Buttered toast. Buttered toast and a cup of steaming café au lait. Buttered toast and a cup of English Breakfast tea, with a paper-thin slice of lemon floating delicately on top. Buttered toast and a cup of homemade chicken noodle soup. Heck, buttered toast all by itself. Two ingredients. Simplicity in itself. Comforting. Delicious.
For years my dad’s breakfast was a cup of coffee and two slices of Sunbeam white sandwich bread, lightly toasted in the toaster oven (not a pop-up, never) and buttered…stacked one on top of the other, laid upon a folded paper towel and cut in half. At some point after he had retired early to care for my mom, he switched to canned biscuits, and then to frozen biscuits that he could heat up one or two at a time, again in the toaster oven. My mom loved her buttered toast and for years joined my dad in the customary breakfast but after a triple bypass in 1993 it was recommended to her that she switch to Cheerios instead.
When I was young and stayed home from school sick, my mom would make me buttered toast in the morning. At lunch I would get a special treat of a frozen chicken pot pie or a bowl of Campbell’s Chicken Noodle or Chicken and Rice. And when I was just home from the hospital after delivering by c-section my first child, a beautiful baby girl, my mom served me, yes, you guessed it, a cup of tea and buttered toast. I was exhausted just riding in the car home and that cup of tea and buttered toast is still a vivid memory for me. The restorative values aside, it was the absolutely perfect welcome home snack. Boy, do I miss my mother.
Buttered toast is ubiquitous all over the world. In India, what is naan if not thin bread that has been “toasted” on a hot slab of rock and coated in ghee (clarified butter). In Italy, ciabatta sliced thinly and grilled with a little butter (or maybe it would be olive oil instead) is the perfect appetizer when topped with chopped tomatoes, garlic and basil. Admittedly, toast is not de rigueur in France, where you should expect a crisp on the outside but soft and chewy on the inside baguette or warm and still crackly croissant. But anywhere in the British Isles, you will absolutely get the message loud and clear that buttered toast is the bread product of preference. If you watch any British sitcom with a breakfast scene I can assure you that you will see how important buttered toast is to the British. Toast must be served in a toast rack, never laid on a paper towel or stacked on a saucer…this would cause steam from the heat of the bottom slice to eek up into the next slice causing it to become SOGGY, which by definition is not what toast is all about.
The toast rack is a strange little houseware item that looks like a letter holder for your outgoing mail, except that instead of bills and birthday cards standing between the slots, you have slice after slice of toast. Mostly made out of stainless steel, these are on every table in every bed and breakfast in Great Britain. My dear husband bought me an antique sterling silver Art Deco one at the famous street flea market on Portobello Road in London for our 15th wedding anniversary. The whole raison d’être for a toast rack is that air circulates between the slices so there is no way it can steam itself and get soggy. Remember, steam is the enemy of toast. Each perfectly toasted slice is then cut or torn into smaller pieces where upon copious amounts of marmalade or preserves are then applied. Or, maybe a drizzle of honey. My mom (daughter of Scottish immigrants) always put grape jelly on top of buttered toast and on top of this she placed either two strips of crispy bacon or a slice of fried until it’s almost black Oscar Mayer bologna. Yummmmmmy. Did I mention the triple bypass?
But, back to the British and their buttered toast, which is washed down with vast quantities of properly made hot tea from a proper tea pot with proper loose tea leaves, not a Lipton’s bag in a mug with the string hanging over the edge. When we vacationed in Scotland, visiting my mom’s relatives and staying in a bed and breakfast inn, I swear they would have brought out rack after rack of toast until lunch time, as long as we kept eating it! In Ireland, visiting friends and a retired priest we know, same thing, even on the buffet in the Americanized chain hotel we stayed in, industrial size toast racks with row after row of perfectly toasted white (and wheat) bread.
But here in the good ole US of A, there is little consideration to be given as to what kind of bread the toast is actually made of . . . white sandwich bread, from either a bag with primary colored dots on it or the one with the adorable-if-not-dated little girl with the blonde curls. I am fully aware of the health benefits of whole grain, but when it comes to buttered toast, well, why in the world are you going to mess around with sticks and twigs? Then, of course, comes the other ingredient of the buttered toast recipe, the “buttered” part. You can begin with the top of the food chain, sweet creamery butter, unsalted of course, and work your way down from there. I personally grew up on Fleishmann’s margarine, in the sticks, the original flavor. It’s made of corn oil and is supposed to be healthier for you than real butter. The best thing I can say for it is this; it is always the perfect consistency for spreading on toast, unlike a stick of butter straight from the fridge. Of course, we could leave it out on the counter like they do all over Europe (and in some reckless homes in the US too) but the food police would be on us in a minute.
Another British invention for buttered toast is a variation called “toast soldiers”. This is just buttered toast cut into strips; say maybe three evenly sized strips out of each slice of toast. These are then dunked into a soft-boiled egg that has had its top cut off. I’m not much of an egg person, so to me, this is just a waste of a good piece of buttered toast, but it seems to be viewed as somewhat of a religious experience in Great Britain.
So next time you are feeling a wee bit peckish, a little bit blue, or maybe just under the weather, give yourself a boost with a couple of slices of toasted white bread, slathered with sweet butter, and wash it down with a cup of tea, or coffee, or even hot chocolate. You will not be sorry, I promise you. And remember, you are just one ingredient and a skillet away from that other all-powerful comfort food, the grilled cheese sandwich, but that’s another story altogether!