Talking ‘Toast’ and All Its Toppings

If you’ve dined out recently, you’ve probably encountered fancy toast — the du jour of piling artisanal ingredients (think house made ricotta and seasonal jam or poached eggs and shaved truffles) on top of warmed bread. Or perhaps you, like just about everyone else in America, have made some version of avocado toast at home. Chances are, it was among the best breakfasts you have ever eaten.

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Almond-Orange Flower Toast

Like many food fads, fancy toast has been the target of a good bit of backlash and eye-rolling, particularly when restaurants charge $5 or even $10 for a piece of bread with some stuff on it. Tasty stuff for sure, but still. Then again, if you strip away all the glitz and preciousness you are left with something inherently remarkable: toast. Elemental, heart-warming, utterly delicious toast.

Veteran food writer and cookbook author Raquel Pelzel’s latest work, “Toast: The Cookbook” (Phaidon Press, 2015) reads like an ode to crisped bread. The 50 recipes include both gourmet, chef-inspired takes on toast and homey versions that aim to comfort and please.

And while most of the recipes in “Toast” are geared towards dinner — think Chili Lamb on Toast with Harissa Aioli or Fried Eggplant Con Tomate on Toast — several explore ways to amp up your breakfast game. Her Almond-Orange Flower Toast and the Chevre and Sticky Maple Walnut Toast, for example, would make ideal centerpieces for a relaxed brunch, while her Smashed Tot (as in tater) and Egg Toast is the ultimate power breakfast.

Pelzel recently took some time out of her busy touring and writing schedule to talk with me about the best way to heat up your bread (hint: throw away your toaster!); how her Israeli father influenced her toasting game; and why our love affair with toast, fancy or otherwise, is here to stay.

Even before the artisanal toast boom, Americans have always adored toast. Why do you think it’s such a compelling food?

If you think of the times you make toast in your life at home, it is typically when you’re craving something simple but delicious. When you wake up, you eat toast. When you get sick, you eat toast — it’s pure and identifiable. Everyone understands it. The exciting thing is, because it is so familiar, it opens up the door for experimentation. So you can put kabocha squash, wilted mustard greens, marcona almonds and a vinegar reduction on top and have something new and delicious, but it’s still toast.

Chefs have really gotten creative with toast, and use it as a way to showcase seasonal ingredients in a cost-effective way. With toast you can do that — adding something fresh, something creamy and something crunchy in every bite. For the restaurant diner, it is a way to experience new flavors and ingredients in an elegant way that still leaves room for your chicken dinner.

The book talks about different methods for toasting bread — everything from grilling to pan-frying. Do you have a method you prefer above the others?

Honestly, I don’t even own a toaster! That’s my true confession. For my base-level every day toast, I use my broiler. I discovered through lots of trials that it is best to oil or butter the bread before you toast it. That’s something you can’t do in a regular toaster but can in a broiler or toaster oven. That method caramelizes the sugars in the butter as the bread crisps. You get this great singe around the edges and the fat burrows down into the crumb of the bread. You can certainly use a toaster, but this way allows you to introduce flavor from the ground up.

People tend to associate toast with breakfast, but the majority of the cookbook’s recipes are specifically not meant for breakfast. Why?

Most of what you’re seeing out in the world at restaurants is fancy toast — interesting stuff on bread. Think fava beans and sautéed greens, and roasted tomatoes. So those are the kind of toasts I mostly gravitated towards. I found it really fun to have the opportunity to dream up the most delicious things that could go on bread, and to play around without a lot of rules. The only thing I found that doesn’t really work on toast is pasta!

I love that you transformed the now-iconic avocado toast into an avocado fattoush toast. What was the genesis of that recipe?

There were a couple of things I knew the book had to have. One was cinnamon toast — how could you write a toast book without it? And the other was avocado toast, which is probably the most Instagrammed food there is. My challenge was finding a way to make it interesting and new, and go beyond what is expected.

For me, the perfect avocado toast always comes with a slice of tomato and salt. Meanwhile, my dad was Israeli and grew up eating fattoush, and it dawned on me that the toast could serve as the pita element. I could add cucumbers, radishes, lemon and sumac and make something new. It made sense and turned out to be really beautiful.

Do you have formative toast memories from growing up?

My grandma lived on a kibbutz and spoke six languages but not English. And I don’t speak Hebrew. So one of the ways we connected was through food. When I visited her she would say, “mayim?” meaning water, and “cheese toast.” So I grew up with that being very close to my heart. Many years ago, my ex-husband and I had an idea we could live on a kibbutz. We lasted about two days and then went to stay with my grandmother. She kept offering us cheese toasts and he kept eating them because he didn’t know how to refuse — he must have had 20 cheese toasts!

Also, my mom is not a great cook but she made me cinnamon toast. She’d use Butternut white bread, which isn’t even Wonder Bread! Then there’d be a smear of Country Crock and lots of cinnamon sugar. That was my sick food along with canned tomato soup and Goldfish crackers.

I’m curious what your matzo strategies are on Passover. Do you treat it the way you do regular toast, or have any specialties?

Matzo fried in butter and covered in salt is a class in itself. For Passover we always have matzo, and make my dad’s chicken liver, though I never quite succeed. My dad was Romanian and he grew up eating a traditional smoky eggplant salad with lots of onion. So we had that on Passover with matzo for sure. I wouldn’t necessarily do a poached or fried egg, because you need the cushion of bread to sop up the yolk. But there is a lot of room to get creative.

Leah Koenig is a contributing editor at the Forward and author of “Modern Jewish Cooking: Recipes & Customs for Today’s Kitchen,” Chronicle Books (2015).

Talking ‘Toast’ and All Its Toppings

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