Candy, savory toppings improve crunchy slices of bread

Julia Oller The Columbus Dispatch

Few foods are more humble than a simple slice of toast.

A component of the BRAT (bananas, rice, applesauce and toast) diet for those with gastrointestinal issues, the historical expectations for heated bread haven’t been high.

At best, it served as a vehicle for jam or peanut butter. At worst, faulty toasters would render slices into blackened slabs.

In the past five years, though, the plebeian breakfast food has earned a glamorous makeover.

A quick Instagram search yields several million photos of bread slices topped with smears of artisan butter and clams or sprinkles of nutritional yeast.

For more than a decade, Dan Riesenberger has baked crusty loaves of upscale bread, first in his backyard and then in a workspace along Ridge Street, south of Grandview Heights.

Selling solely at farmers markets for many years under his Dan the Baker brand, in late 2014 Riesenberger opened a tiny cafe in the front of his production facility where customers could take home a loaf or snag a latte.

“People are making elaborate (Instagram) posts but there’s a resurgence in retail as well,” he said. “It‘s (toast) having a moment, for sure, all around.”

But the vast majority of people who enter the space during its limited weekend hours opt for the toast bar, choosing three bread slices and three toppings from a lengthy menu.

The flight of toasts arrives on a wooden board with all three slices — featuring breads such as pecan raisin, country sour and olive-and-polenta — crisped to a golden brown.

Dollops of spreads might include walnut butter made from Ohio black walnuts and maple sugar or house-made cultured butter using cream from Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy.

“I feel like there’s a lot of appreciation for the nuance in food,” Riesenberger, 32, said. “People are rediscovering coffee, and I feel like bread is the same way. There’s a new appreciation for bread. When that appreciation trickles down, you have toast. It’s using fresh ingredients. I feel like it’s the result of the greater excitement in food that’s being seen all over the U.S. at the moment.”

Raquel Pelzel doesn’t think the toast trend will crumble anytime soon.

Although avocado toast — used to deliver a quick protein punch and frequently posted to Instagram — peaked a few years ago, plenty of other toppings are poised to take over.

Pelzel, author of “Toast: The Cookbook” (Phaidon Press, 2015) prefers roasted vegetables on her morning bread and has seen shellfish toast pop up in restaurants around her Brooklyn home.

Pelzel said that toast’s appeal lies in its spontaneity.

“When you think about a toast, you don’t necessarily think, ‘I’ll put chicken on toast tonight,‘’’ she said. “I think it’s a more in-the-moment decision and satisfies an urge.”

Defining what, exactly, constitutes a toast dish as opposed to crostini, bruschetta or an open-faced sandwich doesn’t come with a hard-and-fast rule, Pelzel said. She sees toast as more of a composed dish.

The crunchiness of the bread should complement something soft on top, Pelzel said, whether it‘s a roasted-red-pepper-and-almond-based romesco spread, a bit of cheese or a dunk in broth. For best results, she aims for a bright finish with fresh vegetables or an herb blend.

Restaurants, especially, can make the most of toast, Pelzel said.

“It’s a way to be a little creative, but it’s quite economical,” she said. “Restaurants can take a small amount of ingredients and feed a lot of people.”

On local menus, toast might be elevated to gourmet heights, such as the savory mushroom-and-ricotta plate at Veritas restaurant Downtown, or given classic treatment, such as the lox-and-avocado toast at Dough Mama bakery in Clintonville.

Vegetable-forward Little Eater (with locations in the North Market and Clintonville) changes its toasts to match what’s available from local farms.

The winter menu includes a watercress-and-radish variety and a sweeter option with fuji apple and chevre cheese.

No matter how fancy the toppings, Little Eater owner Cara Mangini said to drop the fork and turn it into finger food.

“It starts with being something you can relate to and enjoy,” Mangini, 38 said. “Who doesn‘t love toast?”


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