tostum (to burn or scorch). This meaning puts an interesting perspective on the Roman act of "toasting to one's health". But, I digress.

Ancient peoples would have never dreamed of wasting anything potentially edible, so stale bread (toasted or otherwise) was also reclaimed by soaking in milk or other liquids.

The earliest known mention of this soaking method is found in Apicius, a collection of 1st century AD Roman cookery compiled in the 4-5th centuries. The recipe mentions soaking bread in milk and calls it aliter dulcia (another sweet dish).
aliter dulcia
Break fine white bread, crust removed, into rather large pieces which soak in milk, Fry in oil, cover with honey and serve.

from Apicius Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, edited and translated by Joseph Dommers Vehling, page 172, recipe 296, retrieved 3/6/16.
This recipe for "bread soaked in liquid and then fried" spread throughout medieval Europe, appearing under many different names. Suppe dorate/soupys yn dorye (gilded sops), tostées dorées (gilded toast), pain doré (gilded bread), pain a la Romaine (Roman bread), and payn purdyeu/pain perdu (lost bread) were all regional variations of the same dish.

A fourteenth-century German recipe identifies this dish as arme ritter (poor knights), a name also used throughout northern Europe. The actual reasoning behind the name is lost to time. One theory suggests that although economical, fried egg-soaked bread served with jam or honey was decadent enough to serve at banquets held by titled medieval knights of modest means.

The earliest written English example of poor knights can be found in The Compleat Cook, an anonymous work published in 1658.
To make poore knights.
Cut two penny loaves in round slices, dip them in half a pint of Cream or faire water, then lay them abroad in a dish, and beat three Eggs and grated Nutmegs and sugar, beat them with the Cream then melt some butter in a frying pan, and wet the sides of the toasts and lay them in on the wet side, then pour in the rest upon them, and so fry them, serve them in with Rosewater, sugar and butter.

from The Compleat Cook Expertly Prescribing The Most Ready Wayes, Whether Italian, Spanish Or French, For Dressing Of Flesh And Fish, Ordering Of Sauces Or Making Of Pastry, Anonymous, given as "W. M.", 1658. Retrieved 3/5/16.
In the 1700s, the colloquial British name for this dish became "Poor Knights of Windsor." This boozy 1755 Scottish version featuring a hefty pour of sack (better known as fortified wine) would make any poor knight happy (whether they hail from Windsor or not):
For Poor Knights of Windsor.
Take a Roll, and cut it into Slices; soke them in Sack, then dip them in Yolks of Egg, and fry them; serve them up with Beat Butter, Sack and Sugar.

from from A New and Easy Method of Cookery by Elizabeth Clelland, Edinburgh, 1755.
Originally known as the Alms Knights, The Poor Knights of Windsor is a chivalric order formed in 1346 by King Edward III. Impoverished English knights returning home from the Battle of Crécy were given a pension and living quarters in Windsor Castle, in exchange for a lifetime of prayer for the Sovereign and the Knights of the Garter. The order continues to this day as The Military Knights of Windsor — the name was updated in 1833 to reflect the knights' change of financial status and duties.

In this 1859 recipe, Poor Knights is called Poor Knight's Pudding. However, the directions describe custard-soaked fried bread served with a wine sauce (wine reduced with sugar to make a syrup):
Poor Knight's Pudding.
Cut a roll into thin slices with the crust on it, mix up two eggs with a pint of milk; sugar and nutmeg to the taste. Let the slices soak in this custard for an hour, then pour off, and drain another hour; fry them till they are of a nice brown, and serve with wine sauce.

from The English Cookery Book, recipes collected by a committee of ladies, edited by J. H. Walsh, 1859. Page 235, recipe 882, retrieved 3/5/16.
Poor Knights of Windsor continues to be a very popular British brunch item. It has evolved in culinary richness; order it, and you will be pleasantly surprised by a dish best described as a custard-soaked fried bread sandwich filled with cream cheese and jam, topped with whipped cream and more jam.

And here's where the New York part of this story begins.

Just when you think a certain dish can't get any better, a collection of circumstances creates an event of great culinary importance:

poor knights of new york

Serves 1

This decadent brunch dish is a fitting tribute to the official NY-sanctioned state fruit (apple), tree (sugar maple), and beverage (milk) as well as NYC’s (unofficial) number one weekend meal.

Note: The recipe can easily be doubled to serve 2, but if you're short an egg (or need to watch your intake), you can use one egg instead of two to no ill effect.

  • 1 large egg
  • 1/4 cup whole milk (or half-and-half)
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 teaspoon apple brandy
  • Pinch of ground cinnamon
  • Dash of salt
  • 2 slices white bread (preferably day-old)
  • 1 tablespoon crème fraîche
  • 1-2 tablespoons Maple-apple Compote
  • 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Whipped cream and sliced strawberries, for serving, optional
In a small bowl, whisk together egg, milk, vanilla, apple brandy, cinnamon, and salt. Transfer to shallow dish (a pie plate works well).

Spread crème fraîche on one bread slice; place both bread slices in egg mixture (crème fraîche-side up); soak 10 minutes. Top crème fraîche slice with maple-apple compote. Using a spatula, carefully top with other soaked bread slice.

Heat butter in a skillet over medium heat. Fry the sandwich until golden brown, 2 to 3 minutes per side. Slice in half, serve warm topped with more compote, soft whipped cream, and sliced strawberries, if desired.


Maple-apple Compote

Makes about 1 cup
  • 2 cooking apples, peeled, cored, cut into 1/4-inch dice
  • 1 ounce apple brandy
  • 1/4 cup maple sugar
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
  • Pinch of cinnamon
Combine all ingredients in a large pot. Cover, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until apples are tender, about 30 minutes. Let cool.