We sat picnicking in a sunny field, not far from the narrow streets, bordered by the cracking plaster of crooked old buildings. These little roads opened to the center plaza, where farmers had sold us apples as big as our heads, creamy, stinky cheeses, rustic breads laced with nuts and fruits, and a cheap bottle of wine that would keep a sommelier squawking for days. You wouldn’t recognize me in this sunny field.
Close friends are often shocked when they glimpse this stage of my life. My hair was dreaded and spindled down my back. My flowing fabrics and loose garments spoke to my pseudo-hippy stage, but beyond my looks, you wouldn’t recognize me because I was still such a baby in my food journey. Those picnics in the very quaint and serene Aix-en-Provence taught me to appreciate ingredients, the effects of soil and flowers, why a name can only be applied when a strict set of standards are followed. In a word, terroir.
When I glimpsed this green enamel bucket arrangement at Roxanne’s Dried Flowers, where I regularly style and photograph beautiful florals, I felt transported. I briefly returned to the narrow roads, crooked buildings, crackling plaster and bustling farmers markets of Aix-en-Provence. I returned to the centre-ville that taught me how bread, cheese, olives and wine tempt and lure me as much as an intricately prepared roast. In turn, the very provincial centerpiece inspired my brunch menu.
This easy side dish combines fennel, blood oranges, roasted red grapes and fennel greens with Pink Himalayan sea salt. Fennel is a staple in many provincial French recipes. Roasting the grapes adds an extra sweetness, and their shape mirrored the spherical Billy Buttons. The loose fennel greens added a color pop to match the green enamel bucket and the salal leaves.
When I set the table, I added a curly lemon peel garnish to each glass. The yellow peels picked up the yellow hues of the floral arrangement. For an inspired brunch cocktail, I invited guests to mix fresh-squeezed lemon juice, champagne, Art in the Age’s Sage Liquor and Royal Rose Lavender Lemon Simple Syrup, according to their flavor preferences. The tart lemon and sweet lavender mixed well with the herbal notes of the Sage Liquor to create a very fresh, spring drink. If you could drink in the hillsides of Provence, it might taste like this!
As a token for each guest, I created simple nosegays using the same flowers as the arrangement. This carried my floral theme to the plates and made a lovely parting gesture to my guests. When it came time to fill those plates with food, my main dish was a Baked Whole Grain Lavender Infused French Toast.
Pain Perdu, lost or wasted bread, the French call it, and aside from almond croissants, it’s one of my favorite French breakfasts. For my baked version, I served each portion with a dollop of homemade Lemon Lavender Whipped Cream and added a small sprinkling of loose lavender as a fragrant and flavorful garnish. As the morning progressed, with tart, herbal sips and sweet, syrupy, floral bites, part of me felt far, far away on a picnic in Provence.
Baked Lavender Lemon French Toast with Lavender Lemon Whipped Cream
About This Recipe: Baked French Toast is best when assembled the night prior to your brunch, which makes morning preparations a lot easier. I infused cream with organic lavender, which soaks the bread overnight. The longer you infuse the lavender, the better, so start that step early. I sourced my organic lavender from a Farm-to-Table expo, but you can find it in certain specialty stores. Be sure to buy food-grade, organic lavender to avoid flowers sprayed with pesticides. When I was struggling to find lavender, I had purchased Royal Rose’s Lavender Lemon Simple Syrup, which I used in this recipe, but alternately, you can make your own.
Baked Lavender Lemon French Toast
1 1/2 cups half-and-half
1 teaspoon organic dried lavender flowers
3/4 cups organic packed brown sugar
1/2 cup organic, unsalted butter
2 Tablespoons pure maple syrup
1 large loaf stale whole grain bread, cut into 1-inch slices, crusts removed (or a mix of whatever bread you have leftover- I used 1 French baguette + 2 challah rolls)
2 organic lemons, sliced thin
5 organic/cage-free eggs
1 teaspoon organic vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon organic almond extract
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
Lavender Lemon Whipped Cream (Recipe Below)
Pure maple syrup
Loose lavender for garnish
In a small saucepan, over med-low heat, warm cream and lavender for 5 minutes or until steaming. Remove from heat, top with a lid, and let cool while you prepare the remaining ingredients.
Note:The longer the lavender steeps, the more flavor you’ll be able to draw, so do this step as early as possible.
In another small saucepan, over medium heat, combine brown sugar, butter, and maple syrup, stirring until smooth and sugar has dissolved.
Pour into 13 x 9 inch glass baking dish.
Arrange half the bread slices in a single layer in the baking dish, pushing the slices tightly together.
Arrange lemon slices over the bread layer. Top with remaining bread slices.
In a big bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, almond extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt.
Strain cream mixture through a fine sieve into egg mixture, discarding lavender; whisk to combine.
Pour evenly over bread.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, or ideally, overnight.
Preheat oven to 350°; meanwhile, let casserole stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
Uncover and bake for 35-40 minutes or until bubbling and golden brown.
Serve hot, with homemade Lemon Lavender Whipped Cream and a light drizzle of pure maple syrup.
Lavender Lemon Whipped Cream
1 cup organic heavy cream, chilled
1-2 Tablespoons Lavender Lemon Simple Syrup, to taste (homemade or Royal Rose)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
In the chilled bowl of a stand mixer, combine all the ingredients. Beat on medium speed until soft peaks begin to form. Keep chilled until ready to use.
p.s: I received product and some compensation for this post, but all musings, daydreams, wanderings and opinions are my own. If you like the arrangement and florals I featured, visit Roxanne’s Dried Flowers for your own dose of lovely.