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Toast, the ultimate comfort food


When it comes to comfort foods, we all have our favorites, gleaned from childhood memories and moments of simple delicious pleasure that eclipsed some private or public difficulty and continue to resonate over the years.

For many people, the best comfort food in the world is a nibble of chocolate, either milk or bittersweet, depending on personal taste and early exposure. For others, it may be Kraft macaroni and cheese, a bowl of Cheerios with ice-cold milk or cold spaghetti eaten with your fingers by the light of the refrigerator.

For me, it's a toss-up between cold spaghetti — Bolognese, doused with plenty of Tabasco sauce — and toast.

Even the word itself, toast, is comforting. Why, exactly, toast is so deliciously comforting is hard to say. Do we remember it from convalescing after a childhood illness? Is it the evocative aroma effecting us viscerally? Is it, simply, that good? Perhaps it is a combination of all these reasons, along with other more personal triggers.

These days, toast is under attack, its simple pleasure eclipsed by all manner of nutritional warnings, trends and fads. Traditional breads have gluten, gluten is deadly to many individuals and even if we don't need to avoid gluten perhaps it's a good idea to eliminate grains entirely and adopt a Paleolithic diet, which excludes grains, legumes, dairy and sugar.

If you've managed to navigate all these pitfalls and find yourself still able to enjoy bread now and then, think of it during these final — and often stressful — days of the year.

French toast — along with homemade waffles and pancakes, and cinnamon coffee cake — are traditional indulgences on holiday mornings, especially Christmas morning, though you can enjoy this anytime, including for dinner on a cold night.

Cinnamon-Scented French Toast with Bacon

Makes 4 servings

6 slices bacon

4 large eggs from backyard chickens

1 cup whole milk, preferably organic

? teaspoon pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

4 tablespoons butter, plus more as needed

8 thick slices of bread (see Note below)

? cup powdered (confectioner's) sugar, in a sifter or strainer

— Maple syrup, warmed

Fry the bacon in a heavy skillet — a cast iron frying pan is ideal — until it is very crisp. Transfer to absorbent paper to drain. Pour off the bacon fat, leaving just a bit in the pan. Set aside.

Set four plates in the oven — don't stack them — and preheat the oven to 200 degrees.

Put the eggs into a medium bowl and beat lightly with a fork. Add the milk, vanilla and salt and mix together until fairly smooth. Sprinkle ? teaspoon of the cinnamon over the mixture.

Put about 2 teaspoons of the butter in the skillet, set over medium heat and when it is melted, dip two slices of bread, one at a time, into the batter, pressing down quickly and turning the bread so that it absorbs the liquid. Fry the bread until it is golden brown on one side; turn and fry until golden brown on the other side, about 3 to 4 minutes per side.

Transfer the bread to one of the warmed plates and continue, adding a half teaspoon of cinnamon with each 2 slices of bread, until all the bread has been cooked.

While the bread cooks, chop or crumble the bacon.

To serve, remove the plates from the oven and sprinkle the bread with a shower of powdered sugar, then drizzle with maple syrup.

Scatter bacon on top and serve immediately.

Note: These days, I prefer Costeaux Bakery's cinnamon nut bread for French toast. If I don't have any, I use a good sourdough, such as Village Bakery's Sebastopol Sourdough or some other local sourdough bread.

No matter what winter holidays you may or may not celebrate, one of the joys of this time of year is light, both the lack of it in the natural world and the light given off by fireplaces and wood stoves, candles and holiday decorations. If you find yourself staying up late and in need of a midnight snack, here's one of my favorites.

Cinnamon Toast at Midnight

Makes 2 servings

4 tablespoons sugar

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

— Kosher salt

4 slices of good bread of choice

4 tablespoons best-quality butter, preferably organic, at room temperature

— Champagne or sparkling wine, well-chilled

Put the sugar in a small bowl or little glass jar, add the cinnamon and 2 or 3 pinches of salt and stir until evenly blended. Set aside.

Toast the bread in a toaster until it is deep golden brown but not burned. Immediately spread about a tablespoon of butter over each slice; be sure to spread all the way to the outer edges and let stand for a few seconds so all the butter melts.

Use a tablespoon to sprinkle cinnamon sugar slowly over the bread, entirely covering the bread with a thick layer. Let stand a few seconds and then tip the toast over the bowl and shake off excess cinnamon sugar. If there are pools of melted butter, fill with cinnamon sugar, wait a few seconds and shake off the excess.

Sprinkle a few grains of kosher salt over the toast and enjoy immediately, with flutes of sparkling wine alongside.

<i>Michele Anna Jordan hosts "Mouthful" each Sunday at 7 p.m. on KRCB 90.9 & 91.1 FM. E-mail Jordan at michele@micheleannajordan.com. You'll find her blog, "Eat This Now," at pantry.blogs.pressdemocrat.com