It’s important. If I had to list things that differentiate us from Neolithic club-wielders or fundamentalist Scripture-wielders or videospud remote-wielders, good hot morning toast would be right up there. It seems simple and it is, but not easy.

The Toaster · Less important than you’d think. Some of my best ever has come from aging greasy soot-encrusted apparatus where the handle had fallen off the pop-it-up lever and a rich smell of burnt crumbs prevailed.

One thing is clear: There is no such thing as a fire-and-forget toaster. Attention matters.

At home, we have something sporting the Teflon brand (huh? I thought that was frying-pans) now over a decade old which, properly supervised, produces excellent results.

The Bread · Here one finds a lesson in the essential quality of things. If you are a customer of a good local bakery then you’ll do well, and it matters surprisingly little whether you favor a buttercrusty ultrawhite or something so sincerely dark it verges on pumpernickel. Supermarket bread? You can’t make good toast from that.

An interjection is called for: “White Bread” is used euphemistically to cast aspersions on gringos or honkies or gweilo or whatever you wanna call My Own Personal Ethnic Group and that’s a pity because, done properly, which rarely happens, a good thick-crusted white loaf is really hard to beat. You will note that in France where they really care, your brioche or baguette is never anything but white. Unfortunately, the industrial bakeries of the New World have made White Bread an epithet.

I personally believe that once you’ve found that good local bakery you have to go with its strengths. Ours is a Filipino operation for whom bread is a sideline; it covers the waterfront from Siopao to Nanaimo bars, so if you want fresh loaves you have to hit the narrow window between when they arrive sometime after 10AM and before they’re gone in the early afternoon. I favor their sprouted multigrain, Lauren their thicker and heavier “Good Hearth”.

Butter or Margarine · In fact, given a good spread (see below), this can be skipped; but there is a price to pay in ultimate quality. The butter-or-margarine choice is somewhat vexed. I think we’re mostly past the notion that all vegetable fats are better than all animal fats, and the list of ingredients on the side of your margarine tub is pretty unattractive. Having said that, while I don’t have first-hand experience in the dairy biz I’m had my hands on most other kinds of farming, and the animal-husbandry end of it is mostly sordid and abusive and chemically-enhanced just barely inside this side of what’s legal, and that’s when the inspectors have been by recently.

Having said all that, margarine has the considerable advantage of being soft at Canadian room temperatures. And having said that, we use butter. And even when you wake up and find that the only butter’s rock-like in the fridge, there are work-arounds (see below).

Toppings · Here tastes may legitimately vary. I am pretty well locked into a theme and variations, where the theme is Seville Orange Marmalade. Good marmalade should have a flavor that’s hot in your mouth; the shouting Mediterranean bitterness barely balanced with preserving sugars.

The canonical brand is Robertson’s (by appointment to Her Maj) and that’s what I grew up with; but any good large health/organic-foods supermarket will have alternatives, some good. Oddly, in my experience the French mostly strike out in the marmalade department. Personally I admit to favoring the “President’s Choice” house brand of a big Canadian supermarket chain, which advertises its high proportion by weight of fruit and while perhaps a little less subtle in the mouth than something home-made from scratch with bitter Seville oranges and love, is totally not bad and quite remarkably intense.

On mornings that I’m extra hungry I’ll follow up the marmalade toast with a variation suiting the day’s fancy. A good strong buckwheat honey is not to be sneezed at, nor a German Pflaumen Muus (hard to find), nor an old-fashioned raspberry or strawberry or (especially, and also hard to find) sour-cherry jam from the nearest farmers’ market.

To Drink · We’re talking breakfast here, thus basically milks and juices. I have a large glass of 1% milk nearly every day of the year, the bitter-Seville-orange aggression contrasting nicely with the silky milk. If there’s a second round of toast I usually go with grapefruit juice, its sour freshness setting off the sweetness of most preserves.

Timing · This is the essence of the thing.

There are places in the world where they use “Toast racks” in which are propped up dried-out room-temperature lovelorn joyless slabs of dead cooked bread. (Britain, I’m looking at you.) Even worse, I’ve been where they deal out pure abominations called “toast soldiers”, being aforesaid cold dry dead slabs only cut into cold dry dead finger shapes, to what purpose I can’t begin to imagine.

Here’s the right way to do it: You push down the lever of the toaster. Then you stand right there by it—what, you’d rely on its opinion as to when your precious toast is done? It’s a silly machine. Silly you.

