Dry or buttered, decorated with a topping or grilled, a slice of bread can inspire.
Beans on toast, eggs on toast, tea and toast… “Toast, as everyone in Britain knows, is made by placing a slice of bread in front of dry heat… until the surface browns and gives off an attractive smell.” (Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food.) We don’t need definitions because, like “everyone in Britain”, we know what toast is.
It is a standard part of a proper English breakfast — whichever continent it is eaten on — and “the true toast addict is fussy about its preparation, choosing day-old baker’s bread to make it, and insisting it is eaten as soon as ready, for good toast must be consumed whilst hot. It is the smell of toast, and the sensations of the hot crunchy outside of the bread combined with the soft inner crumb and melted butter, that makes it so appealing. Left to go cold, it becomes leathery and loses its aroma.” (Ibid) In effect, “it’s toast”. Because to be toast means to be (or be likely to become) finished, defunct, or dead. As in “one mistake and you’re toast” or “if my boss hears of this, I’m toast”.
Over the centuries, England has seen toast, then called “tost” being eaten as a sop (a piece of bread, preferably toasted, used to mop up soup or other liquids), until now, when toast-with-a-topping is routine. In the 16th century, meat toppings became popular; sometimes sweetened, as in kidneys, eggs, sugar and flavourings; and sometimes savoury. Towards the end of that century, toppings we now consider the norm became common: Poached eggs, buttered (or scrambled) eggs, ham or bacon, melted cheese. All of these are associated with toast, as are beans, sardines and marmalade. But in India, we have made it our own; we have more: Bombay toast, Bombay toast sandwich, and rusks, differentiated as “cake” rusk and “toss” rusk” where “toss” presumably means toast, and is harder and less sweet than the “cake” type.
Bombay — or should we now call it Mumbai — toast is a version of French toast, and a Bombay toast sandwich is what in some Delhi circles is called a “patty”: A toasted sandwich. Anita the cruel once affected innocence and asked a colleague, eyes opened wide in awe, how she had had the time to make flaky pastry before reporting to work at the crack of dawn. Because that poor ignoramus had said that she’s made “patties” for the family’s breakfast. Of course Anita knew what she’d meant: Some vegetable leftovers (or mashed and spiced potatoes) sandwiched in sliced white bread, buttered and toasted (or grilled) in that wonderful tongs-like appliance, a “tasty toast” maker.
French Toast, pain perdu, literally, “lost bread” is a dessert and consists of slices of stale bread soaked in milk, dipped in eggs beaten with sugar, then lightly fried in butter. It is served hot and crisp. According to the Larousse Gastronomique it was originally intended to use up crusty and leftover pieces of bread, and today is made with brioche or milk bread and served with custard cream, jam or compote. In France it was formerly called pain crotté, pain à la romaine, or croûtes dorées.
In India it is often served for breakfast, only sometimes sweet. Savoury, it is made with salt instead of sugar, finely chopped onions, green chillies and fresh coriander.
2 cups milk
Half vanilla pod or 1/2 tsp vanilla essence
1/2 cup sugar
250g stale brioche (or milk bread), cut into thick slices
2 eggs, beaten well
2-3 tsp caster sugar
1/2 cup butter
Boil milk with vanilla and sugar. Leave to cool. Soak cut bread in cooled milk, only long enough to wet thoroughly without falling apart. Stir a spoon of sugar into beaten egg. In a heavy-bottomed skillet, heat butter. Meanwhile dip bread in egg-sugar mixture, then fry in hot butter. When golden on one side, turn over gently and fry other side till cooked, crisp and golden. Arrange bread slices in a round dish, dust over with remaining caster sugar, and serve hot with cream, cream custard, jam or stewed fruit.
This toast dish combines all the usual toppings, and is very similar to Welsh rarebit (or rabbit) but with added ham.
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup whole milk
Pinch of ground nutmeg
1 bay leaf
4 slices firm white sandwich bread
4 thin slices Black Forest ham
150 g sliced Gruyère cheese
1 tbsp melted butter
1/4 cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 teaspoons chopped fresh chives
Melt two tbsp butter in small saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and stir one minute. Gradually whisk in milk. Add nutmeg and bay leaf. Increase heat to medium-high and boil until sauce thickens, whisking constantly, about two minutes.
Season with salt and pepper and keep aside. Preheat grill. Place two bread slices on work surface. Top each with half of ham and sliced Gruyère. Top with remaining bread. Heat heavy large skillet over low heat. Brush sandwiches with one tbsp melted butter. Add to skillet and cook until deep golden brown, about two minutes per side. Transfer to small metal baking sheet. Spoon sauce, then grated cheese over sandwiches. Grill until cheese begins to brown, about two minutes.
(Processed cheese is not a great substitute, but does when you’re strapped.
A variation is the croque-madame (or, in Normandy, a croque-cheval), with a fried egg on top.)