Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A Long Post on Toast

A friend of mine who grew up alongside a samovar has only one way to describe water proper for tea: "A mad boil." In the same forceful way she never says rolls or toast must be hot, or very hot. They must be "hot-hot-hot!"
M.F.K. Fisher. How To Boil Water, in How To Cook A Wolf, 1942.


Toast is the national dish of Australia.
David Byrne, line on the Stop Making Sense album cover, 1984.


When we were children, each year my exhausted widowed mother allowed us to give her some time to recuperate. She drove us to the gardens of Ballarat. There, under the shade of oak trees that tracked the west shore of Lake Wendouree, we waited. Imperious black swans (there were lots of them, predictably) would clamber awkwardly onto the lip of lake and waddle hilariously, so we we thought, towards the wooden green-painted benches om which we sat. They would nip at the (untoasted) bread that we were told to hold to them in our fingers, if not nip at our fingers themselves. Such of the latter incidents were not funny at all. Innocent as young children, somewhat wiser as we aged (eventually my sister refused to come), the elegant slide of the swans in the lake thrilled us. But when they responded to our bread-goading and came close, the fun turned to fright and we squealed loudly. If we got nipped, we cried loudly instead. Those flapping black wings would balloon out as they chased us for a few steps, screaming swan screams, and we'd scream along with them.

My uncle and my aunt drove down to pick us up by the lake, and there we'd enjoy a family picnic lunch well away from the lake-shore. It took two hours for them to drive us back to the former gold-mining town of Tarnagulla. We left a relieved (no pun intended) mum for her/our two week holiday (Lord knows what she did, must ask) and began our summer-stretched treat amongst the wonders of a small town with nothing in it, in the middle of a dry patch of mining-exhausted Australian bush. We'd push each other on the metal-chained swing (squeak, squeak), or we'd play "hidie" amongst the stumps, hunt kangaroos (it was not 'roo territory) or pretend to bowl and bat on the cricket pitch in the middle of the square town oval. This was approached by treading across a small wooden bridge (I think there is another word for this - anyway, I was not supposed to cross by myself, my sister or someone older had to supervise) which took us across the deep storm drain that ran past the tennis courts. We'd pull sweet pink and red peppercorns from the tree and try to burst them. Hundreds of things that could kids do to amuse themselves while their auntie drank tea and nibbled on orange cake with the neighbours, her cousin and family. We learned to play tennis in those courts with Paul McNamee, who went on to win the Wimbledon Doubles, several times I think. I went on to write this blog. I think I fell in love with the neighbour's daughter, my 2nd (3rd? 4th?) cousin. When she married and went away, I was one devastated 7 year old.

And we'd have breakfast. Being who I am, even then, I slept in late. After those arduous days of going for walks to the haberdashery to buy some pins, or finding someone else roughly my own age to play with, like the butcher's rough son one year, or crunching through the bush we were not allowed to into - because of the hidden old mining shafts - we'd be worn out. So I was tired, but still I'd try to stay up as late as possible (hey, it was a frackin' holiday) trying to start a conversation with my taciturn uncle, looking at my late father's stamp collection (he was born in this house), at my grandfather's four-pronged shoe tool/rest (he was a cobbler), anything - and so I'd sleep in late next morning. And when eventually I got to the table for breakfast, I'd begin to sulk.

Why? Damn! I'd mumble. The toast was cold. Sliced from a fresh loaf - fresh two days ago, perfect - it had been sitting between the curved metal prongs of the toast-rack for maybe 20 minutes. One hour? Who knew when my relatives rose?

When I buttered it, the sensation was all wrong. The toast had dried out. It was like buttering sawed timber. And mixed on the cold toast with my Uncle's own honey (not a gross euphemism, he was an apiarist) the butter went all white and scary, not at all appetizing. Toast should be crunchy, but not this HARD, I thought. The correct amount of butter, applied at the correct time to the correctly hot toast, makes the crunchiness CORRECT! I sulked and complained softly, but I ate it.

As I risked puncturing my delicate palate on the shards - an talthin lith thith or the thime (I practiced for that eventuality) - I was mildly chastised and given to consider the sin of my tendency to snuggle back down into the blankets for just a few minutes, and then falling asleep again, once the call to our breakfast table was made. No doubt it was an unspoken opinion that I was a big-city sook, a a snobby little brat, spoiled by those Catholics (my mum's family) from the Western District.