While you stand there, ensure that your glass of cold beverage is filled and ready, and that the butter is soft, or failing that, you’ve cut some skinny slivers that you can drop on the fresh hot toast where they’ll soak in fast. Also you need to have a knife out for the butter, a spoon for the topping, and a plate to eat from.

Eventually your vigilant eye will detect that the toast is ready. At the point you pop it, seconds—fractions of seconds—matter. It must be at your place at the table, butter and toppings applied, and your bottom in your chair, while it’s still hot to touch. The technique is mostly in the wrist.

Reality · I’m a Dad. I have two children and two cats, all hungry when they wake up. Also, two of the four humans are Not Morning People. Which means that there are many obstacles standing between me and the perfect breakfast toast. I score maybe two weekdays in five, and am further saddened by the knowledge that there are many who never eat good toast.

On the other hand, we have a well-worked-out domestic routine. So when I wake up there’s usually bread made yesterday, butter reasonably soft in its covered dish, also marmalade and milk waiting in the fridge. So unlike my single years when I had time to focus properly on toast, but was frequently out of something. There’s a lesson lurking in there somewhere.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Jurgen Schaub (Feb 11 2009, at 14:53)

Toppings: Since I moved to Australia, one of my favourite toppings is Vegemite. A frequent beginner's mistake is to pile it on like peanut butter. Vegemite, like wit, is best used sparingly. It also generally requires a bit more butter than what you'd normally use. As a bonus, it's rich in B-vitamins, and is a fairly good hangover remedy.

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From: Doug Cutting (Feb 11 2009, at 15:06)

You have kids and you don't mention sprinkling cinnamon and sugar on top of that butter in lieu of fruit product?

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From: Paul W. Homer (Feb 11 2009, at 15:13)

Toast is soo last week. Pancakes are all the rage now.

(French toast is still exotic, though)

:-)

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From: Robin (Feb 11 2009, at 15:13)

Butter and Marmite. That is all that's needed for perfect toast.

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From: John Cowan (Feb 11 2009, at 15:23)

AFAICT, toasting is a method of taking all the moisture out of bread so you can add it back on with various fatty or sweet abominations. When I eat bread, I eat *bread*. The staff of life.

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From: Dervala (Feb 11 2009, at 15:36)

Tim! Soldiers are for dipping in soft-boiled eggs. They're indispensable strips of toasty, buttery goodness.

And where's the other great ritual--coffee, light of my morning?

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From: Roland Tanglao (Feb 11 2009, at 15:36)

Tim, could you please post the name and address of the Filipino bakery? It'll be fun to take her to this place on her twice a year visits!

Thanks! ...Roland

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From: Rafe (Feb 11 2009, at 15:39)

You need Land O Lakes spreadable butter. It's regular butter mixed with a little bit of canola oil so that it comes out of the fridge ready to spread on bread or an English muffin. Truly a revolutionary invention.

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From: Tim Bray (Feb 11 2009, at 15:43)

Roland: New Town bakery, on the east side of Cambie just north of 19th. Neither big nor fancy.

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From: Greg Bodnar (Feb 11 2009, at 15:51)

From time to time, I'll get a bread adorned with poppy seeds. The oil from the seeds provides moisture and allows me to skip any spread - just enjoy the roasted-seed flavour.

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From: Tim (Feb 11 2009, at 16:16)

Pflaumenmus is pretty easy to make; easier to obtain if you've got a lovely mother like mine. Which makes it my favorite since ... ever. Runner-up: the combination strawberry/rhubarb.

Also great: substituting butter with quark or other cream cheese.

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From: Pierre Phaneuf (Feb 11 2009, at 16:33)

That would be Tefal, not Teflon. My grandmother had a non-popping toaster, it was awesome: ultimate control, you can even keep one side moist!

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From: Eric (Feb 11 2009, at 16:42)

Don't forget the song!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BILAFuSi-i0&feature=related

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From: Nemo (Feb 11 2009, at 17:08)

An important issue, well covered. If anything I would to your points on timing/technique:

With a typical 2 slice toaster there are two approaches to making the most of the short time available for butter (never marge) spreading.

1) take one piece out leaving and butter as quickly as possible, leaving the other either warming in an off toaster or

2) take both out simultaneously, placing one on top of the other. butter the top most side before moving the slice to the bottom of the 2 stack and then buttering the other slice

I prefer approach 2). While it results in asymmetric butter melting it is not appreciably colder in the end (cool marmelade/jam & the time taken to eat the first piece makes it moot). Most importantly howeevr delivers a delightful double buttered slice, suitable for squabbling over.

