Toast Modern - Recap

<-- Previous EpisodeNext Episode -->
A toaster pops and delivers two browned slices of bread to a breakfast plate. Alton slides the plate toward himself as he comments that no breakfasts – heck, no meal is complete without toast. Toast is a golden brown and delicious comfort food, but it is very simple to prepare, so how will Alton get a half hour show out if it? The view expands to reveal an international cast of characters voicing a babble of opinions. One might be surprised what a simple piece of toast can teach one about... Good Eats!

Proper toast features an evenly brown crunchy exterior and a warm and slightly moist interior. That requires about 310º to break down and brown sugars and starches – this is called the Maillard reaction.

The first electric appliance in most kitchens was a toaster. Early models consisted of little more than hinged metal plates designed to hold bread close to wires form of the new nickel chromium resistor wire, a metal with high enough resistance to become very hot when current passes through it. These models appeared in 1908 and were very manual, requiring the operator to keep an eye on the bread lest it burn or even catch fire. IN 1926 the first automatic pop-up toaster appeared. This innovation ejected the bread from the vicinity of the heating elements and turned off the current, greatly improving safety. In 1930 the Continental Baking Company invented sliced bread, contributing to easily repeatable toasting. Today toaster collectors search for these old mechanisms, and there is even a museum where the curious can examine toasters throughout history.

At the Cook’s Warehouse Alton ponders the characteristics of a good toaster. He starts with the material: metal is hard to keep clean and can get very hot, a bad thing in homes with small children. Alton prefers plastic, much safer around the tykes. Toasters come with one, two, or even four slots; Alton recommends a single slot machine. Then enough to fit many places, the slot can accommodate irregularly shaped pieces of bread or two normal sized pieces. Controls include the shade control, and on some models, reheat and defrost buttons for use with frozen foods, and a bagel button for toasting on just one side. Finally, Alton demands a crumb tray that slides out so the toaster can be cleaned – an essential safety feature.

For those who need even more Alton recommends the toaster oven, where one could prepare regular toast as in a toaster and more: cheese toasts and other varieties with toppings. Some models can even broil steaks. Very modern units employ a combination of light and infrared for extremely fast results.

Alton’s British guest insists toast should be kept on a rack and not a plate, and tells him his marmalade isn’t quite up to standard. Alton replies that he doesn’t much like marmalade, earning him a disdainful sniff. What he likes is a custard-y form of toast now called French Toast. When Alton’s French guest slaps his hand away Alton retorts that he’ll make his own!

Properly made French Toast, Alton says, should be brown and crunchy outside, moist and custardy inside, like bread pudding. To make it, Alton visits the grocery store for eggs, half and half (milk won’t do, it has too much water and not enough protein and fat). He also grabs some butter, honey, and salt. French Toast may be made from any “real” bread by which Alton means wheat breads. Breads made from soy flour and containing stabilizers and preservatives simply won’t go stale fast enough so Alton avoids them. Artisan loaves, brioche, and challah are all good choices. Selecting a loaf, Alton has the bakery man slice it into half inch thick slabs.

Back at home, Alton prepares the toast custard the night before breakfast. That spares him preparing it in the morning and lets it mature overnight; mature custards usually taste better. Making the custard the night before also reminds Alton to put the bread out to dry. For this Alton winds a simple toast rack from stiff wire that will hold pieces upright for the required eight hours.

Alton adds half and half to a bowl. Then he zaps some honey for a few seconds to loosen it, and adds that and a little salt. Finally, several eggs complete the mixture; Alton whisks all this together. For guests one might strain the custard to remove the ropy strands, but this isn’t required. Alton slides a plate over the bowl and stashes the mixture in the refrigerator.

The next morning after coffee Alton sets his oven to 375º and makes sure there’s a rack in the middle. Then he sets a cooling rack over a half sheet pan and fills a pie pan with custard. Bread goes into the custard for thirty seconds per side, then rests on the cooling rack for a couple of minutes while it soaks up the custard. Alton heats a skillet to 350º and melts butter enough to coat it, then adds the toast to brown on both sides (two or three minutes) while he drops some more toast into the custard. After all the toast is browned, Alton puts it on the rack and slides it into the oven for five minutes to set the custard inside.

After the toast is done Alton uses a clever device to keep it warm for up to an hour: a heating pad under a clean tea towel. Alton puts the toast on that and covers it all with an inverted sheet pan. This toast serves well with maple syrup, fruit, powdered sugar or whipped cream.

The Italians contribute a form of toast called Bruschetta. A misconception, in Alton’s view, is that this toast should be piled high with toppings; Alton believes simplicity produces the best results. He selects a narrow loaf and cuts it on the bias (it’s easier to eat and looks better on the plate). This could be toasted over coals (that’s the origin of the name) or in a broiler or toaster oven. Once toasted, Alton rubs the piping hot toast with a head of garlic that he has cut in half; the many exposed cloves offer a high surface area for flavor transfer. After the garlic Alton brushes the bread with some extra virgin olive oil, some coarse salt and some pepper. It could be stacked with leafy greens or tomato or both, but Alton prefers it plain.

Welsh rarebit may have got its name from Englishmen taunting Welshmen. No one knows for sure. But the toast has no rabbit in it. Alton prepares his over an open fire using a camp stove – a kind of cast iron Dutch oven with feet. Those without such a handy implement could use a sauce pan over low heat. Alton starts by melting butter and adding flour, whisking well to coat the grains. Then he adds a bit of Dijon mustard and some Worcestershire sauce, a little kosher salt, a little pepper and some dark beer. Then he adds cream – heavy or light work equally well – and finishes with cheese added a handful at a time and mixed thoroughly. He tastes this cheese sauce and decides a little hot sauce will spark it up a bit. Then he covers it and removes it from the heat to keep the cheese from turning grainy.

Using a toast fork, Alton spears some rye bread and browns it over the fire, then cuts it into points and pours the sauce over it. The two important points with rarebit are not to burn the toast (Alton lifts a blackened slice ruefully) and not to boil the sauce, which will ruin the consistency.

Few things are as simple and tasty as toast. It’s all about Good Eats!