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Eric Akis: Fresh blackberries add local flavour to French toast

If you’re in need of a brunch dish that incorporates an in-season fruit you can harvest for free, I have something for you to try.
Rich, ricotta-stuffed French toast is topped with a blackberry-infused maple syrup.

If you’re in need of a brunch dish that incorporates an in-season fruit you can harvest for free, I have something for you to try.

It’s a rich and splendid ­version of French toast you begin to prepare by heading out to your favourite spot, whether it’s a country lane, or city park or alley, to harvest some blackberries, which are ripe and ready for picking right now. And, of course, if you don’t feel like picking your own, you could some buy B.C.-grown blackberries at a grocery store or farm market.

Once you’re home with those blackberries, you’ll use some of them to make blackberry maple syrup. All you do is ­simmer blackberries, maple syrup and a bit water together for a few minutes, until the berries soften, seep and infuse there rich colour and flavour into the syrup. The mixture is then strained through a fine sieve and you push on the blackberries to ensure you get every bit of sweet/fruity liquid from them.

To make the French toast, you start by cutting a pocket into the sides of thick slices of French-style bread. Then stuff the ­pockets you’ve made with ricotta, a fresh cheese with a mild, almost sweet flavour and that pairs well with the other ingredients used in the French toast.

The bread is then dipped in a spiced egg/milk mixture and cooked in melted butter on a griddle until the French toast is rich golden and hot in the middle. Once plated, the French toast is then sweetly topped with the blackberry maple syrup and some fresh blackberries.

To further enhance the look of this sumptuous brunch dish, you can also garnish each plate with a few edible flowers and/ or mint sprigs. And, if desired, for a really filling meal, serve some locally made smokey bacon or sausages alongside the French toast that you procured from you’re favourite butcher shop.

Ricotta-stuffed French Toast with Blackberry Maple Syrup

French toast, stuffed with ricotta cheese, cooked in butter until hot and golden, plated and sweetly topped with blackberry-flavoured maple syrup.

Preparation time: 35 minutes

Cooking time: Nine to 11 minutes

Makes: Four servings

1 1/4 cups maple syrup

1 cup fresh blackberries, plus some for garnish

1/4 cup water

8 (about 1 1/2-inch) thick slices French bread (see Note 1)

1 1/2 cups ricotta (see Note 2)

2 large eggs, beaten

1/3 cup + 1 Tbsp milk

2 Tbsp orange juice

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

• pinches ground nutmeg and ginger

4 Tbsp butter

• unsprayed edible flowers, such as ­pansies or nasturtiums, and/or mint sprigs, for garnish (optional)

Put the maple syrup, 1 cup blackberries and water in a small pot. Set over medium, medium-high heat and bring to a gentle simmer, lowering the heat as needed to maintain that gentle simmer. Simmer five ­minutes, and then remove pot from the heat. Set a fine sieve over a two-cup glass ­measuring cup or bowl. Pour the maple syrup/blackberry mixture into the sieve. Now press on the blackberries with a spoon and push out as much liquid from them as you can. Pour this blackberry maple syrup into a serving jug and set aside until needed.

With a sharp serrated knife, create a pocket in each slice of bread by cutting a deep, lengthwise slit into one side of each bread slice, being careful not to cut all the way through. Stuff 3 Tbsp of ricotta into each pocket. Now press on each bread slice to compact the cheese and seal it inside the bread.

Place the beaten eggs, milk, juice and spices in a 13 x 9-inch dish and mix well to combine. Set the stuffed bread slices, in a single layer, on top of the egg mixture and let them sit two minutes. Now turn each bread slice over and let them sit there for now.

Preheat a large electric or cast iron griddle to, or set over, medium, medium-high heat (Eric’s options). Melt and spread butter on the cooking surface.

Set the bread slices on the griddle and cook two to three minutes per side, or until rich golden brown and hot in the middle. Set two pieces of French toast on each of four plates. ­Garnish with blackberries and edible flowers and/or mint sprigs, if using, and serve with the blackberry maple syrup.

Note 1: The grocery store-bought slices of French bread I used were about five inches long and three inches wide.

Note 2: A 475-gram tub of ricotta will yield the amount needed here plus a bit more. The leftover ricotta you have could be used in a variety of ways, such as spooning on pizza or pasta, spreading on a tomato sandwich or stuffing into an omelette.

Eric’s options: If you don’t have a griddle, divide the butter between two large skillets and cook the French toast in them.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.