3½ cups half & half
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped
(1 tsp vanilla extract)
2 cinnamon sticks
3 eggs, room temperature
3/4 cups sugar
1/4 cup butter
6 cups hearty white (French) bread, cubed or torn
½ cup raisins (optional)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Scald the half & half in a large saucepan and add the cinnamon sticks (and the vanilla bean if using). Remove from heat, cover and let sit at least 20 minutes. Arrange the bread pieces in an even layer on a baking sheet and place in oven for 5 minutes to dry. Cool.
Whisk the eggs together with the sugar (and the vanilla extract if using) until light in color. Reheat the half and half and remove from heat. Slowly drizzle 1 cup of the hot liquid into the eggs, whisking constantly. Whisk the egg mixture back into the half and half.
Grease a large baking dish with the butter and add the bread. Remove the cinnamon sticks (and the vanilla pod if using) from the custard mixture and pour liquid over the bread. Let sit until the bread has absorbed most or all of the custard, pressing the bread down with your fingers if necessary. (Mix in raisins if using.)
Bake in oven for 1 hour or until an inserted
toothpick comes out clean. Cool 30 minutes. Serve warm topped with whipped
cream or a favorite sauce or syrup (a simple drizzle of maple syrup makes a
wonderful accompaniment). To save, cool completely, cover and refrigerate.