OF ALL THE remembered foods that tease nostalgia's taste buds, there's none like cinnamon toast. Beside cinnamon toast, the madelein of Proustian recall is no more than acrumbline cookie . . . beside my childhood's cinnamon toast, anyway.
The critical ingredient in this sublime confection was a grandmother who was long on imaginative food presentation and soft on children. Our grandma was the kind who would infuse a raw spring day with coziness by serving cups of cocoa and cinnamon toast to undeserving 6-year-olds.
Nothing to it, really, except thinly sliced white bread, toasted, buttered and sprinkled with a sifting of confectioners' sugar and cinnamon. About three parts sugar to one part cinnamon. Just enough for the butter to absorb, so the surface of the toast would take on a rich mahogany tinge.
The enchantment was the greater when Grandma made not merely cinnamon toast but cinnamon toast houses. Hers were two-dimensional houses, made with a single piece of toast. She would mark the center of the top crust and cut from there to each of the side crusts, creating two right-angle triangles of toast, each with about a 1-inch base, and leaving the original piece of toast shaped like a child's drawing of a house.
She would trim the crusts from her triangles and use them for the roof of the house. A marvelous marshmallow sauce marketed in those days, for reasons now obscure, under the name of Hypolite was the bonding agent to hold the roof on. Hypolite was also the making of little white window panes, each flanked by tiny toast shutters. There was a real door, front and center, cut out with a knife and attached to the side of the house next to the opening with more Hypolite.
Were there also little flowers made from the cinnamon candies called red hots? Memory would like to think so. Anyway, as a total experience it was delightful beyond its deliciousness.
The recollection of Grandma's cinnamon toast houses stayed with me long after I graduated from cocoa to tea when a hot drink seemed called for on a chilly afternoon. Earl Gray with lemon and a slice of cinnamon toast -- the combination is sufficiently magical that the toast can be as satisfying as a mocha eclair or a strawberry tart. And, whether or not the facts justify it, there's the illusion of less calorie guilt than the average person feels about eating a pastry with a 5 p.m. cup of anything.
It goes without saying that the most delectable cinnamon toast owes some of its appeal to the quality of the bread. Homemade white bread with some substance to it does better than flabby supermarket sandwich slices. Sweet butter is to be preferred over salted.
It should also be noted that Georgian silver teapots and muffineers contribute a certain je ne sais quoi to the flavor. Spode has a similar effect. And, of course, it is not irrelevant that the original cinnamon toast house was served on a plate with a picture of Peter Rabbit's mother on it.
The one refinement of the cinnamon toast principle that seems to me worth taking up is the fried bread crouton Pamela Harlech makes for tea guests. My version of Lady Harlech's cinnamon toast goes like this. CINNAMON CUBES (4 servings)
1/2 loaf firm white bread, unsliced
1/4 pound butter
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
Cut bread into 1 1/2-inch cubes. Melt butter in a skillet. Saute' bread cubes until golden brown on all sides. Sift sugar and cinnamon together and place in a paper bag large enough to hold the bread cubes without crowding. Place bread cubes in bag, fold top closed and shake to coat all surfaces of bread cubes with cinnamon mixture. Serve immediately.