Reimagining Bread & Butter
A seasoned writer and recipe developer, Raquel Pelzel started her food career in pastry school before landing a gig in the test kitchen at Cook’s Illustrated and later moving on to Tasting Table as a senior food editor. She’s co-authored 20 cookbooks—including the James Beard award-winning Quick Recipe and the James Beard nominated DamGoodSweet and Masala Farm—and just last month released her first solo book, Toast. With 50 seasonal recipes that reimagine bread and butter, Pelzel approaches a humble slice of bread as the ultimate canvas for culinary creativity. Below, Pelzel talks about what makes the perfect toast, unconventional toppings and why the toast trend is here to stay.
AndrewZimmern.com: Why focus a whole book on toast? What was your process for developing these recipes?
Raquel Pelzel: You know, the toast trend hit NYC in a big way a few years ago, and all of a sudden, you started seeing all of these really delicious pairings of stuff on toast—like beautifully composed tomato salads, roasted vegetables and meats, or smashed avocados with infused oils and interesting finishes. There’s really no limit to what you can pile on top of toast—from simple nut butters to the most elegant butter-poached shellfish. It all works. So it totally made sense to showcase all the fun and creative ways you can serve “toast” (the dish, not just toasted bread!) in a cookbook.
When I was thinking how best to organize the book, it just made sense to focus on toasts for different seasons. Because really, the toast serves to highlight whatever is on top. So I immediately began thinking—okay, it’s late September. What do I want to eat? What’s at the market? I want apples and squash, I want heartier foods and bigger flavors…oh, now it’s winter. What’s in season? What do I want to be cooking? I tried to have very little ingredient duplication—I mean there’s only 50 recipes! I also wanted to feature flavors that would appeal to a global audience. Phaidon, my publisher, has a wide reach, so it was important to me not to just offer typical American toppings. You’ll find stuff like bubble and squeak topped toast, avocado and tomato fattoush toast, a Sichuan fried chicken toast, roast beef smorrebrod-style toast….I wanted lots of people from different backgrounds to be able to crack the book and find a toast that called out to them.
AZ.com: It seems like each bite needs a balance of texture and flavor. What components does a meal-on-bread need to have?
RP: It’s all about balance and contrast. You want every bite to hit lots of different points—crunchy warm toast to creamy cool topping. A little flaky salt against the richness of a sauce or even the sharpness of buttery olive oil that pools into the nooks and crags of the bread. On lots of toasts you’ll find a crunch component in addition to the bread—perhaps nuts or seeds or streusel (oh hi apple pie toast!). A creamy ingredient like ricotta or romesco or smashed potatoes. It’s like breaking down a well-made dinner plate and just piling each item on top of one another, all on toasted bread! Like instead of serving steak with spinach on the side, the spinach goes under the steak and on top of toast.
AZ.com: What’s the key to perfectly toasted bread?
RP: I think it’s about getting a perfectly crispy surface but keeping the interior soft and spongy. If the bread is over toasted, it shatters and isn’t pleasant to eat—too crunchy! I like to use the broiler because I think it does a stellar job at singing the edges and surface just enough to crisp it and provide that nice bitterness from a slight char. That said, pan-frying toast is delicious too. I actually think a toaster makes the most boring toast but it’s definitely the easiest way to go! You also want to make sure your bread is thick enough to cushion the topping without being too thick to obscure it. Or too thin—you don’t want it thin like a cracker.
AZ.com: A slice of bread is a great canvas for experimentation. Is there anything you don’t like on toast? Any combinations that surprised you?
RP: I loooooved the tater tots with a fried egg on toast! Carb on carb goodness! Also kiwi and slightly thickened cream. That was a fun discovery. I don’t think pasta on toast would work. Or couscous. Or rice. But potatoes are brilliant on toast. So I guess it has to be the right carb.
AZ.com: What restaurants have your favorite toasts on the menu?
RP: I love the milk toast at Uncle Boons in Manhattan. And Dan Kluger’s squash toast from ABC Kitchen—I hope he offers lots of toasts on his menu at his new restaurant in the West Village—can’t wait for it to open! Speedy Romeo in Brooklyn has a beef tartare covered in a mountain of Pecorino and arugula. It’s so good. Of course the ricotta and jam toast at Sqirl in LA—it’s killer. A burrata and apricot situation at Avec in Chicago. There’s no end…!
AZ.com: Is the toast trend here to stay?
RP: Absolutely. It’s fun, it’s smart, it’s sophisticated. It’s a great way to stretch out a small quantity of ingredients to serve lots of people and is a fantastic way to repurpose leftovers! And it’s a great way to get kids to try new ingredients. Who knew my boys would love crab and avocado-based guasacaca on toast?? Now I do!
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
RP: Too much stuff (as usual). Fermented sunflower “miso.” Preserved lemons, spicy ‘kraut from a friend’s farm (Crock and Jar), homemade bitter marmalade from my chef-friend at Dig Inn (and co-author of Preserving Wild Foods) Matt Weingarten, homemade Yemenite z’hug that I made with Uri Scheft at Breads in NYC, Red Boat fish sauce, a Riesling ice wine, a few hard ciders (Scrumpy’s, Foggy Ridge), hot giardiniera from Chicago, anchovies, smattering of hot sauces including a homemade mango hot sauce given to me by a neighborhood friend, yuzu juice, confit of figs with balsamic vinegar, seedy mustard…and that’s just the condiment section!
About Raquel Pelzel
Raquel Pelzel is an award-winning food writer and cookbook author. She has co-authored twenty cookbooks and her first solo cookbook, TOAST, was published by Phaidon in 2015. She was an editor at Cook’s Illustrated and the senior food editor for Tasting Table. She lives in Brooklyn with her two sons.
Photographs by Evan Sung.