In the vast realm of comfort foods, milk toast is about as simple and nourishing as it gets.
And it’s exactly what it sounds like: Milk and toast, sometimes gussied up with a sprinkling of cinnamon and sugar. Popularized in New England in the mid-19th century, milk toast gained favor as an economical breakfast and as a bland, easy-to-eat food for the sick.
American milk toast has its precedents, of course. The Brits have made a similar dish, nicknamed “pobs,” since medieval times. The bread in this “poor man’s dessert” goes untoasted (check Nigella Lawson’s version for Food Network), but the milk and sweet topping remain the same. And French toast, le pain perdu, starts as a humble slice of bread soaked in milk and egg.
Though it all sounds rather wet and mushy, milk toast gets a crunch from its toastiness. It helps to use bread that’s a bit stale, as well, to stand up against the milk. Suddenly American breakfast cereal makes so much sense.
Good-quality bread works best, too. You can probably make decently crunchy milk toast with a grocery store sandwich slice, but thicker-cut, well-made bread from a bakery (or your oven) just adds something special.
Brioche is frequently mentioned as an ideal milk toast bread — it’s so buttery and eggy that it’s practically its own breakfast. Challah is a good choice, too.
To make this dish, you barely need a recipe. Toast up your chosen bread to an appetizing golden brown. While that’s going, warm milk on the stove. Several writers, including Jayne Maynard from This Week for Dinner and Alison Hein from Charles P. Rogers Bed Blog, recommend getting it to the point of steaming, when it’s developing teeny-tiny bubbles.
Once the toast is to your liking, cut it into chunks and add to a bowl. Now it’s time to top, and this is where you can get experimental or keep it classic.
Some recipes, like Food52’s, direct you to add butter to the warm toast before anything else — if you’re a butter-loving sort, like me, this is the best way to start. But you’d be forgiven for skipping it if you’re already at your personal limit for dairy.
From there, it’s time to decide between a savory or sweet milk toast. A pinch or two of salt is all you need for a savory snack. Try Huddy’s Plain Milk Toast or Milk Toast with Cream Sauce as detailed by the Bangor Daily News.
But there are many routes to a sweet milk toast. Cinnamon and sugar are the most common additions, while a smidge of maple syrup in the warmed milk gives flavor to Kitchn’s version. Brown sugar, a touch of vanilla extract, honey, or a combination of these ingredients, as recommended by Wide Open Eats, offer other types of sweetness. You may even want to add raisins or sliced fruit.
Finally, pour the warmed milk over the toast, as much as you please. And there it is! An official bowl of genuine milk toast.
And in case you’re wondering: Yes, “milk toast” inspired the word “milquetoast” — an old-school insult for a person’s who’s meek to the point of ridiculousness, as squishy as, well, milk toast.
According to the Columbia Journalism Review, the “milquetoast” spelling comes from a mid-20th-century cartoon character named Caspar Milquetoast, by H.T. Webster. Webster’s comic strip in The New York World, “The Timid Soul,” began in 1924 and poked fun at Milquetoast’s pathetic attempts to avoid conflict of any sort.
But if you’re interested in giving milk toast a try, there’s no need to stay meek and mild. Jazz it up however you see fit — and hopefully it brings you some of its legendary comfort.