Artisan Toast: Not Just Bread and Butter

It’s dry, brittle, often tasteless, sometimes burnt, best eaten warm, but so often served cold. What is there to really say about toast?

My grandmother would put simple sandwich bread into the toaster, butter it quickly and set it aside while her tea steeped. By the time she sat down to eat, the toast was butter-wet and cold. She would fold it in half and dip it into her tea. The butter would swim in the hot tea and her toast reduced to mush. But that’s the way she liked it.

You may think toast doesn’t matter much but the folks at Le Petite Sud Ouest in Paris, France are so obsessed with the perfect toasting of bread for their prized foie gras that they put a toaster on every table along with a basket of bread. They pan sear the best foie gras in the country and they teach you how to bring toast to the perfect temperature and texture so it flawlessly features the star of the dish, the warm, succulent foie gras. At Le Petite Sud Ouest, toast matters.

Toast also matters to a growing number of chefs who are taking an otherwise ordinary slice of warm bread and gourmandizing it into artisan toast. They start with a loaf of nontraditional bread such as sourdough or olive and rosemary. Some cut it thick and fry it in house-made butter with chunks of sea salt. Others are making it thin, broiled and brushed with truffle or saffron composite butter (composite butter is flavoured butter). What distinguishes toast apart from artisan toast is the use of non-traditional breads, composite butters and the simple fact that they’re not toasted at all, but fried or broiled.

“I love toast, but I don’t own a toaster,” laughs Rob Berry, owner of the Bleu Turtle Restaurant, a popular breakfast spot in St Catharines. Instead, “I fry it on the griddle.” Berry doesn’t like his toast burnt, just buttered, cuts it on the thick side and he’s particular about his bread. Barry bakes his own Honey Whole Wheat bread and uses that for toasting because the honey caramelizes, turns the toast darker with a slight sweetness that really boosts the flavour of the scant bit of melted butter and sea salt he brushes on top of it. Yum.

When I talk about artisan toast you may have thought French toast, but it’s not the same thing. Yet, even French toast is getting a face life by reincarnating the traditional cinnamon laced toast fried in whipped eggs and cream into a lemon laced frothy cream baked toast dotted with blueberries version. Delicious as it is, my only issue is that it’s no longer French toast at that point – it needs a new name.

Jason Parsons, Executive Chef of Peller Estate Winery Restaurant claims the broiler is the best way to go. “I like a simple white sourdough, thick cut so it’s still fluffy on the inside and toasted only on one side. “If it’s toasted on both sides, it’s too crunchy,” he laments as he shakes his head. Next Parsons slices cold chunks of butter, dots the warm toast and watches it melt. “I love the puddles of butter as I’m eating.” Parsons makes his own composite butter with Icewine at the restaurant. He describes it as “amazing”, as he rolls his eyes to the back of his head.

Parsons is a man who loves his butter. His secret midnight snack is toast. He talks about puddles of Normandy butter or smears of small batch Ontario butter sprinkled with chunks of sea salt. Asked if he puts anything else on his toast he laughs, “I’m English, so jam yes, strawberry most often and no to anything else like nutella, peanut butter or honey.”

Parsons has an idea for serving upscale toast at a party. “Take a baguette and slice it in half, down the middle. Drizzle it with a good quality olive oil and lots of sea salt. Toast it in a Panini press and when it’s warm, slice it crosswise into finger-shaped slices.” It’s simple, yet rich. Parsons doesn’t see toast as the main event here, but a replacement for crackers or bread.

Artisan toast is not new to Europe. I was travelling in Florence many years ago and was served the Italian version of artisan toast. It was a thick cut of an Italian loaf that was baked with whole, roasted cloves of garlic embedded right into loaf. It was lightly broiled, rubbed with raw garlic and drizzled with rich olive oil. A fresh loaf of Italian bread has millions of small to medium sized air holes throughout. It means there is less bread surface and more mini pockets to scrape the juices from the garlic clove and capture mini pockets of extra virgin olive oil that opens up from the warmth of the toast. Soft, warm and billowy on the inside, it was deliciously overpowering in aroma and flavour with a light crunchy crust on the outside.

You can easily add things to artisan toast. In this case a heap of Cannelli beans simmered in garlic and rosemary saddled the toast. It was glistening with extra virgin olive oil that came from the olive groves around the city. A fresh sprig of rosemary lay over shavings of Parmesan cheese that became limp over the warm beans. I don’t remember the name of the dish but I call it “beans on toast” which really does nothing to reflect why I am still yearning for this dish two decades later.

William Brunyansky, chef and owner of the Paniini Café in Thorold makes a killer cheddar, jalapeno corn bread. He grills it with butter on the flat top. It’s three fingers thick size means it’s more of a chunk than a slice. When it’s toasted, the butter caramelizes against the soft bread surface while the cheese bits grill into a crunch. The uber-thick chunk is toasted on one side only so it’s crusty crunchy on one side and soft on the other. It’s brilliantly served warm with Nova Scotia Lobster Chili. “It just makes the whole dish more rich,” says Brunyansky of his chunky artisan toast.

For other toast in the restaurant Brunyansky uses a Salamander. It’s a top down char broiler that toasts one side quickly. “If we get busy, we can kiss our toast good-bye,” laughs William. “There’s no pop-up on a Salamander.”

Artisan toast is usually served with something on the side to spread on it for added flavour and texture. If it’s savoury toast, serve hummus, pate, soft cheese, black olive spread or guacamole. If it’s a sweet artisan toast, consider serving jam, soft caramel, liquid chocolate, crème frâiche, nougat cream, almond paste or do as they do in Hong Kong, serve thick slices of toasted bread with sweetened condensed milk.

My favourite way to make toast special is to cut thick, 1-inch slices of sourdough bread and fry it in butter and sea salt over low temperatures so the butter doesn’t burn. It turns butter gold with a sweet and salty flavour and a consistent crunch on the outside. The soft sourdough retains the stretchiness, softness and warmth on the inside.

Berry, Parsons and Brunyansky all agree that the best artisan toast is made from fresh bread, not day old. And while traditional sandwich bread may be the most convenient to throw in the toaster, it is also the least flavourful. So next time you pick up that ordinary slice of bread to drop into the toaster, think again, gourmandizing your toast is just one more simple way to get more flavour and satisfaction into your day.

By Lynn Ogryzlo

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