This is not exactly a recipe. It’s more like a memory. Or maybe a mindset, intent on those old-fashioned basics, pared down and well executed.
And it’s not exactly news. It’s been written about by food bloggers everywhere, some who have some great thoughts on the matter, some who get right to heart of things, and some who don’t.
For me, it’s about waking up early, hushed and groggy, in the still darkness. It’s about stretching young limbs toward the ceiling with eyes pushed tightly shut then reaching bare feet down to the cool wood floor beside the bed. Its about walking slowly, noiselessly, through the shadows in the dark hallway toward the light at it’s end. It’s about the sounds of morning at the end of that hallway, as the light gathers budding on the horizon beyond the ruffled window curtains; the slight hum of the kettle, water rustling over the hot electric coil, the deliberate footfall of someone competently moving from side to side of their small kitchen, the creak of an oven door opening and the muffled thud when it closes. It is the sensation of morning in an ordinary home of modest means. It is the comfort of being greeted by the smell of something delicious reaching through the fog of receding dreams and calling you out to the dawn of a new day.
In such moments life isn’t all that complicated. The need for sleep satisfied, the desire for fuel sets in. Too young for coffee, something good to eat was the priority. Nothing brings out the goodness of a little sugar, cinnamon and butter on bread, like just the right amount of heat.
Something Good to Eat
At least one morning a week Aunt Hen made my breakfast. No one in my world made breakfast like she did, or even made toast like she did. At my house we used a toaster. It was convenient. Just pop in a slice and forget about it. The result was often anemic, or burnt. Buttered it was adequate to satisfy hunger. Add cinnamon sugar and you were likely to end up with an insipid mess that wasn’t exactly unpalatable but was not what being-drawn-into-the-light memories are made of.
Aunt Hen's toast was another matter. Whether she made buttered toast or cinnamon toast she made it in the oven, under the broiler. She took untoasted slices of bread and carefully covered the space between the crust edges in butter. After laying each slice on her small dented baking sheet she added sugar and cinnamon to mine and placed them on the highest oven rack.
A minute or so passed before she stood rapt at the oven door peering in. She watched as the toast browned, as the upper grain began to respond to the heating element, the butter began to bubble and the sugar melted and darkened. When the colors took on a pronounced golden hue she reached in and nabbed the pan with a hot pad or the edge of her kitchen towel. There was no letting that perfect moment pass or disaster would follow; golden toasted perfection could become burnt and inedible in an instant.
The toast that came out of Aunt Hen’s oven was amazing. Even as a child I reveled in the complexity that resulted when heat and watchful eyes transformed a few basic kitchen staples. The bottom of the bread maintained my favorite characteristics of white bread, a mild flavor and freshly warmed softness. The top, on the other hand, was all crispness and snapped delicately as I bit through the caramelized sugar. The taste was all buttery cinnamon goodness, my absolute favorite flavor as a child. I loved Aunt Hen's Cinnamon Toast. To this day I am happy to believe that no one else could make it quite like she could.
Of course we can always try.
4 slices of white bread
1-2 Tablespoons butter, at room temperature
1 Tablespoons sugar
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1. Take two or more slices of plain white bread (other bread works too but sacrifices the nostalgia). My favorite white bread is Bunny Soft-Twist.
2. Gently spread one side of each slice with a thin layer of butter. It is important to keep the layer thin so that butter doesn’t pool or soak through the bread. I used about 1 teaspoon of butter for each slice, but that’s just to give you an idea of what I mean by a thin layer. You might want to use a little more. Though I did it this one time, somehow it misses the point to measure.
This step is easiest to accomplish if the butter is at room temperature. If the butter is cold. trying to spread it thinly will tear the bread or cause you to end up with way too much butter on the bread unless you are very patient. If your butter is cold I suggest shaving it off the stick in thin layers that will quickly warm to a spreadable texture or simply laying the paper thin slices across the bread.
Like my Dad’s best tip for Grilled Cheese Sandwiches, “What makes it good is making sure the whole surface of the bread is evenly coated with butter,” though I know that when it came to Dad’s grilled cheese sandwiches that layer of butter was often anything but thin.
And one more thing. Do not use soft margarine spread! Because, well, eeew! Generally speaking, it tastes bad or, at best, it tastes mostly wet. Here I am no doubt making some departure from true nostalgic replication. My memories of this toast are based on my experience in the 1960s and 70s after all, and at that time Aunt Hen’s kitchen staples included stick margarine, Coffee Rich and Cool-Whip instead of more authentic dairy products. But a certain degree of tasteful discernment and revisionist historical assessment have led me to update the original recipe on this one point.
3. Evenly sprinkle the buttered bread with granulated sugar. Again, it isn’t necessary to measure but I did for the sake of clarity and, again, I used a little less than 1 teaspoon of sugar per slice.
4. Tap a small quantity of ground cinnamon evenly over the sugar. Be careful! Cinnamon is delightful but also potent. A little goes a long way. Here I used too little to accurately measure on one slice.
Alternately you can mix the cinnamon and sugar before sprinkling it on the toast. In fact it is nice to have a container of pre-mixed cinnamon-sugar for a variety of uses. In that case I mix about ½ teaspoon of ground cinnamon into 1 Tablespoon of white sugar. You can use more or less cinnamon according to individual preference.
Another way to spread the sugar and spice is to scatter a teaspoon or so roughly onto the buttered bread, then tilt and tap the slice to spread the sugar evenly over the whole buttered plane. Then you can tap any excess onto the next slice, if you like.
5. Preheat broiler with rack positioned roughly 6 inches below the heating element. Have an oven mitt ready and waiting.
Position pan in the center of the rack and watch carefully.
By one minute the sugar and butter should begin to bubble.
By 2 minutes the edges will brown.
In 2 minutes and 15 seconds my toast was ready to take the edge off my morning hunger for a sweet start to the day.
If you aren’t looking for a walk down Memory Lane but simply want something fun to eat for breakfast here are a few suggestions that might spark your interest.
For a nice hint of vanilla use vanilla sugar on your toast. Or, for a little more of a sandy crunch, you may want to try using organic turbinado sugar instead of plain white sugar. To add a sort of French I-just-dipped-my morning-baguette-in-my café-au-lait flavor add a little espresso powder or instant coffee to your cinnamon sugar blend. Or add a pinch of ancho chile powder for more of a South-of-the-Border taste.
You could also add a few chocolate chips during the last few seconds under the broiler. Then wait a minute or two after removing the toast from the oven to spread the chips over the surface with a knife...