On Toast: A Kitchen Meditation

Chef Norman Van Aken shares his thoughts on toast
Staff Writer
On Toast

Norman Van Aken

Good toast requires immediacy and care.

Nothing makes me notice I'm in a different town than the one we live in like the sound of a freight train lowing in the distance. The horn, the cadence of the wheels, the bumping mechanical rumble of the boxcars, all takes me on a journey too. Whether it will be long or short usually depends on what other sounds or sights intersect with that magical train’s chorus. One morning in Winter Park, Florida, it was brief. New sounds arrived as I received a small enough cappuccino that I was already considering a second one. There was some road construction going on just outside the hotel parking lot. A watering hole on the Serengeti has its orchestral majesty of nature in pure forms, I know. But old white-haired, bearded “song-man” Walt Whitman was among the first to celebrate the dawning age of the Industrial Era and find beauty in those transforming things as he daringly did. 

Time and time again I’m shocked at how indifferently chefs treat toast.As heavy trucks pushed still-wet cement into forms in a bass line of moaning, grinding gear shifting efforts by men in sweat-damp work shirts, I received my breakfast on a patio where classical music and a burbling fountain provided a mellowing contribution.

Along with my coffee, spring water, and Greek yogurt, I had ordered "toast". There was a choice of three kinds. I chose the one my tanned, fair-haired server shyly smiled at as she said the words, "English muffin toast." From the smile I sensed she not only liked this toast herself, but could see I was trying to square up in my mind what made this different from a standard English muffin. She said, "It's really the best of the three." I believed her smile and accepted her recommendation. Suddenly a train whistle blew three times off to the west where the light was still early-morning soft in the Florida skies. I took this as a positive sign and waited to see what this spin on toast would bring. 

She brought me my toast and refilled my ice water. I took the toast into my hands and had a look. Between two lightly caramelized exterior surfaces of golden-hued bread possessing a good crumb structure was an interior that was rightly distinct in texture. So often this is a failure in the preparation of proper toast. Here a creaminess prevailed. Like in a risotto or crème brûlée, one of the bellwethers of quality is the way the food feels as you chew it. We are creatures that must break down our food somewhat before we simply swallow and take it into our bodies for succor and nourishment. If we are wise we go slowly and enjoy that time as we eat.

The hairnet-adorned ladies in the bakery section at our local Miami food market asked (in near chorus) if I wanted the multi-grain bread I was buying “cut thin or thick.” I opted for “thin.” It was presented bagged and warm, thinner-sliced than if I had done it myself. When a growling stomach got me out of my favored morning chair the next day I opted to toast some of that bread and apply a mix of leftover scrambled eggs done with sliced scallions and shredded Monterey Jack cheese. As they were all cooked but cold from a previous effort, I decided to treat the eggs as if a spread … and stirred in a luxurious spoonful of Mexican smoked chili-laced mayo to my newly christened ‘huevos frios.’ The Spanish have made me into a fan of cold egg preparations via their iconic Tortillas Paisanas. I began making them years ago when just beginning my love of all kind of Latin flavors. I eyed my toaster and knew that I would need to be more adroit than if this were a heft of hand-sliced sourdough I might have chosen instead. The critical moments of the toast having the stiffer structure than bread and it becoming a less tantalizing one would be sacrificed if I dallied. My egg mix was ready and I’d poured my juice and set it on the table near the book I was reading, so my calm was not disturbed by efforts less prepared. I spooned my egg mix on toast that had barely escaped the metal and glass box my toaster is made of and I used my heat-tolerant chef fingers to hold it in my left while I administered the spread on top of the fuming fragrant toast. The cold met the hot and the two met my mouth. The convergence was what it was all about.

Time and time again I’m shocked at how indifferently chefs treat toast. I see sheet pans lined ahead of service with toast … or croûtes if they are fancier. The expectation is that some canapés or bruschetta topping will go on top and all will be right with the world. The fact is that the toast died on top of those sheet pans in most cases. Does it take a person who has struggled to learn to bake the bread in the first place to appreciate the magical integrity of the transformations going on when dough sweeps an arc to toast? A swamp of olive oil is not the answer. Immediacy and care are. Those chefs will spend hours worrying about the consistency of an egg yolk. They will, if they have the money, buy immersion circulators to insure a flowingly luxurious outcome. I admire the egg as well. But one doesn’t put Astaire in a tuxedo and Rogers in old sweats and go on with the show. If you want to lay an egg you must find the right warm couch. The couch in this case is toast. It has been said that cheese is milk’s leap to immortality. Well, toast is bread that has been transubstantiated; holier, consecrated, and needing a friend in the kitchen  who respects its ephemerality. Mind your toast. Not the opposite.

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