I was a lucky kid: My mom believed that breakfast was mandatory and kept the house stocked with the necessary supplies to ensure that breakfast would be had. It wasn’t always fancy, but it was always there.
Dad was a different story. He traveled a lot for work, and was generally not responsible for early-morning meals. It was a fine arrangement, most of the time, until my mom was called out of town on business, too. Dad had to do something about the breakfast situation, and while he has many strengths, cooking is not one of them. So he did what he could: He made me cheese toast.
Cheese toast consists of a split English muffin with two pieces of American cheese (preferably Kraft Singles) draped over the top, broiled in the toaster oven until bubbling. If you’ve never witnessed the behavior of American cheese in a toaster oven, you’re in for an entertaining three minutes. The heat from above causes the plasticine slices to rise and expand as they melt; it resembles a gas bubble exploding on the surface of Jupiter. As the cheese cools, the molten mass settles into the muffin’s nooks and crannies, creating a smooth, sealed surface pocked with cheese blisters. I can’t claim to understand the science behind this phenomenon—I am sure it has something to do with the chemical properties in the highly processed cheese product—but I do know that it’s a fantastic way to keep a child enthralled and reasonably well-fed.
Dad liked his cheese toast borderline burnt, while I preferred things a shade or two lighter, more of a golden-brown hue. It was quick, it required essentially no culinary skill, and it was vaguely nutritious (protein!). Cheese toast became the go-to dad breakfast, and was indeed one of the first dishes he “cooked” me when I visited his post-divorce bachelor pad many years later.
My dad is not the only one with an affinity for cheese toast. It’s worth mentioning that cheese toast is not to be confused with grilled cheese—the latter being most definitely a sandwich and not traditionally associated with breakfast. Cheese toast is most often an open-faced affair (though not always), and can also be successfully executed with a bagel should English muffins become scarce.
American cheese is not strictly necessary to making cheese toast, but it is advisable. The chef Wylie Dufresne, famed for his feats of molecular derring-do at his old restaurant wd~50, has a well-known love of processed American cheese on deli-style egg sandwiches, and recently added a breakfast sandwich with two slices of the stuff at his new doughnut shop in Brooklyn. Kenji Lopez-Alt, aka The Food Lab, has written widely of his love for American cheese: “No other cheese in the world can touch its meltability or goo factor, and that's really what it's there for: texture,” he says. (And he can explain why exactly this is.)
Around the world, there are cheese toast variants: The Indian dish eggs kejriwal involves the combination, with chutney and egg. The chef Floyd Cardoz serves it at his restaurant Paowalla in New York City, and his version uses cheddar. There is a pop-up in Hong Kong called Kala Toast, which offers things like durian cheese toast and matcha cheese toast. (In truth, their toasts veer more toward grilled cheese territory, but still, I appreciate the sentiment.) In the UK, “roasted cheese” is a snack that most closely resembles the cheese toast of my father’s kitchen; it’s essentially a pared-down version of the classic Welsh rarebit. The list goes on, and I could pull dozens of examples of global cheese toasts, but they all speak to the same fundamental truth: Cheese melted on bread is goddamn delicious.
I live thousands of miles from my dad now, and make a living writing about food. I’ve developed a taste for runny aged cheeses and dense brown breads. But I almost always have a package of Thomas’s English muffins kicking around my freezer, and Kraft singles slices fortunately last pretty much forever in the depths of my fridge, because sometimes, not often but every once in awhile, they absolutely hit the spot. When I wake up feeling nostalgic or lazy or homesick or all three, all I have to do is turn on the toaster oven.