Monday, February 9, 2015
My hour for tea is half-past five, and my buttered toast waits for nobody. - Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White
I once read that it wasn’t the discovery of fire that differentiated man from beast, elevated man to a higher, more cultivated level (if I can say) but rather it was that man used fire to transform his food. Cook it. Roast it and toast it. Man stuck it on a stick and stuck it into the fire. (And I think that this is still, in some very primitive, primal way, our favorite way to cook and eat.)
Campfires were always an integral part of Girl Scout Camp and really the only part of Girl Scout Camp I enjoyed. Real pork sausages (verboten at home) slid onto a stick and held over the blaze until the skin grizzled and bubbled and charred, the juices drip drip dripping into the flames with a sizzle. And marshmallows! Toasted marshmallows! Toasted marshmallows of Fourth of July barbecues with the family, toasted marshmallows of summer clam bakes at the cousins’ house up north, toasted marshmallows of youth group retreats following messy Sloppy Joes, toasted marshmallows after dad was done grilling the burgers and dogs, what meal cooked around a fire is complete without toasted marshmallows? Okay, I have to admit that those roasted sausages and those toasted marshmallows were the only leverage my parents had, the only reason I agreed to go to Girl Scout Camp. Marshmallows puffing up, bubbling, charring, burning lips and tongue but dive in one must! Blow once, blow twice and bite, the gooey mess barely held together by the charred outside slips down onto your chin, slurped up as quickly as the heat allows, fingers sticky.
Now. Why are meats and sausages thus toasted not called toasted but roasted?
Toast at the house, in the toaster, of course, but in the oven under the grill. That’s how my husband had always done it. And toasted open-faced sandwiches bubbling merrily under the grill, or baking sheets of day-old bread, too stale to be enjoyed as is, toasted under the grill and placed at the bottom of an empty soup bowl, onion soup, ugly and rustic but oh so fragrant, ladled atop, a generous amount of grated cheese and bake under the grill. But this time not toasted but browned. Go figure; something to ponder while blowing on one’s soup. The toast now growing soggy and melting into the broth.
Toasted almonds, toasted pine nuts, toasted pecans, toasted pumpkin seeds. Toasting adds an earthier depth to those nuts, a richer, more intense nut flavor while developing a toasty taste! Croutons, buttered or oiled, maybe rubbed with garlic, tossed and stirred in a large baking pan and toasted until crisp. Toasted whole spices for curries, the toasty, spicy aroma filling the house.
Toast. The toast of the town.
Warm as toast.
How did toast become the essence of comfort food? Warm and simple, it embodies something pure and childlike, that modest slice of toast. My mother would bring me two pieces of toast when I wasn’t feeling well, toast and tea or toast and fizzy soda to settle my tummy. Just butter puddling in the center of the hot bread, a knife to smear it around, that salty butter. And a banana. Toast and banana and a drink.
Toast. A restorative, gentle on the tummy. And warm. Somehow so reassuring in its plainness, its earthy flavor of toasted bread, a flavor of toasted nuts.
As I got older and became an adult, toast has always and still is my comfort food, light, uncomplicated, with just a bit of butter or even peanut butter melting against the heat of the toast. And a banana when not feeling well or when a headache has me curled up in bed. Now my sons know just what to prepare for me, bring to me, warm toast on a tray.
Or not. When I am sad or when I am frazzled, when I am savoring the sweetness of a moment or two alone, I simply crave toast. With butter or sometimes with peanut butter. A book open on the table next to me, two slices of white bread slipped into the toaster, two slices of toast being buttered quickly while the heat still has the power to melt that butter. Or peanut butter. Sometimes I’ll be lured into dusting the buttered toast with cinnamon sugar like when I was a kid, a special Saturday morning treat.
Now my husband has brought a twist on that tradition of warm toast into our home. French Toast. Ah! Pain Perdu, they call it, lost bread. Instead of just toasting stale white bread, brioche, or wheat, otherwise lost, revivifying and giving new life, a transformation to that stale bread, he drags it through milk, through egg and tosses it into a heavily buttered skillet and… toasts? Fries. Less comforting than decadent, say I, for French Toast was always a special Sunday night treat for dinner! With maple syrup! But for a Frenchman, French Toast, pain perdu, is comfort food, plain and simple.