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From: Ronald Pottol (Feb 11 2009, at 17:35)

I find a cheese plane to be invaluable in dealing with cold butter. Makes a nice thin full width long slice of butter, that melts evenly no matter what.

Like this one:

http://www.southwestmedical.com/images/products/images/NCMNC65611.jpg

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From: Cath B (Feb 11 2009, at 18:23)

A toast! A toast!! Delightful article! When the flip are you gonna give up the damn software stuff and just write?!

By the way, it is currently Seville orange season and the Blood oranges are just coming on, in case you wish to make your own tasty toast concoction. And, if you wish to use butter, please splurge on certified organic. Certain agricultural nasties are fat-soluble and therefore likely present in larger amounts in regular butter; the added cost of certified organic means butter-hogs (like me) might use just a teensy bit less to be frugal.

Oh, and it's quark AND butter AND marmalade!

Thank you for such a nice piece!

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From: David Ing (Feb 11 2009, at 18:26)

At last! Something on the internet I really want to talk about.

Everyone that wants toast needs to check out this baby - s/he's a work of art:

http://www.dualit.com/content.asp?page=/catalogue/productRange.asp?categoryCode=15

I loved that toaster, it was built like a truck. No stupid pop-up, unbreakable timer, simple chrome finish.

When we moved from the UK to Vancouver I couldn't bring it - and I seriously considered not moving because of it.

Perfect Toast - the true and worthy goal of humanity and technology

:-)

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From: Claire Giordano (Feb 11 2009, at 18:30)

Great post, Tim. Having almost started a fire by not paying sufficient attention to my toaster just the other day, I enjoyed the hidden pun in the phrase you used: "a fire-and-forget" toaster.

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From: Zach (Feb 11 2009, at 18:32)

I can't recommend a Butterbell ( http://butterbell.com/ ) enough for toast lovers. Keeps your butter truly completely airtight and room temperature. (No affiliation I promise, just a long-time fan.)

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From: Patrick Gibson (Feb 11 2009, at 18:33)

It's very apropos that you've made this posting, as I've been thinking a lot about toast, and how to ensure a top-notch serving.

But first, my solution to rock-hard, cold fridge butter: take the stick out and put it on a small plate. Put it in the microwave, and set the power level to the lowest setting (10, on mine) for 12 seconds. Flip the stick 180º, and put it in again for 12 seconds on the lowest settings. (If you start to see the butter melting, stop it immediately.) Note that this may vary slightly depending on your microwave.

I come from a family in which butter is not only required, but used in what some would consider "excess". I like a lot of butter on my toast, and if my application doesn't melt completely on the freshly-toasted bread, I put the buttered piece back in the toaster slot for a few seconds to finish. (The toaster is still hot enough to melt the rest without having to push the lever down.)

Next, I apply a moderate amount of spread. Lately, we've been using Crofter's brand, which is quite tasty. Though, they don't seem to make a blackberry jam, which is my favourite. My wife's father has made his own jams and jellies for years which he has sold at local weekend markets under the "Big Don" name. It has been nice to have homemade spreads for a number of years, though he has recently retired his pickle and jam business, so once my stockpile is used, I will either have to learn how to make my own, or find some other equally good source.

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From: Tony Fisk (Feb 11 2009, at 18:59)

Here's to cracking toast, Tim!

(since IMHO no discussion of this topic would be complete without a reference to 'The Wrong Trousers'!)

Supermarket bread is like supermarket vegetables: both claim to be edible.

10s in a microwave works wonders on a cold brick of butter, softening the outer edges just enough for spreading. I suppose the *really* prepared would leave a small pot out overnight (oh! Canadian winters ...!)

Soldiers have their place: they're for dipping into the yolk of a boiled egg.

Personally, I cannot abide either vegemite or peanut butter, however thinly spread (although I like peanuts, go figure!)

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From: Dave Lemen (Feb 11 2009, at 19:30)

I love the Cuban version: two sides of a split loaf of French bread, buttered, put back together, then toasted while squished together in something like a panini-style toaster. It's eaten with cafe con leche, which is like a latte with wayyy too much sugar! Mmmm, boy!

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From: Dan Sickles (Feb 11 2009, at 21:04)

I like my toast brown. Not white with light brown stripes but good and brown. So many people are afraid of burning the toast that they under-toast it. The flavor's in the brown...the brown and the butter.

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From: Matthew Todd (Feb 11 2009, at 22:57)

Echoing Zach above: Yes! Butter Bell!

