When I shot the photo for this post, and wondered if I was seriously going to write a recipe for toast soldiers. I was damn near certain that Googling for a history of the etymology of ‘soldiers as food’ would turn upon the square root of f**k all. I could not have been more wrong. Toast soldiers turn out to be more interesting than their simple nature suggests.
‘Toast soldiers’ are strips of toast cut from a whole slice that are used for dipping in a soft-boiled egg. They are commonly served dry and plain, but vegemite can also find its way onto them prior to the dippage (I know not the reason why).
Toast soldiers have been around for a long time. There is a 1728 account of a “garnish of fry’d bread, cut the length of one’s finger,” as an accompaniment to boiled tench. This appears in the pompously and misogynistically titled ‘The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ written by Professor Richard Bradley, who was a botanist at Cambridge University, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Grade A ‘mansplainer.’
The first written record of the actual name ‘toast soldiers’ comes in Nicholas Freelings 1966 novel The Dresden Green, where they are used to dip into a soup. The book concerns a murder mystery and a communist crime plot, so the inclusion of a trivial detail on toast soldiers demonstrates a high degree of editorial care that ought to be applauded.
However, one year before the publication of The Dresden Green, legendary British comedian Tony Hancock appeared in a series of advertisements that promoted breakfast eggs to the British people. In those adverts, he was very insistent on getting his toast soldiers. It is entirely possible that this is actually the genesis of the phrase.
Years later, my friend Edwina Currie became embroiled in a political shitstorm that did much to undo the efforts of Tony Hancock, but by then we had something of a Salmonella problem that needed sorting out. Folks forget that Edwina, whose political career tanked over the affair in 1988, was actually proved to be right about the Salmonella risk only a year later.
Unbeleviably, an engineer has spent actual time on working out the ideal size for a toast soldier. Based on calculations of shell diameter, yolk diameter and bread integrity, Mike Minton concluded in 2006 that the perfect soldier for dippy eggs ought to be 22mm wide. So convinced was he of his discovery, that he developed and marketed a cutter that would rock over a slice of toast and stamp out four perfect 22mm toast soldiers. You can still buy Minton’s cutter by clicking this link, and spending £5.99.
The recipe on this page up-scales the toast soldier into an actual dish worth making. I ran across this in a Waitrose magazine that had a bunch of quick egg recipes in it. The anchovy soldiers recipe struck me as rustic, quick and tasty, so I had a go. Let me tell you that I have never returned to a plain soldier. These babies are where it’s at. Please make them and tell me I am wrong.
Boiled eggs with anchovy toast soldiers
- 2 slices of white bread
- 30g butter, softened
- 3 anchovy fillets, chopped
- Juice of a half a lemon
- 4 medium eggs
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Toast the bread until golden. Meanwhile, combine the butter, anchovies, lemon and seasoning. Spread the mixture over the toast, cut the crusts off and cut longitudinally into four strips.
Boil some water in a pan with enough depth to immerse the eggs. Carefully lower the eggs into the pan and boil for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and lazily take the eggs out of the water and set them in some egg cups. I say 'lazily' because I find that a medium egg needs 5 minutes on the boil, and just a tiny bit of time off the heat to be perfect with a set white and a fully runny yolk.
Quickly take the tops off the eggs using your preferred method. If you leave them on, they will keep cooking and solidify the yolk. I use the side of the teaspoon I intend to eat the eggs with. Others use a knife.
Serve the eggs with the anchovy soldiers for dipping.
Eggs dropped straight into boiling water will cook for 6 mins for soft-boiled, 8 mins for salad or ramen eggs, and 10 mins for hard boiled. Use a timer for accuracy.