Asian desserts are generally much lighter than Western desserts despite how decadent some appear. They’re also lower in sugar, with most coming from natural ingredients. Halo halo is a typical example: it’s a Filipino shaved ice dessert topped with a mix of purple sweet potato, tropical fruit, jellies, red bean, and evaporated milk. Despite the fact that this kaleidoscope of sweets makes Fruity Pebbles look positively bland in comparison, it’s actually quite light and refreshing, even healthy as far as desserts go.
Well… so I’ve heard. I’ve never actually tried halo halo despite having eaten at many Filipino restaurants that serve it. Inevitably, I stuff myself on hefty fried meats and aromatic garlic rice; by the time the dessert options are presented, I’m sated with an unforgiving amount of oil and salt and vinegar. I should know by now to plan ahead, but as the saying goes, my eyes are bigger than my stomach.
Pacing my meals to save room is something I’ve never been able to do. It might have something to do with the Chinese mentality toward food, developed through a long history of famines and feasts. One: wasting food is incredibly rude – heaven forbid a single grain of rice remains on your plate after a meal. Everything served can and should be eaten, from the aromatics (scallions, garlic, and ginger) down to the gristle and cartilage remaining from bones already picked clean. Two: guests and children will be offered infinite helpings against any protests. No matter how much you eat and how firmly you reject additional food, Chinese hosts will insist you eat more. “Bie ke qi!” they say, or “don’t be polite!”, with ferocity that would border on rudeness were it not so devoted to your personal satisfaction. Thus trained from childhood, I clear my plate and eat beyond satiety, to the point that sometimes the thought of dessert, no matter how light, is utterly alarming.
But the solution is simple: begin with dessert! And let’s take it to the next level: dessert for breakfast! This variation on French toast is reminiscent not only of halo halo but also of brick toast, a popular dessert in Japan and Taiwan. To make brick toast, a loaf of sweet white bread is hollowed out, grilled in copious butter and condensed milk, then filled with a generous mix of ice cream, syrups, and fruit. Yeah… that’s still a light dessert, right? (Fruit!) In any case, this recipe draws the best features of both inspirations. It boasts the bright easy flavors of halo halo and the plush custardy texture of brick toast. Syrup is absolutely unnecessary as the slow-roasted purple sweet potato and rainbow of fruit toppings speak for themselves.
Mornings like these I could get used to; this time I'll have no problems with seconds, thirds, and beyond.
Halo Halo French Toast Recipe (serves 2-3)
- 1 lb purple Okinawan sweet potatoes
- 2 eggs
- 1/3 cup whole milk
- 2 tsp sugar
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 6 slices of semi-stale bread, no more than 1/2 inch thick; brioche or challah are sturdiest and most absorbent but regular sandwich bread also is perfectly good (as shown here)
- 1/4 cup red bean paste (or, as shown here, 3 tbsp dry red beans, soaked overnight and boiled in sugared water until tender; add honey or more syrup to taste after fully softened)
- 1 banana, sliced
- 1/2 mango, diced into cubes
- 2 tbsp coconut flakes
- Butter and oil, for frying
Prepare the sweet potatoes: Prick the skins of the sweet potatoes with a fork, and roast in a 325 degree oven until a fork pierces them quite easily and they are tender. Depending on the size of the potatoes, this will take ~60 minutes or more. I like to start them in a cold oven and keep them in as they preheat so they cook even more gradually. When they are tender, remove them from the oven and keep them in a covered pan (so they steam and tenderize more) until at room temperature. Remove them from skins, and mash the potatoes with a fork; add 1 tbsp milk to loosen and soften as needed. Should make ~1 cup of mashed sweet potato. This can be done the night before.
Assemble the stuffed toast: Divide the sweet potato mash into thirds and spread each portion evenly across the whole surface of three slices of bread. Top the slices with another piece of bread.
Prepare the custard: Beat eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, and salt in a flat dish. Make sure everything is completely mixed, otherwise stringy pieces of white egg will solidify and harden on the bread as it cooks.
Soak the toast: Dip each side of the two-layered stuffed breads into the custard and let them soak in the dish for 10 minutes, flipping halfway through. If using challah or brioche, which are sturdier breads, soak them longer, about half an hour or even overnight.
Cook the French toast: Heat a nonstick skillet with a light amount of half butter and half oil (or all oil) over medium/medium low heat. (I think half butter and half oil allows more control over browning). Cook three to four minutes on each side, or until nicely browned. Discard the oil/butter after each toast.
Assemble: Top with red bean paste, banana slices, mango cubes, and coconut.