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Meyer lemon French toast a brunch or holiday breakfast treat

Recipe: Brighten a winter morning with a citrusy baked main dish

Baking French toast is so much easier than standing at the stove, turning each piece.

Baking French toast is so much easier than standing at the stove, turning each piece. Kathy Morrison

Winter's golden citrus is just showing up at farmers markets and produce sections. Maybe in your garden, too, since the Meyer lemon is such a popular tree to grow in California.

My tiny container tree never produces many lemons, but for years I could count on one co-worker or another bringing in bags or boxes of the lovely floral citrus from a backyard tree. I took as many as I dared, because they are a great fruit for cooking and baking. I'm not alone: Professional chefs love this lemon for its smooth, edible skin and its sweet, rather than tart, flavor profile.

Meyer lemons are named for Frank N. Meyer, the USDA explorer who found them in China and brought them to California in the early 20th century. The original Meyer -- believed to be a cross between a mandarin and a tart lemon -- was later found to be a symptomless carrier of viruses fatal to citrus fruit, and most of the trees were destroyed.

""
Smooth-skinned golden Meyer lemons are
the star ingredient in baked French toast.
(Photos: Kathy Morrison)

However, a virus-free stock was discovered. It was later certified by the University of California and became the "improved" Meyer lemon that we all grow and love now.

With Christmas approaching, I looked for a recipe that would work for Christmas breakfast or any holiday gathering when you don't want to stand over the stove while everyone else is relaxing or opening presents.

Baked French toast fits that bill, because it is prepped the night before and then popped into the oven the next morning. About 45 minutes later, you have a great breakfast dish that pairs beautifully with berries.

You can gild the lily and add powdered sugar and syrup, but this French toast is delicious without any of that.

The recipe is adapted slightly from Williams-Sonoma. I used the recommended challah bread, but it also would work with thick slices of brioche loaf (Trader Joe's sells an excellent version) or an artisan sourdough round. Just make sure the bread isn't too fresh -- if it is, slice it at least an hour ahead of preparation and let it sit out, or put the slices on a cookie sheet and pop them into a barely warm oven for half an hour or so. The bread will soak up the custard much better that way.

Meyer lemon baked French toast
Serves 6 to8

Ingredients:
Unsalted butter for pan
6 eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups half and half or nondairy milk
1 tablespoon

""
Bread slices are ready to go into the
refrigerator. Bake the next morning.

vanilla (see note below)
Grated zest from 2 Meyer lemons
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 16-ounce loaf challah, brioche or other artisan bread, cut into 1-inch slices
Demerara or other crunchy sugar, for sprinkling

For serving, optional:
Powdered sugar
Fresh berries (blackberries are ideal)
Maple syrup

Instructions:
Grease a large casserole dish or 9-by-13-inch baking pan; set aside.

Crack the eggs into a large bowl; beat lightly with a whisk or fork. Beat in the half and half, vanilla, lemon zest and light brown sugar.

Dip one bread slice at a time into the custard mix, turning to coat both sides. If the bread is not absorbing the liquid quickly, let it sit there for 1 or 2 minutes. Put the slices in the prepared pan, overlapping slightly. When all the slices are prepared, pour the remaining custard mix evenly over the bread slices. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and refrigerate, overnight or at least 2 hours.

When ready to bake, preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove pan from refrigerator and, keeping the foil in place, put the pan on a rack in the center of the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove foil and sprinkle about 1 tablespoon of the coarse sugar over the slices. Continue baking uncovered for 15 more minutes, or until French toast is puffy and the bread slightly brown on top.

Let the dish rest for about 5 minutes. Cut or scoop out the French toast and serve with desired toppings and fruit.

Note: Real vanilla extract is so pricey these days, 1 tablespoon may seem like too much. I gave up on buying it in the store and began making my own extract last year. (I put 4-5 vanilla beans, ordered online, in 1 pint of vodka in a Mason jar, stored in a cool place for as long as it takes to taste of vanilla. Bourbon works, too.) If you don't want to use so much of your precious vanilla in this, I'd recommend using just 1-1/2  teaspoons of extract, augmented with 1-1/2 teaspoons white rum or maple syrup. With all the lemon zest in this, that will be enough.




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Dig In: Garden Checklist

For week of March 3:

* Celebrate the city flower! Catch the 100th Sacramento Camellia Show 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday, March 2, and 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Sunday, March 3, at the Scottish Rite Center, 6151 H St., Sacramento. Admission is free.

* Between showers, pick up fallen camellia blooms; that helps cut down on the spread of blossom blight that prematurely browns petals.

* Feed camellias after they bloom with fertilizer formulated for acid-loving plants.

* Camellias need little pruning. Remove dead wood and shape, if necessary.

* Tread lightly or not at all on wet ground; it compacts soil.

* Avoid digging in wet soil, too; wait until it clumps in your hand but doesn’t feel squishy.

* Note spots in your garden that stay wet after storms; improve drainage with the addition of organic matter such as compost.

* Keep an eye out for leaning trunks or ground disturbances around a tree’s base, a sign of shifting roots in the wet soil.

* Fertilize roses, annual flowers and berries as spring growth begins to appear.

* If aphids are attracted to new growth, knock them off with a strong spray of water or insecticidal soap. To make your own “bug soap,” use two tablespoons liquid soap – not detergent – to one quart water in a spray bottle. Shake it up before use. Among the liquid soaps that seem most effective are Dr. Bronner’s Pure-Castile Soaps; try the peppermint scent.

* Pull weeds now! Don’t let them get started. Take a hoe and whack them as soon as they sprout.

* Prune and fertilize spring-flowering shrubs after bloom.

* Cut back and fertilize perennial herbs to encourage new growth.

* Make plans for your summer garden. Once the soil is ready, start adding amendments such as compost.

* Indoors, start seeds for summer favorites such as tomatoes, peppers and squash as well as summer flowers.

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