I love toast.
Seriously, if I look back on the course of my eating career, my longest lasting and most fervent relationship might be with toast. There are certainly more passionate relationships than the one I have had with toast— I was infatuated with kid’s sugary cereal in my youth and I had a very obsessive liaison with spicy breasts and legs when Popeye’s Fried Chicken first moved to town— but those affairs were short-lived, or— in the case of Popeye’s— started late.
It’s no coincidence that I have also had a long relationship with milk, which goes well with toast. If one adds jelly or fruit preserves to the mix— two other food items that have remained a constant throughout my life— that would complete the culinary ménage au trios that has been ever-present in my life since the early 1960s.
I didn’t start eating pizza until I was about 10-years old. I started eating steak after that. But I started eating toast when I was two or three-years old, and I still eat toast today.
My mother made a lot of toast when I was a kid. She used standard white bread, margarine, and strawberry or grape jelly. She made toast by putting pats of margarine on top and popping it under the broiler in the oven. I still do it that way today, except I use a toaster oven that toasts both sides. She was a fan of margarine and I have always assumed that she, or her parents, bought into the WWII propaganda about it being healthier than butter. She was also a devout disciple in the holy church of Bama jelly.
There were only two types of jelly as far as my mother was concerned— Bama strawberry and Bama grape. It was that, or nothing, at our house.
Neither of my grandmothers believed in jelly. When spending the night with a grandparent, toast was never an option, because the only spreadable in their refrigerators was orange marmalade, and dozens of jars of it. I don’t know what those two ladies did with all of that orange marmalade, but it was always there, and it is not good on buttered toast.
I started stepping out on grape and strawberry when I met fig preserves. I was on a weekend stay at my grandmother’s house, and while rummaging around in her fridge, pushed several dozen orange marmalade jars aside, discovered a mason jar filled with figs in syrup.
My first date with fig preserves didn’t go well. The figs were uncooperative. As good as fig preserves are— and fig preserves are very good— they don’t spread well on toast because the whole figs make the relationship entirely one-sided. From that moment forward, I started chopping up the figs inside the jar, which turned the fig preserves into a chutney-style spreadable.
Through the years my relationship with toast has grown. Today I use whole wheat bread or ciabatta, only real butter (I left margarine at the alter years ago), a pinch of salt (trust me it makes all of the difference in the world), and real fruit preserves or honey. I rarely have toast for breakfast, but it is a perfect late-night snack.
I reached toast-lover’s heaven in 2011. My family and I were on the outskirts of Meteora, Greece. Meteora is the home to six of the most impressive and unique monasteries in the world. Precipitously located on high cliffs nestled among a mountain range that looks like a smaller version of our Grand Canyon, these monasteries have stood since the 14th Century. The drive through those mountains is awe-inspiring, majestic, and beautiful.
Hotel Dellas is located at the foot of the mountain range that leads to the monasteries. The hotel owner’s wife, Maria, makes all of the homemade preserves for the hotel. I visited with her for a while over breakfast one morning. We talked about morning meals and she, in very broken English told me that she had lost a daughter, and after her daughter had passed away, she began to make homemade preserves as therapy. It was a poignant and moving story, and the homemade preserves were truly the best I have ever eaten. Ever. Period.
In addition to wild mountain honey and Nutella, the Hotel Dellas offered Maria’s plum, strawberry, fig (pureed as it should be), orange (not marmalade), cherry, apricot, and— without question— the absolute best homemade fruit preserves I have ever eaten, quince. The hotel also offered three or four homemade breads to accompany Maria’s preserves.
Loyal readers of this column will know of my love and passion for breakfast. With that in mind, know this: That freshly baked bread with homemade preserves was so good that I if I were forced to eat nothing else but that— every breakfast, for the rest of my life— I would make that commitment today.
Before there was Samantha on Bewitched, Jeanie, Marcia Brady, and Laurie Partridge there was toast. It was my first love. Here’s to many fruitful years to come. Now, “Would you please pass the jelly!”
This recipe should be made and stored in your refrigerator. Never ever be without it. At my house— in case of fire— I’m grabbing the wife, the kids, a few family photos, the dog, and the container of fig butter in the fridge. To me, nothing tastes better when spread on homemade biscuits, toast or croissants. It goes fast!
1 1/2 cup preserved figs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/8 tsp cinnamon
Pinch of nutmeg
1 /4 cup unsalted butter, softened
Place half of the figs, the spices, vanilla and butter in a food processor. Puree until smooth. Add the remaining figs, and pulse 6-7 times, just enough to slightly break up the whole figs.
Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.