SCARBOROUGH — Christmas was still 12 days away, and already Nancy Cerny had received two phone calls from her teenage grandchildren, asking “Are you going to make the French toast, Grandma?”

Chloe, 15, and Liam, 14, will arrive from Iowa today and have just three days of anticipation left until they can indulge in their grandmother’s decadent deep-fried French toast. It’s a dish the family always enjoys on Christmas Eve morning.

Cerny, a caterer, has been making this particular version of French toast ever since she was 12 and learned it from a French chef she met while on a family vacation. She grew up on the South Side of Chicago with six siblings and with parents who were interested in food. Her father was a sales executive at a food business that made jams and jellies.

“My mom was a homemaker and always having parties and people over,” Cerny said. “With seven kids, we had a picnic table in the kitchen. We all sat around the picnic table, and if we all brought friends we’d barely fit, but we did. Ours was a house that all the kids loved to come to.”

Her parents sometimes held spontaneous parties for as many as 75 people.

Once a year – always in the summer – the family went to The Abbey Resort in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, for a vacation. One day, 12-year-old Cerny practically swooned over the French toast on the Sunday breakfast buffet. She told the staff how much she loved it, and the chef, Jacques – “a French guy, a real skinny guy” – invited her into the kitchen to learn how to make it. Cerny was thrilled, partly because she was the only one of her family allowed in the kitchen.


“I remember that day. I only ate French toast,” Cerny said. “And of course I was on Cloud 9.”

Cerny has made the French toast for her family every Christmas ever since. (She also still makes a quiche that the French chef taught her that day.) Over the years, she has made only one change to the recipe: The chef made his recipe with half heavy whipping cream and half milk; Cerny switched to all cream.

“I figure you only have it a couple of times a year, so you might as well use all cream,” she said.

A quick check of The Abbey Resort’s restaurant menu shows that they still serve French toast on their breakfast buffet, but the current recipe is made with challah bread and apple and blueberry compote.

After tasting Cerny’s French toast, it’s hard to believe the modern version could have it beat. It’s sweet and simple; the most complicated thing about the recipe is deep frying until the toast is golden brown. It’s crunchy on the outside, warm and soft on the inside. And Cerny adds just the right amount of nutmeg.

Jacques’ encouragement set Cerny on the path to one day working with food. She lived in Rhode Island in the early 1970s, when her two daughters were small, and one of her friends was the school nurse at the Johnson & Wales culinary school. She used to slip into classes and audit them for free. It changed the way she entertained at home and pushed her closer to a catering career.


In 1984, she married Chuck Cerny, her second husband, who worked for Gilroy Foods in California and was, Nancy says, responsible for putting garlic in oil in a jar. “When we got married,” she said, “that’s when I got more serious.”

The couple used to hold cook-offs where they would compete against each other.

In 1998, they were living in Pennsylvania. They had been vacationing in Maine for about five years, and one day made a spontaneous decision to move to Portland, though they knew no one here. They bought the Victory Deli, a favorite sandwich shop for Portland residents, and transformed it into the Victory Café. The endeavor lasted only about 18 months, when they had to walk away.

“It just wasn’t the right timing,” Cerny said.

Nancy Cerny sprinkles powdered sugar on her family's favorite French toast.

Nancy Cerny sprinkles powdered sugar on her family’s favorite French toast.

Today the couple owns CVC Catering in South Portland. On the wintry day when we were making French toast together, Cerny’s staff was making turkey and gravy for 390 employees at L.L. Bean.

Cerny says learning how to cook with her mother and grandmother, and learning from her mother how to be organized, also led to her catering career. Her mother is now 88 and still cooks for herself and even hosts parties. She still makes everything from scratch, including her spaghetti sauce, Cerny said.


The Cerny’s home is decorated for the holidays, and Christmas carols play as Cerny makes her French toast – a special batch she’ll freeze for her grandchildren. The couple own 1,000 cookbooks and a stash of food magazines from the 1950s that Nancy Cerny says she can’t bring herself to throw out.

Even when Cerny and her husband go to Iowa for Christmas, they still do all the planning, shopping and cooking – which is just fine with them. Cerny’s daughter Jennifer is engaged to be married, and her other daughter Bethany is the mother of the two grandchildren.

“My daughter Jennifer likes to have lobster bisque,” she said, “and my son-in-law is from Vietnam, and I make him pho.”

The family has one more – more unusual – tradition at Christmastime. On Christmas morning, they eat what most people would consider Christmas dinner.

“We have filet mignon and asparagus with Hollandaise sauce and chocolate-dipped strawberries on Christmas morning,” Cerny said.

So does that mean they skip Christmas dinner? No way. Christmas dinner is something different every year. Sometimes turkey, sometimes pork, sometimes lamb. Last year, it was a rib roast. This year, it will be a huge ribeye steak.

But none of those foods will be as cherished as the French toast on the morning of Christmas Eve.

“Some of the best things in the world to eat are the easiest things to make,” Cerny said. “That’s the way I feel, anyway.”

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