Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch
The joy of toast
It’s always better at home than at a restaurant. You need just three things to make it. And anyone can cook it.
Toast is one of life’s great joys. Integral to its joyful greatness is that it is easy to make. You need just three things: a slice of bread, butter and a toaster of some kind. With these, you can create a classic dish—one that is nearly always better when you make it at home than when you order it at fancy restaurants. Of the three things that go into toast, only one is really critical. You can make toast with industrial white bread and the result will be perfectly edible but it will only hint at the potential of good toast.
For good toast, you need good bread. Non-industrial bread is always better than the factory-made version. In my view, sourdough or country bread make for better toast. In a perfect toast, the centre should have a certain nearly-melting quality while the edges should be firmer and a little crisper.
Once you have the right bread, everything else counts for very little. Snobs will tell you that an expensive butter makes for great toast. It probably does. But I use Amul. And I have no complaints at all.
Chefs spend a lot of time discussing toasters. But I always find that a domestic toaster is just fine. There are those who use oven-toaster-grills but I don’t own one. And fancy chefs will always toast the bread directly over a flame with just a steel net or some such barrier between the fire and the toast. I’m sure that this is great. But I don’t think you really need it.
Why is toast always better at home than it is at restaurants? Because of timing. Good toast is the household equivalent of a Michelin star restaurant’s warm soufflé. You have a very small window in which to serve it. And you can’t really linger over eating it.
The moment the toast pops out of the toaster, you must butter it right away. The butter should melt on contact with the hot bread and it should penetrate every pore, giving the toast a golden deliciousness. You must eat the toast when it is still warm to get the full sensation. Cold toast is not necessarily horrible. But it is largely pointless.
That’s why toast is a home dish. In a restaurant, the chef will rarely take the time to butter it for you. He will send it out unbuttered. By the time it is picked up and brought to your table, it will be cold. At good restaurants, in the old days, the butter used to be soft (and sometimes, it was even curly) so you could at least butter the bread immediately. Now they often send out hard rectangles of butter, straight from the fridge or they carve out a chunk from a catering pack of cold butter.
That’s why restaurants screw it up. And that’s why room service toast is nearly always a waste of bread. (Some places will try and do it right. When Jaipur’s Oberoi Raj Vilas had just opened, I once ordered
THE MOMENT THE TOAST POPS OUT OF THE TOASTER, YOU MUST BUTTER IT RIGHT AWAY. THE BUTTER SHOULD MELT ON CONTACT WITH THE HOT BREAD AND IT SHOULD PENETRATE EVERY PORE, GIVING THE TOAST A GOLDEN DELICIOUSNESS
scrambled eggs and toast for a room service breakfast. The waiter arrived with a toaster, plugged it in and made the toast in my room. I don’t know if they still do that.)
Jam or no jam? That’s a matter of taste. My wife sometimes smears unsweetened, artisanal marmalade on her toast. But I think that is too much trouble. (Who is going to scour the country looking for the right marmalade?) Besides, I prefer the taste of butter to any jam. And if you are going to use nasty syntheticallyflavoured ‘strawberry’ jam, you might as well not bother with toast. Eat a biscuit, instead.
One of the (admittedly, lesser) joys of toast is that you can use it as a base for other dishes. The Brits like to have baked beans on toast. It is a classic combination, though I don’t particularly enjoy it. If you are going to try it, then here is a suggestion: drain out most of the sauce and put the beans aside. Brown some onion and garlic in a pan. Add just a little spice. (I like something vaguely Mexican, but anything will do). If you are a fan of tomato sauce, add just a little tomato puree. Put in the beans and cook on a medium heat just long enough for the beans to become one with the onions, garlic and other ingredients. If you want really fancy beans on toast, fry some onions and spread them on top of the beans on toast just before serving.
When it comes to things on toast, I am keener on scrambled eggs. But once again, this depends on timing. The eggs should be warm, creamy and runny to make a contrast with the firmer texture of the bread. Plain old anda bhurji won’t work so well. (On the other hand, Parsis like a relatively dry akuri on toast, so tastes can vary.) Omelette toast is fine, but I still think a classic masala omelette sandwich (on untoasted bread) works best.
Mushrooms on toast is a dish made in Europe with a lot of cream (or crème fraiche), which makes it (in my opinion) much too heavy. You can make it the classic way (if you can’t get crème fraiche, master patissier Sahil Mehta uses a little salted mascarpone or a smaller quality of whipped cream) or you can make it the way I do. I like a quick stir-fry with onions to bring out the flavour of the mushrooms. Add salt and pepper. Butter the toast well and you won’t need the cream.
More popular is cheese toast. You put a slice of processed cheese on toast and put it under the grill till the cheese melts. I find that the Mumbai version which uses grated cheese mixed with chopped green chillies is actually much better.
I could go on. Avocado toast is very trendy these days because avocados are fashionable. There is a certain logic to the idea because avocados are so fatty that they do the job of butter. There are many variations and one tasty version requires you to first coat the bread with garlic mayo (aioli) before smearing on the avocado. If you are a vegetarian, then there are lots of Indian made flavoured eggless mayonnaises in the market these days.
I like many of these dishes. But my problem with them is that they use the toast as a sidekick. The point of mushrooms on toast is the mushrooms, not the toast. It’s the same with scrambled eggs on toast where the poor toast is no more than a supporting player.
But toast is not a supporting player. It is a star in itself. The joy of toast is the glorious marriage between warm bread and melting golden butter. Almost all of the variations draw attention away from that basic combination.
There are few things as satisfying as tea and warm toast. And so, no matter how fashionable the additions and variations are, I will have my hot, buttered, toast naked, thank you very much!
The views expressed by the columnist are personal
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