From http://butterbell.com/airtight.php:

Softened butter is packed firmly into the bell-shaped lid. Cold water is poured into the base of the crock. The lid is placed upside down back into the base of the crock. Soft, spreadable butter may be enjoyed and served right from the crock.

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From: Mike (Feb 12 2009, at 02:05)

Just got back from a trip to Singapore, and am already missing my kaya. Why, oh why, doesn't North America have kaya? This is an important question.

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From: Lucian Pintilie (Feb 12 2009, at 03:21)

Tefal is a kitchen appliances manufacturer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tefal). Teflon, on the other hand, is a branded chemical compound used in most non-stick cookware, but it is used in other domains too (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polytetrafluoroethylene).

Nice article, makes me think again of trying my (under-used) toaster, once in a while at least.

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From: Edward (Feb 12 2009, at 08:51)

Marmite!

We have a bread machine, so can arrange to have fresh bread at the right time (though this requires some planning ahead because it takes 5 hours). However, I tend to think it is a shame to toast fresh warm bread. I prefer to have the 'raw' bread when it is fresh, and only toast it when it is a couple of days old. My wife disagrees and likes to toast fresh bread.

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From: Colin Prince (Feb 12 2009, at 10:05)

Cold drinks with you morning toast?

Are you crazy?

Best with toast is tea. Made fresh and at the right temperature it can't be beat.

Here in Ontario I have been so disappointed at what happened to Red Rose that I've been casting about for a real honest to goodness Canadian tea.

I found some great stuff from Nova Scotia. Google up Morses Tea and King Cole Tea if you are interested.

My choice of bread is the rectangular multigrain from Dufferin Grove Park outdoor oven. Operates year round and money goes to other community activities. Extremely yummy.

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From: Phil Wilson (Feb 12 2009, at 11:21)

No-one I know here in Britain actually uses, or enjoys toast served from, a toast rack.

In hotels it seems to be an excuse to serve cold toast.

Tragic.

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From: kenny (Feb 12 2009, at 12:34)

I have to say: this is the best thing I've read all week. I'm not a toast connoisseur myself, but the way you feel about toast mirrors the way I feel about omelettes and coffee. It must be a morning thing. Waking up to a nice clean slate, and trying to pay attention to all the nice little details of life. Then as the day drags on disappointments occur, stress builds up, and by dinner time I'm more apt to just grab some Taco Bell than construct a more deliberate and meaningful dinner.

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From: Mark Piper (Feb 12 2009, at 12:47)

Amen on the timing. I have a wife who - and I can hardly bring myself to reveal this to such company - not only leaves the toast to go cold before buttering, but actively props two pieces up on end against each other, like a house of cards, so as to facilitate the flow of cooling air. This would appear to me to be sheer incomprehensible madness.

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From: Colin (Feb 12 2009, at 12:47)

A non breakfast toast to die for involves bread, chilli pickle and cheese. These are essential. The lazy option is toasted bread, chilli pickle, cheese and a microwave. A very sad second. But edible if as I do you feel guilty about starting up the oven for a snack. The browner and grainier the bread the better.

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From: Simon Michael (Feb 12 2009, at 17:57)

Possibly my favourite piece by you so far. I am scheming to acquire some good bread and marmalade. Thanks Tim!

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From: Stuart Marks (Feb 12 2009, at 18:38)

Nutella.

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From: José Bonnet (Feb 13 2009, at 01:31)

Use a bit of extra-virgin olive oil: tastes wonderfully and is better for your ealth..

jb

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From: Blaine Cook (Feb 13 2009, at 08:27)

I'll assume that the discussion presumes that the home-made varietals of "all of the above" are simply superior. (save perhaps the toaster, milk and butter, unless you're a steampunk engineer or live on a farm, respectively)

If not, next time I'm heading to Vancouver, remind me to bring a jar of our blackberry tomato-chili, or northern wild strawberry jams, or if there's some left, the divine caramelized bergamot marmalade. The only problem is that the supplies aren't infinite. OTOH, kids LOVE mushing berries, and blackberry reserves in Vancouver *are* virtually infinite.

I grew up with my dad making a 30% whole wheat version of my grandmother's "standard" Alberta bread. I refused to eat store-bought bread for quite some time as a result. Of course, for those with busy lives but high bread-expectations, the trail to toast begins with a proper mixer, like the KitchenAid Professional 600. Like the toaster, it requires some supervision.

re: margarine/butter, the only thing that I regularly miss in the UK aside from a good boxed macaroni & cheese is Earth Balance. It's healthy margarine that's been designed to have the most-desirable properties of butter. I make critically acclaimed pies, and part of the secret is Earth Balance, not butter. It's nicely spreadable at temperatures above 16 deg. C, and actually tastes good.

