Celebrating the invention and perfection of one of life’s truly golden pleasures
by Bob Condor
THE EVERYDAY slice of toast is not without its celebrity interludes. As Sir John Falstaff calls for more drinks at a high point of frivolity in Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor,” he yells after the server, “Don’t forget the toast!” Falstaff was asking for the cube of hot buttered toast traditionally tossed into warm drinks in the heyday of the Bard, leading to the use of the word “toast” as a way to celebrate life’s most important moments.
One hundred years ago, legendary Parisian chef Auguste Escoffier of the Ritz Hotel created a thinly slice piece of toast for a finicky but beloved Australian opera singer who refused to eat her pâté on the usual thick slice of bread. The diva’s name was Nellie Melba, and you know what food she inspired (more than 2 billion slices were sold worldwide in 1996).
But star power isn’t what inspired the presence of toasters in 88 percent of U.S. households. Toasted bread pretty much sells itself. Like a good neighbor or cheerful co-worker, toast can make life richer without much fanfare.
For one thing, toast certainly brings out the best in most breads. Even the drab slice of a mass-produced white loaf improves in taste when heated to about 310 degrees Farenheit, producing a chemical change known as the Maillard reaction, caramelizing the sugars and starches while browning the bread. Other breads, especially whole grains and certain ryes, have textures and tastes seemingly ready-made for toast, picking up intense flavor after descent into the toaster.
Something is clearly missing at breakfast without a side dish of toast, and it’s not only about taste.
Marion Cunningham, author of “The Breakfast Book,” attests to the “deep grainy” flavors and textures of toast that she prefers to be “evenly golden” (which she said is better attained using your broiler instead of the toaster). Her endorsement covers taste, touch and sight to go along with what she calls the “irresistible fragrance” of toast.
Though good bread (especially denser varieties) makes good toast, its smell is rated with the equally tantalizing morning aromas of brewing coffee and frying bacon – so wondrous that some aficionados claim the actual piece of toast can’t possibly live up to its olfactory billing.
Crisp, not limp
But perfection is possible, if the bread is toasted properly, said Men’s Journal columnist Glen Wagoner, a native Texan who travels the country searching out new recipes for comfort food. “The problem with toast in most American diners and restaurants is it is not toasted enough. Too many people can’t distinguish the difference between warmed bread and proper toast. It should be crisp, not limp.”
Clearly attending to the priority of butter with toast in this low-cal crazed world are writers Jane and Michael Stern, America’s foremost experts on diner foods. “It is absolutely necessary to plan ahead when preparing buttered toast,” they write in “Square Meals.”
“So that it will be perfectly spreadable, butter must be out of the refrigerator at least one hour before the bread is toasted. For spur-of-the-moment toast, it will be best to use a sharp knife to ‘peel’ thin leaves of butter off the top of a stick (or, better yet, a one-pound block), and place these leaves on the hot toast to melt.
“Trying to spread a cold pat of butter on warm toast is a nightmare. If the toast doesn’t tear altogether, the press of the butter knife will bruise and batter the surface beyond the bounds of acceptable comfort food.”
Once safely past any butter imbroglios, there are many topping options beyond the traditional and tasty jellies, jams, preserves, peanut butter and, seemingly everyone’s childhood favorite, a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. The Sterns suggest a touch of orange rind and orange juice added to the butter, maybe a few raisins or shredded coconut. Cunningham recommends crumbled sausage with applesauce, apples and melted cheese, ham and nutmeg, bananas cooked in butter, warmed tomatoes and smoked salmon.
Then there’s milk toast, what you might mistakenly consider the dullard of all recipes when, in fact, none other than the late, great food writer M.F.K. Fisher listed it under “R” for Romantic in her classic book, “The Art of Eating.” It is basically toasted bread in a bowl with milk, sweet butter, salt and pepper, but it was manna for Fisher.
“It is a warm, mild, soothing thing, full of innocent strength,” she wrote. “It is a small modern miracle of gastronomy.”