It was a grim morning recently when the toaster broke, but it pushed me to find new twists on the morning munch and to examine the habits of my fellow toast eaters.
I chatted up supervisors at two area strongholds of browned bread, Nona Nielsen-Parker, the co-general manager of Atwater's at Belvedere Square Market, and Cris Janoff at the Stone Mill Bakery in Green Spring Station, to get the latest on toast.
They informed me that organic honey is making a run at raspberry jam as the toast topping of choice. Stone Mill offers a honey made by bees that reside on the banks of the Ochlockonee River in Georgia. Atwater's serves a honey made by bees that reside in Westminster.
I also looked for recipes to liven up my mornings. A suggestion in "The Best Bread Ever" by Charles Van Over called for covering bread slices with a spread made with almond paste, sugar, a vanilla bean and orange-flower water. It sounded winning but appeared to be too much work to take on shortly after sunrise. I can barely find a coffee cup in the morning, let alone orange-flower water.
Mark Bittman's "How To Cook Everything" ticked off a number of ways to dress up toast, including covering slices with baked beans (ugh!), ricotta or prosciutto. All of these treatments require standing vigil as the toast cooks in a broiler. This, as my screaming smoke alarm reminded me, requires paying close attention to what is cooking.
But change does not come easily to us toast eaters; we are creatures of habit.
Early in the morning, "you don't want to jolt" people, Nielsen-Parker said. A modifcation of routine, even one as small as buttering bread before it is toasted, is likely to be frowned upon, she said.
"We pre-buttered the toast for a while," she said. "People didn't like that. They want to control the amount of butter they put on their toast.
"Even if they end up putting the same amount as we did."
Toast eaters are also particular about their desired level of "doneness."
"We have people who like their raisin pumpernickel one step short of burned," Nielsen-Parker said. "Then there are people, like me, who like their slices of country white barely warm."
And toast might seem ordinary fare, but when done well it can draw a crowd.
"Breakfast is big, and toast is the biggest seller," said Janoff at Stone Mill, which serves about 300 breakfasts each day. Toasted baguettes and seven-grain breads outsell the bakery's artisan baked goods, such as croissants, muffins and sticky buns, he said.
"Our bread is like gold," Janoff said.
Janoff said he often knows what customers will order (for example, toasted seven-grain bread with raspberry jam) before they speak up.
"The same people order the same thing every day," he said.
Back in my kitchen, I tried a change in my routine, applying to my toast a little supermarket honey made by bees of unknown lineage. I did not care for it; I don't have a taste for sweet things at breakfast. I am a sour soul in the morning.
I was especially cranky the morning our toaster, a retro-looking De'Longhi two-slicer, stopped working. When I pushed its lever down, my two slices of bread popped right back up. Grabbing a screwdriver, I took the toaster apart, or tried to. I was stymied by the handle on the lever. It would not come off. This made it impossible to remove the outer parts of the toaster and work on its failed innards. An e-mail message I sent to De'Longhi headquarters confirmed that home repair was not possible.
This disappointed me on two fronts. I had grown fond of this toaster and wanted to keep it, and now that did not seem likely. Second, I felt like I had failed my late father.
My dad had always been able to fix our family's toaster, a Hamilton Beach that my parents had received as a wedding present in 1941. Whenever that Hamilton Beach had failed to toast, my dad would take it apart, solder its electrical connections and put it back in business. Now our family legacy of toaster repair had ended.
With the toaster out of commission, I began putting slices of bread under the oven broiler. It seemed wasteful, using all that heat to crisp a few slices of bread. Moreover, distracted by reading the recipes that called for almond-butter toast and prosciutto-covered toast, mistakes were made. Bread was charred. Windows were opened.
My foray into the brave new world of browned bread led me to conclude that, on the whole, I would rather have the toaster do the browning.
I guess I will buy a new toaster, and if feeling daring one morning, I will break tradition and spread ricotta, instead of butter, on my browned bread. It could rock my world, something we toast eaters are not sure we enjoy.