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Overnight blueberry-lemon French toast makes for an effortless brunch

This whole-grain French toast bake includes blueberries and lemon zest.  (Tom McCorkle/For the Washington Post)
By Ellie Krieger Special to the Washington Post

The multitude of possibilities for working seasonal produce into an alluring, protein-packed morning meal is one aspect of the dish that draws me in, and the fuss-free make-ahead nature of it is another.

For me, there’s no better way to spend my weekend morning than quietly sipping a strong cup of coffee and reading the newspaper, so having a fabulous meal in the refrigerator that only needs to be popped in the oven is my idea of a good time. All I’m left to do is kick back and let the enticing aroma fill the room and rouse my appetite while the dish bakes.

This gently sweetened French toast version is brimming with fresh blueberries, brightened with a sunny burst of lemon zest and topped with crunchy, sliced almonds. One key to success here is using the right bread. I suggest a whole-grain loaf from the bakery that is on the lighter side in color, taste and weight. A darker, denser bread will work fine, as would packaged whole-grain, sliced bread – as long as it’s not very moist, which would render the bake too mushy – but I find the fresh, summery, blueberry-lemon flavors here shine through best with a lighter loaf.

The sliced bread is halved, then dunked into an egg-and-milk mixture that’s kissed with maple syrup, vanilla and lemon zest, then arranged in a baking dish like shingles on a roof. The remaining egg mixture is poured over it, the berries are scattered on top, and the pan is covered and refrigerated overnight, allowing the bread to absorb all of the flavorful liquid.

In the morning, after being showered with sliced almonds, the dish bakes in the oven until it is fragrant, puffed and golden, the blueberries are nearly bursting with juicy sweetness, and the nuts are gently toasted. The bake is a treat I whip up even if it’s just for my husband and me because once baked, leftover individual portions reheat well in the microwave. But it’s also a sure crowd-pleaser that’s ideal for company.

Blueberry-Lemon Whole Grain French Toast Bake

This gently sweetened breakfast bake is made the night before and refrigerated overnight so the bread can absorb the flavorful, eggy mixture. It is an ideal fuss-free dish for a brunch party. It’s also a treat for a smaller family, since leftovers can be refrigerated for a few days and reheated as needed. And try to find a whole-grain loaf from the bakery that is on the lighter side in color, taste and weight for its size.

Unsalted butter or nonstick cooking spray, for coating the pan

2½ cups milk (whole, low-fat or unsweetened oat)

6 large eggs

¼ cup maple syrup, plus more for serving

1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest (from 1 large lemon)

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Eight (½-inch thick) slices whole-grain bread, day-old, halved lengthwise (8 ounces total)

2 cups fresh blueberries

⅓ cup sliced almonds (optional)

Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with butter or cooking spray. In a large bowl, whisk together the milk, eggs, maple syrup, lemon zest and vanilla. Working with one piece of bread at a time, dip each piece into the egg mixture until it is just saturated, then place it into the baking pan, overlapping the slices slightly in a shingle-like formation.

Pour the remaining egg mixture evenly over the bread in the pan and scatter the blueberries on top. Cover and refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight.

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Uncover the pan, scatter with the almonds, if using, and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the French toast is golden and puffed, and the berries are dark and nearly bursting. Serve hot, with additional maple syrup on the side.

Yield: 8 servings; one 9-by-13-inch bake

Make ahead: Assemble and refrigerate at least 8 hours ahead of making.

Storage: Store leftovers for up to 4 days. Gently reheat, covered, in a 350-degree oven until warmed through, or in a microwave.

Ellie Krieger is a cookbook author and registered nutritionist.