What the hell, beloved Presbyterian Auntie and Uncle! Good toast is important to me! Why can't you just not start toasting the bread UNTIL it becomes apparent that I am getting up. Why can't you just slice the loaf and toast some MORE? Why can't...

What do you mean you are not my slaves?

"Eat your toast," young man!


Some diet book I had glanced at before deciding to burn it along with several other works of "fiction" in a pyre in my HDB's void-space, offered the most stupid advice to toast eaters I have ever heard . The authors suggested waiting for the toast to get cold ON PURPOSE before spreading ones preferred fat - mono-saturated dairy product (unpreferred) or polyunsaturated oil blended with water (preferred, until they discovered trans-fats) - upon its finely crusted COLD surface. That way, as less butter/substitute would melt into the toast's interior, less fat would be required for the purpose of rendering the surface slippery and 0.743 calories would be knocked off the day's total.


These deluded dietitians must harbour some weird view of the world in which (they believe) people put butter on toast in order to scientifically deliver a regulated dose of fat for their carefully planned daily consumption.

Butter is not "a dose of fat". It's a sublime aesthetic experience (until it goes rancid - errrghh), part visual (buttercup yellow, buttercup why don't you fill me up) part aromatic (smells like teen butter) part textural (goes down like a hot knife through butter).

It is semi-mystical in the way its creamy smoothness fills the mouth with richness and feelings of home, of safety, of... churned milk... and in the way IT MELTS INTO HOT TOAST! And melt it should, somewhat randomly, somewhat predictably. Here just a sheen on the surface, there, at the ends of each butter-knife (not table-knife!) stroke, a small accumulation, one that will soon produce a burst of taste and texture from under its covering of your favorite jam, preserve (jelly? that's for trifles) or Vegemite. [Mine's either ginger marmalade or the strawberry jam I received for Christmas from The Ex's mum. Vegemite goes on the second slice of course.]

One of the unmeasurable joys of life (and joy is generally unmeasurable, except in certain circumstances, unstatable here in mixed company) is to scrape a buttery butter-knife across crunchy freshly toasted toast. Slide, crackle, slide. Ooh, aah.

This experience is what we call buttering something. Watch Peter Russell-Clarke slide a second healthy dollop onto this piece of banana bread...

This was an Australian (duh!) ad in the mid 80's. Apart from the "Butter, it's only natural", tagline here, there was another he used - and truer words were never spoken - Only Butter Butters.

Fuck dietitians, those joy-of-eating ignorati... Epic epicurean FAIL.



What happens if, when the toaster snaps and ejects your evenly-(you half-toasted it first, then turned it round and upside down for the final run)-browned sourdough into the kitchen stratosphere, you lay those hot hot hot slices down directly on a plate?

Laying newly toasted hot toast down? OMG, you heathen!

"Why, what happens?" she asks innocently.

Condensation, young lady! CON-DEN-SAYSHUN! The radiant heat from the hot toast allows for more water vapour in its immediate vicinity. When it is lain on the plate, in that small area of atmosphere there is nowhere for hot toast's vapour to go, except to the unheated surface of your Royal Doulton, where it cools and reaches the dew-point. There is a minor tropical rainforest effect, hot air meets cold air, and vapour condenses into mist (clouds) and rain. Like on the outside of a beer glass, on the warm inside of a car-window on a cold, rainy day.

Condensation. 1) Water is on the plate. 2) Toast is on the plate. 3) Toast, perforce, gets wet and soggy. 4) OMG! Did I call you a heathen before? Let's say I just called you one again.

So what are the lessons we have learned so far?

a: Cold toast = bad. Butter doesn't BUTTER.

b: Hot toast = bad if treated without due diligence. Goes soggy if laid down on plate.

What to do? Don't sleep in, get up frackin' earlier, my Auntie would no doubt advise us, though perhaps with other words.

Or take her excellent example and use a TOAST RACK!


