Toast of the town

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on January 20, 2018

Blast from the past Toasts are a time-machine that takes you back to a Kissan-jam smeared childhood shutterstock

Shabnam Minwalla   -  BUSINESS LINE

Meet the new darling of the Instagram crowd and café-crawlers from California to Kala Ghoda

Five years ago, Dr Dom Lane got busy with bread.

He chopped, popped, buttered and pondered. Two thousand slices later, the food researcher came up with the answer to one of life’s great conundrums: the mystery behind temperamental toast.

You know what I mean. On Tuesday morning, two slices of bread are popped into the toaster. They come out golden brown and perfect — crisp on the outside, soft on the inside, and beautifully buttery. On Wednesday morning the same bread goes into the same toaster at the same setting. And emerges beige, leathery and greasy.

Dr Lane tackled the puzzle and came up with a formula to banish Bad Breakfast days forever. At least for those toast-eaters who are willing to follow his rules:

Rule 1: The perfect thickness for a slice of bread is 14mm.

Rule 2: The perfect temperature for the toaster is 154°C. (If you have a well-behaved toaster, five out of six on the temperature dial should do the trick.)

Rule 3: The optimum time for the bread to sit in this perfectly heated toaster is 216 seconds.

Rule 4: The ultimate aim is a golden-brown colour and an outside that is 12 times as crunchy as the middle.

All of which sounds scientific and simple. So, as a great toast gobbler, why am I not running for my stopwatch and vernier caliper? Or weighing and watching to make sure exactly 0.44 grams of butter is spread on every square inch of toast?

Quite simply because a toast has always been one of those rare pleasures — easy and straightforward. One of those joys that plop into the plate without any fidget or fuss. And it seems a real pity to change that.

Toast is a bit like a pair of comfy pyjamas — it works equally well for iffy tummies, broken hearts and too-tired-to-turn-on-the-stove evenings. It’s a time-machine that takes you back to your Kissan-jam-smeared childhood. Indeed, all it takes is the heel of a loaf, that’s been lurking at the back of the fridge for a fortnight, a toaster and a few minutes. And one pop later, you have a versatile vehicle for sunshiny scrambled eggs, bitter-sweet orange marmalade or hearty baked beans. A fiery egg Kejriwal if you’re in a cheese-and-green-chilli mood. A thick layer of chunky peanut butter topped with gloopy strawberry jam if you’re feeling reckless. And lashings of the new Twix chocolate spread, if you’ve an obliging cousin living in London.

It seems silly to meddle with such unerring magic. To transform this happy, anyone-can-do favourite into an object of stress. To make this most thrifty of dishes into a pricey fad.

Not everybody agrees, however. Over the last year, restaurants from San Francisco to Sydney have started marketing ‘artisanal toasts’ for up to ₹300 a slice. Swish cafés feature toast bars with toppings like sea salt, sour strawberry jam and Satsuma marmalade. Entire newspaper articles are devoted to the wonders and healthfulness of avocado on toast. A warm, caramelly perfume called Eau de Toast has surfaced in the UK. While toast cookbooks have popped up quicker than the toaster — featuring elegant recipes in the ilk of lavender sourdough toast topped with fresh ricotta, scattered with sun-dried figs and drizzled with organic honey.

This, of course, is the latest chapter in an old story. Toast was first mentioned in a 1430 English recipe for Oyle Soppys. This evil-sounding brew of flavoured onions stewed in a gallon of stale beer and a pint of oil had to be served as “hote as tostes”. In fact, toasts were often used to warm and flavour drinks and then removed from the cup and “cast to the Dogge”.

Somewhere along the way, sensible foodies realised that they were giving Rover the best part of their meal. And toast made an appearance on the breakfast table. If fiction is any indicator, dry toast was a staple in the sickrooms of the western world. And Hercule Poirot, the Famous Five and Bertie Wooster all chomped their way through hillocks of buttered toast while having grand adventures. In fact, I often wonder if it was Nancy Drew, Fatty and the girls at St Clare’s who made me a toast fiend — someone who can merrily subsist on sliced Wibs bread and Amul butter for days on end.

Suddenly though, this universal dish is the unlikely protagonist of a Food Trend. The new darling of the Instagram crowd and café-crawlers from California to Kala Ghoda.

Of course, this ‘hipster toast’ phenomenon has generated a fair amount of controversy. Blogs and newspapers have protested against paying $4 for what is essentially a thick slice of bread. A Melbourne chef caused a brouhaha by demanding, “since when did we think it was acceptable to charge $14 for half an avocado a cook has smashed up with a spoon, served over a few slices of bread?”

The New Yorker fulminated that artisanal toast is a sign of America’s increasing obsession with food. “Every meal is special and important, every dish should be elevated, revered, and broadcast,” it declared, “even something as pedestrian as toast.”

Ah well, they can keep their angst and cherry pumpernickel toast topped with hand-churned Somerset butter.

I’m running to the pavwala for a loaf of unapologetically white, sliced bread and mass-manufactured butter. Then sitting down to a meal fit for toddlers, detectives and nostalgic food-writers.

Cinnamon toast

1 slice white/wholewheat bread

1 tbsp butter

1 tbsp sugar

1/4 tsp cinnamon powder

2 drops of vanilla

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Mix the butter, sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. Spread on the slice of bread.

Bake for 10 minutes or till the topping bubbles.

Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and the author of The Strange Haunting of Model High School & The Shy Supergirl

Published on April 08, 2016

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