And he looks at me, his smile as warm as toast.
The privileges of the side-table included the small prerogatives of sitting next to the toast, and taking two cups of tea to other people's one. - Charles Dickens, Martin Chuzzlewit
I’m always hungry. Since I was a kid, I rarely ate, rarely eat only three times a day. Breakfast, lunch and dinner but in between! Snack time, some call it. I call it necessary sustenance. And it usually involves toast. I’m a carb addict. Toast with cheese – melted or otherwise – toast with butter – salted or not – toast with jelly – mainly, necessarily cherry except twice a year when only bitter orange will do – toast with peanut butter – creamy or crunchy, this is my best comfort food.
When I was a kid, toasted Poptarts was what I ate. Unfrosted, of course, usually cherry. I would toast the Poptart and, when it was still very hot, I would place a thin pat of salted butter on it and watch it melt then eat my salty-sweet treat. The next best thing was hot buttered toast with a lavish blanket of cinnamon sugar; the crusts and edges stay crisp while the center sinks, a layer of buttery wet atop a toasty underneath, giving a wonderful yet delicate crunch. Now, in a fit of nostalgia, I will toast white bread and eat it with slippery, melty peanut butter or buttered toast topped with jam. But a baguette toasted – a chunk cut off, sliced in half lengthwise and shoved sideways into the toaster – is for when I’m feeling like a grownup.
I propose a toast to mirth; be merry! - Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
A glass of wine at dinner is almost a daily thing, a ritual of sorts. And more often than not, we raise our glasses in a toast. To us! These days, we have quite a bit to toast, to happiness to health to the hotel to love to success.
Always look into the other’s eyes while making a toast, say the French, and maintain eye contact throughout and when securing the toast with a drink from the glass. Tchin tchin! Whatever you do, never put down the glass once the toast is made until you have taken that sip. Through the teeth. Past the gums. Look out stomach, here it comes! Down the hatch!
And we clink glasses. And drink. A room full of friends, around the table, corks are popped and we toast to friendship, luck, health, happiness. Clink clink clink everyone’s glass touches everyone else’s, a ritual, a tradition, we cannot miss one! Mess up a toast? If eye contact isn’t made, isn’t held, if one’s glass doesn’t clink against every other glass ooops that means seven year’s bad sex, say the French. You’re toast! Does the sound of the clicking clinking of glass, of crystal, drive away the evil spirits? One would hope so for when we toast we toast for love, luck, friendship, health, success.
Cheers! Tchin tchin! Sláinte! Bottoms up! L’Chaim! Salute! À votre santé! Skål! Prost! How many ways to toast? For he’s a jolly good fellow!
Yes, husband and I are in the habit of toasting whenever we sit down to a meal and pour a glass of wine, one for him, one for me, or when we gather together with family or friends. It is a tradition, a ritual, somewhat of a superstition, for good luck. And these days, we do need it.
I drink to the general joy o’ the whole table. - William Shakespeare, Macbeth
There are so many things you can make with toast, it is like a blank canvas invented for the creation of sweet or savoury dishes, or just honest plain toast which, at times, nothing in the world can beat as the best comfort food in the world. I'd like to propose a fresh lunch toast with shaved fennel and radishes topped with toasted pine nuts, black pepper, salt and extra-virgin olive oil. It is as simple as it looks!
ILVA'S TOAST WITH SHAVED FENNEL, RADISH AND TOASTED PINE NUT SALAD
This is so simple I have to write a recipe sketch instead of a regular recipe: Trim a fennel bulb and cut it into quarters and cut each quarter into thin slices lengthwise (because it looks nicer!). Trim some radishes and slice these thinly as well. Now you can either heap these directly on the slices of toast you have ready, rustic bread is best, sprinkle pine nuts, lots of black pepper and salt over and then a good drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil to finish it off or you can put the ingredients in a bowl and mix before you put them on the toast, the choice is yours!