Most of the food I cook for MEL is jokey, low-rent and, most importantly, easy. Don’t get me wrong — I love spending an afternoon in my kitchen, getting pleasantly lost in some intricate dish I’ve never tried before. It’s just that if I’m going to do that, it better be for an extraordinary meal and not a beef hand.
Enter the toast sandwich: Twitter’s favorite joke at the expense of British people’s palates. It seems the august sandwich dates back to Victorian times, where it made its first disgraceful appearance in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, a guide to running a good British household. In that book, it’s explicitly recommended for people who are ill, the implication being that no human being of sound mind and body wants to eat bread on bread. “Place a very thin piece of cold toast between two slices of thin bread-and-butter in the form of a sandwich, adding a seasoning of pepper and salt,” says Mrs. Beeton, who must have been a fucking sadist to recommend this procedure. “This sandwich may be varied by adding a little pulled meat, or very fine slices of cold meat, to the toast, and in any of these forms will be found very tempting to the appetite of an invalid.” Lucky invalid!
When I took it upon myself to cook the toast sandwich, I assumed I was in for half an hour of kitchen labor, tops. It’s toast sandwiched between two slices of untoasted bread. If it takes you more than 30 minutes to prepare, something’s wrong with you. But then I encountered British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal’s take on the classic (“classic”) dish, and decided I’d try making that version instead, because I hate myself, and value neither my time nor my energy.
In the recipe, served at Blumenthal’s three-Michelin-star restaurant the Fat Duck, toast sandwiches are actually the supporting act to the even more elaborate “mock turtle soup.” The soup-and-sandwich meal is inspired by Alice’s famous teatime with the Mad Hatter. To my mind, any recipe invented by a character who’s explicitly called “mad” should be avoided — I also refuse to make anything that originated in the kitchen of the Mad Jeffrey Dahmer, for example.
So I stuck with the toast sandwiches, which still meant plenty of work for me. These sandwiches comprise no fewer than six distinct elements, plus the cucumber-and-truffle filling of the sandwich itself, plus the mock turtle soup if you’re an orthodox recipe-follower. I was daunted by how much work this punchline of a sandwich was turning out to be.
As usual, I did cut some corners:
1) I did not home-make my ketchup. I’ve been to scores of uppity gastropubs in my life, each with its own homemade riff on ketchup, and not one of them has convinced me that making ketchup from scratch is worth doing. I don’t even like ketchup. I refuse to give it any more of my time than it takes to pick a bottle off the shelf and pay for it. (I did spring for “organic” ketchup, if it helps.)
2) I didn’t add truffle oil to my homemade mayo. There was a $25 bottle of it at my supermarket, but close inspection revealed that it was made with sunflower oil and “truffle flavor,” not real truffles, meaning it was nasty and didn’t belong anywhere near the Mad Hatter’s precious little fucking crustless sandwiches.
3) I didn’t add a “whole black truffle, finely sliced” to my sandwiches, as I’m not a millionaire. I tried finding a decent dupe in the part of my supermarket that half-assedly stocks some mushrooms, but a Bushwick supermarket that sells three different brands of pickled pork rinds may not be the place to find feasible substitutes for black truffles.
4) However, I very much did buy an extra-fancy loaf of white bread. I toyed with the idea of spending hours on all these elements only to slap it all on a few slices of Wonder Bread and call it a day, but then I realized that would make me want to die.
On to the cooking!
A gastrique is a vinegar-sugar mixture, reduced over heat to the texture of a syrup. The gastrique in this toast sandwich also called for two separate kinds of sherry, neither of which was the kind I happened to already have turning to vinegar in my kitchen. I subbed that in and simmered over medium heat, though I didn’t have the tools in my kitchen to determine whether the final mixture was the required “79° Brix.”
Brix tells you what a mixture’s sugar content is, and is typically measured with a hydrometer. I used a much less precise measurement called “whether Rax thinks it looks right.” Once Rax thought it looked right, off the heat it went.
Per Blumenthal, the way to make ketchup is to simmer tomatoes in their juices, pass them through a fine-mesh sieve, clean your saucepan, add reduced tomatoes plus flavorings back into it, pass it some more through a fine-mesh sieve, clean your saucepan again, add sugar and reduce until it looks like ketchup.
Per Rax King, buying a bottle of organic ketchup is sufficient for anyone who doesn’t want to wash their saucepan three times in a row.
Bone Marrow Salad
I love bone marrow, but I’ve never done anything more elaborate with it than roast it in its bone and scrape it onto some toast. I liked the sound of this bone marrow salad, whose preparation was similar to an egg salad but with fishier, saltier components like anchovies and capers. Whipping air into the marrow turned it light and fluffy, and folding in all those fishy-salties made it even tastier than it already is. In fact, this salad was tasty enough on its own that I had to stop myself from eating the whole batch before I was done preparing everything else.