Izzy has been holidaying in E@LGHQ these last few days. She's back from Holland for the weeks of Christmas and New Year. (It's 1am now, she's just piped up with, "I feel like doing something - let's go out!" No. I am going to sleep now, this is not Hong Kong and I am not young 40 anymore. She's put on Kreutzer Sonata loudly instead.)

On Tuesday morning she gave me a Christmas present, which was a nice surprise, seeing as how we're both atheists. No, it was not what you're thinking, although it was in a box.

It was a lovely ceramic toast-rack. "You're always going on about toast," she explained. No, I'm n...

Ain't that nice.

Now, instead of letting my toast rest on the top of the stove (on left) for 20 seconds or so, I can let it stand in the toast-rack - it will be still be hot enough, crunchy but not dessicated, even after I pour my filtered coffee into a cup, when I BUTTER it.

This was why the toast-rack was invented. For wankers like


(and my Auntie Ethel, RIP.)


savannah said...

damn, i've been doing it wrong, in fact, i did it incorrectly THIS VERY DAMN MORNING! i pour my coffee first while the toast is toasting and then i butter the bread on the plate! BUT, in all fairness and in full disclosure, it was really damn good, sugar! xoxoxox

anthony said...

I think I need to cook some toast right now.

"Everything tastes better with butter" - damn! I remember those commercials.

rockstar69 said...

Of course, the real trick is in having the toast warm enough that it hasn't turned into a paver, but not so warm that the butter melts totally and soggily into the toast!!

Give Izzy a .... Kiss for me.


expat@large said...

REAL butter doesn't make the toast soggy. Only, ugh, margarine does, when the oil soaks in and then the water comes out of the blend.

(I actually use the Lurpak lo-salt blend of butter and oil as it is spreadable...)

Jude said...

I love toast with butter. When are you having a toast party?

expat@large said...

We could have toast at the quiz tomorrow! No, don't start me on the Boomerang and their "sourdough" toast.

Lost in Melbourne said...

All I have to add is that we have the same toaster Phil

dibabear said...

Filtered coffee? Heathen. All coffee should be water forced through grounds made from freshly ground Arabica at a pressure of 9 bar, minimum 12 preferred. The only exception to this is the French press where all of the subtle flavors of the bean are released in a joyful explosion. Filtered coffee is like putting toast on a plate and spreading margarine on it.

Great dissertation, Phil. My current artery clogger on bread poison is Italian butter ("Beppino Occelli").

expat@large said...

Dibear: espresso coffee is just a fad, and all these angels on a the head of a pin details are so much wank. Nothing personal. It will pass, as must all things. Seriously. 20 years you would have raved of the joys of the percolater - which I DO really like.
Real problem with espresso, there's just not efuckingnough of it in the glass. Two/one sips and it's gone. How can you stretch 2 hours in a cafe writing your novel with that? Plus no-one out of Melbourne CBD or Carlton has a clue how to make a decent latte!
They give you a French press in The Excelsior, excellent, but you have to get the timing right!
If you choose the correctly ground mix (med coarse) for drip-filter the flavour is rich and nutty (OK not as nice as French press or percolator) and not lip-curling bitter like 97.4% of (bad) espressos.

dibabear said...

I only drink espresso if I'm hung over or have a headache. Wait that was redundant.

Wasn't really thinking about espresso. I make my morning poison that way, 8 to 10g of grounds shot through with high pressure water, around 150ml per cup as God and the Queen or at least Mussolini intended.

Drip coffee always, or nearly always, gave me indigestion. The sole exception was when I worked for the Army and the ex-soldiers would make our morning pot o' rot. They would never tell me what the secret ingredient was either.

I wish the whole espresso fad would blow over. What Starbucks peddles isn't coffee. What my cousin drinks (some black water concoction with overtones of hazelnut and elephant balls) isn't either.

expat@large said...

Secret ingredient - maybe Vegemite? Does wonders for gravy.

dibabear said...

ROFLMFAO. I'll have to try Marmite. Can't find Vegemite here. I'd try Nutella but then we're back to that hazelnut tasting non-coffee drink.

expat@large said...

Can't find Vegemite? Do they make beer in the Outer Hebrides or wherever you are (maybe not, maybe whiskey)? If so, just scrape the skunge off the bottom of the barrel - Vegemite!!

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