"I'd kill for a nice soft-boiled egg with toast soldiers."
- Morris Telford
"...the ideal soldier should be 22mm wide" - Mike Minton
It's one of those Christopher Robin, childhood memories for me. I'm sitting at the breakfast table, feet dangling. There's smell of tea, and toast, and bacon, and boiled eggs. Mum is fussing over something that I can't see, and I take another sip from my Bunnykins mug. Maybe I have a spoon and pusher rather than regular cutlery, I can't remember. The kitchen is warm, I am warm. I could be any age from two up to five.
Finally, the blessed Maillard reaction has turned bread into toast, the proteins in the egg white are sufficiently denatured that it's soft-boiled, Mum has cut the top off and added a little salt and pepper (and maybe, butter). The toast is buttered and cut into narrow strips, now arrayed on the plate next to the egg cup. Breakfast is served. "Toast soldiers!" I cry with delight. Now to dip the toast into the egg yolk, and enjoy. Repeat well into middle age...
Generations of Brits have delighted in their breakfast eggs served this way, dipping the warm, runny yolk out from the interior. The practice is probably world-wide (even though the natives may not use this expression) - I know at least one soul in Australia who still has his toasty-soldiers lined up on a side-plate, buttered and all.
According to one source, the Oxford English Dictionary didn't list the expression until 1966, but it was certainly in use in my parents' childhoods, back in the 1930's. No-one knows why they are called by such a silly name (although getting kids to eat eggs may have something to do with it). Whatever we call them, they are the best thing since sliced bread. Nearly.
We're big fans of our soldiers, and we're fussy about how they are served. For me, the toast has to be pale brown (regardless of the original colour of the bread), and crisp almost all the way through. It has to be warm enough to melt the butter without it being so hot as to turn the combo into a buttery mush. The slices should be thin, about ¼ inch so (we used to have three thicknesses of sliced bread - thin, medium and thick), and cut into strips about ¾ inch across.
The width is critical - too narrow, and "there's the risk of a catastrophic failure after they're dunked into the yolk" according to Mike Minton, inventor of the toast-soldier cutter - too wide, and it won't fit into the hole cut into the top of the egg.
Cutting the Ultimate Soldier
You will need toast, obviously. One slice per egg. Butter (or margarine if you simply must), and a sharp knife. You will need to experiment with bread thickness and width, but be guided by the above figures, and don't underdo your toast. Butter the slices. Cut them up. It's tedious work, but as with so many grim kitchen tasks, worthwhile. Watch for crumbs - they are best brushed away before you arrange the soldiers in rank and file on the plate.
One chap did get so tired of the drudgery of cutting 'em, that he invented a cutter (sort of a cookie cutter made of curved knives in a handle) that you roll across the bread prior to toasting it, and it stamps out the perfect perforated width from the middle. 22mm is the optimum width, a tad under an inch, says Mike, although I disagree - 19mm is ample, that's about ¾ inch, but it's not worth fighting over.
There are, as ever, pros and cons - although you have a tidier kitchen (no crumbs!), using this mechanism does mean that the crusts get thrown away, and they are arguably the best bits. That, and my Mum says that eating crusts makes my hair curl. He's taken a very scientific approach, I must say, and clearly done his homework:
The outer 2 soldiers along the longer crusts are intentionally narrower so that you don't get your yolk exploding over the side of the egg. The inner
soldiers have a fine crispy edge formed during the toasting process so that when your [sic] dipping them to prevent the soldier breaking off when dipping. The bread has been compressed in the parts between cuts so again when this is toasted it becomes very slightly crispy
He has a website, of course, with a nice Flash animation. Just in case your imagination isn't up to the task. However did we manage before machines?
exceptinsects says re toast soldiers: I have never heard of anyone in America doing this, I always used to wonder what the heck they were eating in English books.
iamkaym says re toast soldiers: *I* do it but I learned it in France and there is no special name for the strips of bread there.
sloebertje says Yeah, they are called croutons, but in Dutch they're also known as "soldaatjes". Little soldiers.
belgand says re toast soldiers: Not only are Americans unlikely to have heard of toast soldiers very, very few of them own or even know what an egg cup is. You, however, are a right bastard. It's 2:22 AM here and I want toast soldiers and eggy-weggs for the first time in my life... I have a craving for that which I do not know.
yclept says re toast soldiers: To the crazy Americans who know not of egg cups (I dunno why, *I've* got egg cups!), you might mention that a shot glass works too.