June 12, 2008 -- For reasons incomprehensible to me, my friends and even my enemies (you know who you are), the beneficent powers at Conde Nast Traveler magazine decided to send me on another trip. The timing couldn't be better, considering I've only just recovered from my last excursion.
The theme of this new adventure is self-improvement. But before you get too excited, there's not much in the way of assertiveness therapy, optimal thinking or auto-hypnosis. No, the idea here is decidedly retrograde, but in a good way. I'm trying to become a Renaissance Man.
For those of you unclear on the subject, a Renaissance Man isn't a guy with long, well-conditioned hair who plays classical guitar in the hopes of impressing women. That's what's known as a troubadour, and recently there was a dude reprising that shtick on "American Idol."
A Renaissance Man is someone who's good at a lot of stuff. Impressively so. In the noble words of Wikipedia, which might well be described as the Renaissance Man of Web sites, it is someone who "excels in a wide variety of subjects or fields."
In case you haven't noticed, people aren't like that anymore. We live in an age of raging specialization. Some of us excel in medicine, others in computers, athletics, engineering, acting, marketing, investing, snapping photos of celebrities and so forth. Everyone is very good at something, but hardly anyone is good at more than one thing. It's a wonder we have anything to talk about at dinner parties anymore.
There is one among us, however, who is good at nothing: Me. Despite more than three decades in this world, I have shown no inclination toward specialty in any subject or field. My editors believe this shows an inclination toward becoming well-rounded. I lack the specialty to say whether they're right or wrong.
The theme being the Renaissance, the place I've chosen to transform myself is Europe. (For one thing, there was no such thing as a weak dollar in the Renaissance.) I have precisely one month. Click here to see my schedule: golf in Scotland, gardening at the oldest botanical garden in London, cooking under the direction of some of Paris' finest chefs, piano lessons at Vienna's State Opera, learning Italian in Florence and applying paint to canvas — in a nonrandom manner — on the shores of Lake Como.
Click to the next page to find Mark's favorite recipe for Pain Perdu.
That's has been the idea, anyway. If all goes according to plan, I will be brilliant. If not, I'll have spent a lot of money trying. And that is sure to make for good dinner party conversation.
Making Pain Perdu, the Original French Toast
Christophe Raoux of the L'ecole de Cuisine d'Alain Ducasse made this for me in Paris. I kind of went mental the first time I tasted this, and I think you will too.
Bread (It can be brioche, baguette, challa or plain old American white.)
Crack two eggs into bowl
Beat the mixture
Add Milk (about ½ cup)
Continue whisking until you get a consistent color
Pour the mixture into wide bottom dish or pan
Now cut your bread into slices and drop them into the mixture.
Soak each side for five minutes.*
*That's the secret. You soak it for a lot longer than you think
Turn the heat on your range. Take your frying pan — now here's the second secret and it's a biggee. The first thing you add to the pan is sugar. Let the sugar sit in the heat for a while then add a little water. That's going to start to boil. Go ahead and add a bit more sugar. Add butter … a whole ton.
So you got your butter, your sugar and your water boiling away. Roll it around until the liquid turns a golden brown. Now you are ready to add your bread.