I’ve never made my own mayo, though I’ve had other people’s and can confirm it’s much better than the jarred stuff. The ketchup rule doesn’t apply here — if you have time, it really is worth making your own. That said, pasteurizing egg yolks and whites on my stovetop was a sovereign bummer. But emulsifying everything together with the grape seed oil was satisfying as hell, as emulsifying always is. I can’t think of another kitchen method that makes one feel more like a wizard.
Egg White Mayonnaise
However, the mayonnaise action doesn’t stop there. (And I wish it would have — I like mayo, but it’s nauseating to watch it jiggling away on your countertop.) It took no fewer than eight hard-boiled eggs to make this batch of egg white mayonnaise, plus heaps of chives and lots of salt. Have you ever chopped up egg whites into 3-millimeter cubes? It’s a nasty business. By the time I was done, I never wanted to see an egg again. White or yolk, raw or cooked, it didn’t matter. Just keep these failed gestations the fuck away from me.
Egg Yolk Mustard
I’ve been cagey about how long everything took me, but I might as well admit that by the time I got to the egg yolk mustard, I was on day two of a project I fully expected to take a couple hours. Not that any of these elements are that labor-intensive on their own, but I have a tiny New York kitchen with minimal pots, pans and tools. I don’t have a French brigade to which I can delegate tasks — everything gets cooked, cleaned and ultimately eaten by me. And this goddamn sandwich used every dish in the house three times over.
So by the time I read the words “egg yolk mustard,” I was feeling pretty fatigued. I had just diced over a cup of egg whites into tiny, perfect cubes. You’ve never seen so many cubes. As I said, I never wanted to see another egg, and now here was this instruction to push egg yolks through a fine mesh sieve.
They’re always doing that shit in French kitchens, by the way. Everything has to be reduced to a syrup or powder or molecule. Once you’ve pushed something through a sieve, your next task is inevitably to push it through a sieve again, and again, until you’re left essentially trying to split an atom. I shouldn’t have been either surprised or dismayed by the instruction to push hard boiled egg yolks through a sieve, and yet I was, because have you ever tried pushing hard boiled egg yolks through a sieve and scraping egg yolk powder off the sieve’s bottom into a bowl? Even nastier business than dicing hard boiled egg whites into tiny cubes.
The less said about this procedure the better. It made for a very yummy mustard, but Lord, at what cost?
Assembling the Sandwich
After two days of futzing and fussing and tearing my hair out, the sandwich came together easily-ish. Spread mayo on the bottom piece of bread and, per Blumenthal, “carefully squeeze the gastrique in a zigzag on top” (or, if you’re me, just sort of slop it around on there). Spread mustard on the top piece of bread and top with cucumber slices. Spread ketchup on one side of the toast and bone marrow salad on the other. Then squish the whole thing together and immediately walk in front of some cars because this has been a deeply unpleasant and fucking eggy couple of days.
From there, all you have to do is enjoy the magic of preternaturally gifted chef Heston Blumenthal’s cooking as it was meant to be enjoyed: On a $150 IKEA couch that has a “certain amount” of dog hair on it.
The Final Verdict
I asked my boyfriend what he would give this sandwich out of 10. “Six,” he responded.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “This is two days of work we’re talking about here.”
“Oh, in that case,” he said. “Six-point-five.”
I wanted to shove his face into the bowl with the rest of the egg white mayo, except I agreed with him. It’s not that the sandwich is bad, because it’s not, not one bit. It’s more about how good can a toast sandwich actually be? This right here was the apotheosis of toast sandwich science, the cream of the crop, the alpha and the omega, the Muhammad Ali giving George Foreman a rope-a-dope in Kinshasa and changing the trajectory of boxing forever of toast sandwiches, and what was it? Pretty good. Six-point-five out of 10. I’m sure it’s better with $50 worth of truffles on it.
That’s not to say that I’d turn up my nose at this sandwich if someone else did all the egg-chopping and egg-sieving for me. What it tasted like more than anything else was a really good egg salad sandwich. The problem is that an egg salad sandwich takes 20 minutes to make and this toast sandwich took approximately 300 minutes. In a perfect world, I’d split the difference, spend 45 minutes making my egg salad sandwich the best it could possibly be, and smell much less sulfurous afterwards.
All that said, I’m not a chef and this sandwich probably tastes much better coming out of a kitchen like the Fat Duck’s, which has been named the Best Restaurant in the World. My shitty Bushwick kitchen is probably, like, the seven millionth best restaurant in the world and produced a mediocre toast sandwich accordingly. So, no hard feelings. But I mean it when I say I never want to look at an egg again. Here’s to an eggless future and sandwiches that contain actual fillings, not just toast!