Jammin' with toast

Long before the dawn of the breakfast sandwich, there was toast.

John Friend recalls his parents pushed him out the door of his home in Kansas City, Mo., when he was a child with a slice of buttered sourdough toast in his hot little hands as he made his way to school.

"There are a lot of people in the artisan bread industry that shy away from doing things to their bread that would mask the flavor, but we've always been about the toppings," says Friend, the 28-year-old vice president of Farm to Market Bread Co., a Kansas City artisan bread company that recently marked its 20th anniversary.

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The truth is toast is humble enough for even the shakiest of home cooks to master: the easiest versions are embellished with melted butter and maybe spread with jam, a tasty combo for any morning meal.

But when savory toppings are thrown into the mix - and creatively slathered on all manner of interesting artisan breads - toast is transformed into a square meal deal appropriate for any time of day or night and just about any occasion, including cocktail parties.

Slices of Farm to Market breads get an upscale twist at restaurants such as the Drop in Martini Corner in Kansas City, where one of the more exotic toppings is a red grape, Gorgonzola and balsamic vinegar reduction. At the Urban Table in Prairie Village, Kan., bruschetta toasts are topped with a luxurious medley of roasted chicken, mushroom duxelle and fontina. But in our own kitchen we also were wowed by the results of store-bought pimiento cheese smeared on white bread toast.

Some toast-masters pop their slices in a slotted toaster, while others prefer to set the oven to broil or throw it on the grill. Either way, toast is best made with day-old bread that has been evenly browned by radiant heat to the point that the natural sugars and starch molecules on the face heat up (scientifically speaking that's the Maillard reaction) to create a slightly crunchy exterior and a warm, sponge-y center.

"The true toast addict is fussy about its preparation, choosing day-old baker's bread to make it, and insisting it is eaten as soon as ready, for good toast must be consumed whilst hot. … Left to go cold, it becomes leathery and loses its aroma," according to the authoritative tome "The Oxford Companion to Food" by Alan Davidson, who portrays toast as an almost exclusively British fixation.

Marion Cunningham's classic "The Breakfast Book" (Knopf, 1987) includes a chapter on toast, and she notes that many early American cookbooks included chapters on how to create "modest-size meals on toast" to "offer a little more nourishment and variety" to the diet. Cunningham's cookbook includes recipes for sausage applesauce toast, apple and cheese toast, ham toast, banana toast, tomato toast, creamed mushroom toast and smoked salmon toast.

More recently, toast has been the subject of articles in Cooking Light, Bon Appetit and the Food Network magazines. A Google search turns up from five to 351 fanciful ways to top your toast. Here are our 20 ideas.

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Some options for turning plain toast into an interesting meal are, clockwise from upper left:

•Sliced radishes, grape tomatoes and baby cucumber coins on buttered eight-grain toast

•Pimiento cheese and green onions on white toast

•Ricotta and pistachios drizzled with olive oil on eight-grain toast

•Peanut butter with and apple slices sprinkled with cinnamon on cinnamon-raisin toast

•Greek yogurt and fresh berries drizzled with honey on eight-grain toast

•Scrambled eggs and strips of Canadian bacon over pesto sprinkled with Parmesan shreds on white toast

•Cannellini beans with sliced olives over pesto topped with shreds of basil on eight-grain toast

•Nutella and sliced pears on cinnamon-raisin toast

•Cream cheese and cranberry sauce with walnuts on wheat toast

•Fig jam, a slice of brie and ham on sourdough

•Peanut butter sprinkled with tropical trail mix on cinnamon-raisin toast

•Cream cheese and smoked salmon with dill and thin slices of red onion on rye toast

•Fork-mashed avocado mixed with crumbled bacon or shrimp on chili cheese bread toast

•Peanut butter with and banana slices and flaked coconut on cinnamon-raisin toast

•Broiled cheddar cheese and tomato on San Francisco sourdough toast

•Chopped chicken with barbecue sauce on toasted ciabatta

•Shredded pork with coleslaw on challah toast

•Fig jam, ricotta and prosciutto on Italian country-style toast

•Ratatouille-style vegetables on grilled rosemary olive oil toast

•Slices of hard-boiled cooked egg on mayonnaise sprinkled with paprika on eight-grain toast ]]>

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