You don’t have to be sick to relish milk toast, though many, many of you wrote to say that this was what, as Bette Adkins in Corinth wrote, “My mother made for us when we were under the weather.” Other times, it was a simple supper for a large, hungry family, a good way to use up stale bread or biscuits. No fewer than 25 of you sent along milk toast memories and recipes in response to Ellen Askren’s query from her 89-year-old mom, who remembered her mother making large pans full of it in a big cookstove.
So many of you wrote telling me your ages, lots of 70-somethings in there, or as Mrs. Donald Gordon wrote, “I am a senior citizen and I remember my mother making this.” Well, I am old enough to get a senior citizen discount, too, but most of you have me beat by a decade or two. This is an old-fashioned and very economical dish. Actually, milk toast has been around an awfully long time. Centuries. It is what we used to eat before there was boxed cereal to put milk on.
In the course of sifting through all your responses, I saw that milk toast sometimes was toasted bread in hot milk; or toast in hot, slightly thickened milk; toast in cream sauce and, intriguingly, perhaps a Maine variation on the theme, toasted biscuits in cream sauce. Usually the bread was buttered and salt and pepper added.
Occasionally, as Allison Keef in Hamden and Joanne Macedo in Carmel recalled, the milk toast might be sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon, especially if they were sick. Betsy Bartholomew of Tenants Harbor wrote, “I remember my grandmother making milk toast for us when were feeling poorly. This was in the early 40s. She heated milk [on her wood stove]. In a bowl she’d place toast on which she’d sprinkled sugar, then pour the warm milk over the toast.”
Persis Wasson of Northeast Harbor wrote to say that she remembered her grandmother making milk toast, but “I never saw her use a recipe.” Lots of you said the same thing, though recipes did appear in the “Joy of Cooking” as Jane Johnson of Forest City Township noted. Diane Clough in Bridgewater examined a couple of editions of “The Fanny Farmer Cookbook” and observed that milk toast disappeared from the 7th edition published in 1941. “Milk Toast apparently fell out of favor, perhaps because of increases in personal income,” Diane suggested.
Charlene Holyoke of Bangor and Linda Throckmorton in Cutler shared the recipe from the 1944 “Good Housekeeping Cook Book.” Judy Cameron in Dyer Brook reported, “My white sauce recipe comes from ‘Food, The Yearbook of Agriculture,1959’, issued by the United States Department of Agriculture.”
LeonNa Gilbert, writing from the South, shared recipes she found in old cookbooks from the early 1900s. Bruce Hutchins in Montville turned to the 1887 “White House Cook Book” and Anne Arnold in Milbridge dug Baked Milk Toast out of Marion Harland’s “Cook Book,” 1906 edition. It used to be that milk toast was a common recipe in the sections of cookbooks dedicated to invalid cookery, which hardly any cookbook has today.
Clearly, milk toast, besides being food for sick kiddies, was an inexpensive Sunday night supper. Homemade bread, like that remembered by Jill Hoyt of Hampden from her Aroostook childhood, toasted on top of the wood stove, (“It made the best toast,” she wrote), farm-churned butter and milk from the family cow made milk toast special. Roger Frey, who grew up in Dresden Mills, recalled, “The butter and milk came from a nearby farm with about 8 hand-milked cows. Milk was 25 cents a quart with a lot of cream on top that could be siphoned off for things like whipped cream or coffee. Butter was 50 cents a pound hand churned by the farmer’s wife.” Lucille Briggs writing from Glenburn said, “We lived on a farm and had our own butter home made.”
Ruth Dugan of Bangor wrote to say, “My mother (bless her heart) was second only to Paula Deen in her love of butter.” Sure enough, Ruth’s recipe called for butter in the cream sauce, butter on the bread, and then, she wrote, “We topped it with salt and pepper and — are you ready? — a dab more of butter! Yum-yum.”
Occasionally hard-boiled chopped eggs were added, as Roger Frey recalled. Jill Hoyt said of her mother, “And sometimes when there was no meat she would make the cream gravy,” the same one as for milk toast, “and add sliced, boiled eggs to it and serve it over potatoes. So good!” Persis Wasson said, “Once I remember she (mother) chopped up a few hardboiled eggs in it — but not as a rule.”
For most, the milk toast memory was a good one and recalled as delicious, but not everyone loved it. Minnie McCormick wrote, “I know the family ate it a lot on Sunday nights. I didn’t care for this but most of the family did.” Minnie’s mom served it with home-canned fruit on the side. “We picked lots of field strawberries which you can almost never find anymore, wild raspberries and blackberries. She also canned plums, grapes, pears.”
Allison Keef recalled cubed toast on warm milk: “As one might expect, the texture was slimy because it was … soaked bread. Today the thought of Milk Toast makes me shudder.” My sister Sally Vaster in Somerville emailed me reminding me that our mom never made milk toast, and we both grew up thinking that maybe it wasn’t so good, never even tried it.
I was in for a surprise.
A nice lady in Brooks, who wishes to remain anonymous, called me up and described how to make the cream sauce and biscuits variety of milk toast. She spoke of making the cream sauce milky enough that the biscuits could soak it up a bit. Phyllis Whittier in Dover-Foxcroft wrote describing it as “an easy white sauce,” which I make all the time: butter melted, flour stirred in and milk added, and cooked until it thickens. I did have stale baking-powder biscuits on hand, Sharon Reardon, who is firmly in the biscuit and cream sauce camp, had written cautioning, “Do not use biscuit out of a can or yeast bread for substitutes for these recipes. They just won’t do.”
Persis Wasson had written that her mother’s milk toast was never on regular bread. “Always biscuits that were several days old and needing to be used up.”
With their advice ringing in my ears, I put it together, added butter, salt and pepper, leaned my back against the warm cook stove and dug in. “Well, well, well,” I thought, “I’ll be darned. This is so good.”
Yes, it is a bit starchy, but no worse than a pile of pancakes for breakfast or a bowl of cereal. I can see that it would be just the ticket for someone recovering from gastrointestinal distress. Huddy Peterson in Harrington wrote, “I was telling my granddaughter about this toast. Of course she had never heard of it. I wish I wasn’t dieting, because I would love some right now.”
Huddy’s Plain Milk Toast
Toast the bread. Butter the toast. Heat the milk in a sauce pan on the stove. Pour the milk the milk over it and add salt and pepper.
Sharon’s Milk Toast with Cream Sauce, Biscuit Version
Makes 3 to 4 servings
5 homemade biscuits, a day or two old, cut into ½-inch thick slices.
2 cups of cold milk
3 tablespoons of flour
⅔ of a stick of butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Toast biscuit slices under a broiler in an oven, turning once to brown both sides to a medium brown. Set them aside. Make a plain white sauce in a large saucepan by whisking together cold milk with the flour. Heat over medium high heat, stirring constantly until thickened. Stir in the butter. Reduce the temperature to low just to keep it warm. Using boiling water and a slotted spoon, quickly dip toast slices into hot water to moisten, only a second or two. (Too long in the water and the biscuit will fall apart.) Add the moistened toasted biscuits into the thickened milk, pushing them under with a spoon, keeping the toast as whole as possible. Do not stir. Let toast and milk mixture sit 10-15 minutes to warm through. Scoop up and serve in soup bowls.
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