‘Pain perdu’ is a phrase that makes me remember why I studied French at university.
Because I do sometimes forget, what with the high-flying international career failing to materialise (that careers advice that a languages degree would be a fast track to a lucrative job abroad seems a tad, umm, optimistic, in hindsight), plus the depressing realisation every time I go back to France that yet more vocab that was once on the tip of my tongue has now vanished entirely from my memory.
But ‘pain perdu’ reminds me just why I was – and still am at heart – such a massive Francophile. Not because of the food itself – I mean, it’s French toast; an entirely American invention, though I’ve used brioche here to justify its more pretentious Gallic moniker – but thanks to the verging-on-Proustian poetry of the expression (À la Recherche du Pain Perdu?). ‘Lost bread’ – seriously, can you get any more freakin’ French than that?!
If bread really is the staff of life – in France more so than in any other country – then pain perdu is bread that’s fallen on hard times; that, in a few short days, has lost the crispness and vigour of its fresh-baked youth and become a sad, stale version of its former self. Unacceptable to the picky French palate, if it were the protagonist in a Jane Austen novel (just to mix up our literary references), a crusty pain rustique might cruelly remark that it had “lost its bloom”. Poor little pain perdu 😦
But fear not! Our poor, discarded loaf can be délicieux once more; with the help of eggs, milk and butter it can reverse the ravages of time and become yet again a gastronomic ingénue. And it seems only right to accessorise this pepped-up little pain with an equally chic topping; to wit, a zingy blackberry and elderflower compote. Miam, miam.
This week I was in the mood for a culinary reminder that spring is indeed on its way, even if the rain and gales that have buffeted this wee isle since the last bong of Big Ben gave way to 2014 make it feel as though we’re permanently in winter’s grip. The hint of elderflower gives the blackberries a fresh, floral overtone, which conjures up the birds a-chirping, daffodils a-blooming, sunlight a-streaming joie de vivre of a spring-like day, even if the berries themselves aren’t entirely seasonal (conveniently I still have a ton left in the freezer from last autumn’s brambling missions – how happy am I that I have, finally, found fertile foraging grounds after seven years of living in Wakefield?). To balance out the mouth-puckering sweetness of the compote, serve with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt – and some tulips, a Breton top, and a soundtrack of Brigitte Bardot.
Et voilà! Pain retrouvé!
Pain perdu with blackberry and elderflower compote
4 thick slices brioche
2 large eggs
2 tbsp milk
Generous knob of butter for frying
For the compote:
50g caster sugar
2 tbsp elderflower cordial
Greek yogurt, to serve
1. First make the compote: put the blackberries and sugar into a heavy-based saucepan. Simmer over a moderate heat for 10 minutes or until the blackberries are soft and syrupy. Stir in the elderflower cordial, heat through, then remove from the heat. Cover the pan to keep the compote warm.
2. For the French toast: Melt the butter over a medium heat in a large frying pan. Beat the eggs and milk together in a large-ish, shallow bowl. Dunk the brioche slices in the egg mixture, submerging each slice for a good 10-20 seconds each side so that the bread can soak up as much eggy liquid as possible. When the butter is sizzling, add the brioche to the pan and fry for 2-3 minutes each side until golden brown.
3. To finish, pile the slices of French toast on a plate and top with a couple of tablespoons of the compote. Serve with a generous dollop of Greek yogurt and eat immediately.
Brunch tip: If using frozen berries, like I did, you’ll probably find that they exude a shed load of juice once you start heating them. If they do, use a slotted spoon to remove the softened whole berries and set aside as you simmer the juice. When the juice is syrupy, add the berries back to the pan and heat through.