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From: Elizabeth (Feb 13 2009, at 11:36)

I'd be curious to know your thoughts on Toast Racks, of which I have expounded on deeply here...http://blog.elizabethhoward.net/2008/11/21/english-things-toast-rack/

I love toast too... mmm... so delicious. I recommend Land O'Lakes Spreadable Butter.

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From: rev (Feb 13 2009, at 12:57)

Mike (Feb 12 2009, at 02:05):

I love my kaya toast too. Here in the (SF)Bay Area, I can find kaya in the Asian supermarkets/grocery stores. So it is available in North America.

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From: Simon Phipps (Feb 14 2009, at 00:18)

One word: Marmite.

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From: Pete B (Feb 14 2009, at 15:22)

Tim,

Sorry about your bad experiences with British hotel toast. Everything you say is true - but you, and more importantly your kids, are missing out badly if you don't understand the use of soldiers. (See Dervala (above) ) Soldiers are indeed for dipping in soft-boiled eggs. For most British kids, soldiers are their first introduction to toast. You slice the top off a soft-boiled egg, cut the toast to a width that will let them poke the soldier in through the hole - and let em get on with it. They can feed themselves this way before they can handle a spoon properly. And warm scrummy yoke running off warm buttery toast is mwonderful taste, And so colourful!

(And they're 'soldiers' because they start off as half a slice of bread cut into strips - so they're all the same size and all stand (ok, lie) in a little straight line on the plate.)

Memories are made of this ...

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From: Ted (Feb 15 2009, at 10:16)

Eddie Izzard recommends "one and a half times for each piece of toast" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2biEN-BiM1Y

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From: Dustin Sacks (Feb 15 2009, at 12:54)

I read this funny piece about 10 minutes before your toast article:

"If buying a Toaster was like buying a Graphics Card"

http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=1477

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From: Tony (Feb 16 2009, at 05:31)

Hi,

I usually agree with stuff that you write but you have gone very awry with your comment on toast racks. See feb 11th post at http://365pictures.me.uk

Tony

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From: SusanJ (Feb 18 2009, at 09:54)

You do, of course, know that carbs and whole grains are unhealthy while there's not any research to support the view that saturated fat is unhealthy?

Check out the clips (especially the one titled "Big Fat Lies") at

http://www.fathead-movie.com/

if you don't feel like reading Gary Taubes' "Good Calories, Bad Calories."

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From: Aleks Totic (Feb 18 2009, at 19:17)

I'd love to meet you sometimes, our tastes coincide. I have toast every morning: 2 PB, 1 butter, 1 butter + homemade jam. My love of butter was on the wane, until I discovered the butter at our farmer's market (California Ave. in Palo Alto). It is tastier, creamy and yellow, and softer out of the fridge, it will restore your faith in butter as the true toast topping. This particular butter comes from grass-fed cows. Supposedly, grass-fed butter has more Omega 6 (which are some good fats), which makes it softer, creamier, and gives it yellow color. The whiter the butter, the harder it is. I am not sure what other magic of this particular butter is. I've tried buying fancy grass-fed butter in stores, but it was not that good. If you'd like a sample, email me before you come to Palo Alto, and I'll buy you a cube.

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From: Paul Morriss (Feb 19 2009, at 06:32)

When we were in Brittany last summer I noticed that the "white" bread wasn't the bright white we have in "French" baguettes in the UK, but a kind of off white. They definitely tasted better in France.

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From: Anton (Feb 19 2009, at 08:53)

Lovely writing. You inspired me to buy a jar of PC Seville Marmalade and some freshly baked 'granary' type bread.

I washed it down with a 'fresh' nectarine and strawberry smoothie made from imported fruit (depths of winter here in Ottawa) from the essential Innocent Smoothies book (http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/books/Innocent-Smoothie-Recipe-Book-Innocent-HarperUK/9780007213764-item.html?ref=Search+Books:+%2527innocent+smoothies%2527)

Thanks for the inspiration!

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From: bob (Feb 26 2009, at 11:59)

@Mark Piper

My understanding of the purpose of propping two pieces of toast up against each other is to slow down the drying out process, not speed up the cooling down process, although the latter is likely to be an unintended consequence.

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February 10, 2009
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