Simple bread for the best toast

Troubled times call for toast. When the world was falling apart around us and everyone we knew was falling sick or worried about falling sick, all I could face most mornings was a piece of toast. Making the bread was meditative and rewarding, and eating freshly baked, freshly sliced, freshly toasted bread seemed perfect–a food possessed of incalculable restorative powers. I love toast most ways you can think of eating it: with salted butter, or with jam or cinnamon-sugar or honey in the morning, with cheese or butter and garlic in the evening. Under beans or veg or floating on soup.

I also love the word, “toast.” I love nearly all of its meanings, except for a few that I’ve just read on urban dictionary that I seriously doubt anybody ever uses. I like things that are toasty and warm, especially on these rapidly cooling and shortening days: dogs, blankets, beds. I like the idea of toasting somebody or something…holding up a glass and declaring your love, admiration and gratitude. It’s an ancient tradition, which has gone through many iterations, but I love the idea that people pause, they form their thoughts into words, and those words may be witty or sincere, admiring or roasting, but they share them with others. In his 1791 treatise, The Royal Toast Master: Containing Many Thousands of the Best Toasts Old and New, to Give Brilliancy to Mirth and Make the Joys of the Glass Supremely Agreeable, J. Roach explained that “A Toast or Sentiment very frequently excites good humor, and revives languid conversation; often does it, when properly applied, cool the heat of resentment, and blunt the edge of animosity. A well-applied Toast is acknowledged, universally, to sooth the flame of acrimony, when season and reason oft used their efforts to no purpose.”

I like the turn the tradition took as a form of poetry to music, especially as described in Bob Marley’s Put it On…”Feel them Spirit/Lord, I thank you/Feel alright now/Lord, I thank you/I’m not boasting/Feel like Toasting…” It sounds as though he can’t help but describe his gratitude because the spirit moves him so deeply, and in this song the word seems to encapsulate all of the good meanings attributed to it over the years. I love the idea that the tradition of toasting in Jamaica started because Count Matchuki became annoyed by American deejays talking over songs he loved, and he got the idea that he could use the technique to make something beautiful. And then he traveled all over the island with a sound system, sharing melodies and beats, and people could toast over them, sharing their thoughts and feelings; witty, sincere.

    I like to think about the “toastmaster,” who arranges and announces all the toasts, and I’ve decided that this is my new career goal, my dream job. When a person feels so much happiness or love or gratitude that they need to speak it aloud, they come to you. You hold up your hands and cry, “Pray silence for a toast!” And everybody raises their glasses, which are spilling over with good cheer. And wherever you go, when people see you they feel moved to shout out their esteem and appreciation for whom or whatever they are currently esteeming and appreciating. And apparently the subject of a toast is also called a toast, and these toasts will abound, eventually we’ll all be someone else’s toast, and everybody will feel proud and happy. I’ll toast to that!

    Elwood loves toast. What a beautiful scene!

    In my recent years of toast-eating, I’ve been adjusting my recipe in search of the best bread for the most perfect piece of toast. I like whole wheat toast and toast with nuts and raisins, and toast with olives and rosemary, and probably most other kinds of toast you could think of, but I was going for here was a very simple loaf, the kind we would buy from the bakery when I lived in London off-and-on over the years. A childhood memory of comforting toast. I wanted the crust to be crisp but not tooth-shattering, I wanted the crumb to be a bit loose, not too fine and cakey. I wanted the bread to be a little chewy under the crispy exterior. After many many loaves of bread, this is the recipe I have arrived at. Lately I’ve been eating it with half blackcurrant jam and half apricot jam. It’s a real treat.


    1 T. yeast
    1 T sugar
    1/4 cup flour
    1/2 cup warm water

    Mix these together and leave them in a big, lightly covered bowl for about ten minutes till it’s frothy.

    4 cups flour
    1 generous T olive oil (or other vegetable oil)
    2 t salt
    About 1 cup warm water

    Add the flour, oil, and salt to the starter and along with about a cup of warm water. Stir till you have a raggedy mix, and then knead until you have a smooth, stickyish dough. It should just be on the edge of too sticky to knead. The first couple times you knead it you can leave it in the bowl and use damp hands. I like to knead for a couple minutes, then let it sit for about ten minutes, then knead a couple more minutes, then let it sit for ten minutes. And repeat the process for about an hour. By the second or third knead it should be firm enough that you can turn it onto the counter to knead it. You can always add more flour or water, but be careful not to add too much of either. At the end of the hour it should feel very smooth and elastic, put it into a lightly floured bowl and put it somewhere warm to rise for about 2 hours (longer if it’s very cold in the room). Punch it down, and put it back somewhere cool to rise for about 45 minutes to an hour, till when you poke it with a damp finger it doesn’t bounce back right away..

    After the second rise, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter. Gently flatten into a thick rectangle, and pull the front and back edges up to form a log, then tuck the ends in as well. Turn it over and using the slight stickiness to the counter push it back and forth to build up the tension in the surface. Slice the top down the middle with a very sharp knife, about 1/4 inch deep. Transfer to a loaf pan lined with parchment paper. Let sit for about 30 – 45 minutes, depending on the warmth of your kitchen. Again: if you poke it with a damp finger and it doesn’t spring back it’s probably ready to bake.

    preheat the oven to 450. 

    Fill an ovenproof pot or pan with boiling water and place it on the bottom shelf of the oven. Lower the heat to 425 and put the bread in the oven. Bake about 15 minutes, then lower the heat to 375 and bake for about another half an hour.

    The bread is done when it’s deep golden brown on top, and when it sounds hollow if you tap it. I like to turn the oven off and take it out of the loaf pan and put it back in the oven right on the rack for 5 or ten minutes at the end, just to give it a minute to finish baking.

    It’s easier to slice when you let it cool completely. And then it’s good as is, but much much better toasted!

    Categories: featured, food, music

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