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.