Lava Toast

“Lava toast” began with shrimp & grits. More specifically, it began with my memory of the shrimp & grits we used to make at Four Eleven York, the restaurant that launched my professional baking career (as such).

Now, let's clear the air about something: I've seen those memes circulating around the internet, where we all roll our collective eyes at the way food bloggers have to tell stories and write paragraphs before getting to the point of the recipe. If that's you, I respect your opinions and you can scroll to the bottom. Or go to and eat your heart out, scanning two dozen questionable recipes for the same dish and trying to decide which looks less mediocre. This blog – our blog – is a blog for food stories, for hanging out, for talking about food and all the nuances of it, not simply a recipe database. It's almost always been that way, hasn't it? I don't think most of us are confused about this fact, but now I'm self conscious of the length of my posts and I want you to know what to expect from the outset. M'kay?

Anyway, lava toast! One of my earliest memories of helping to open that restaurant involved stepping over flattened cardboard boxes and construction debris to sit down on the slate-gray floor of the inn porch with a low-rimmed bowl in hand. Chef had made shrimp & grits for family meal, and though the grits were delicious, the shrimp delightful, what really got into my bones was the sofrito spooned over top. Maybe I was extra hungry after hours of scrubbing fridges and hauling deliveries into the basement pantry. Maybe it was the novelty of a talented chef casually handing me a plate that we'd soon be charging $20 for. Or maybe it was really that good; I think it was really that good. To this day it is the bowl of shrimp & grits to which I compare all other shrimp & grits, ad infinitum. And the sofrito is what made it. I swear.

Sofrito is a fixture in many cuisines around the world, though most notably across Spanish, Puerto Rican, and Caribbean cuisines. Finely chopped onions, garlic, peppers, tomatoes, and olive oil are gently simmered down into a roughshod, savory sauce. Sometimes the end result is pureed and added to another dish, sometimes it is spooned as-is over meat and rice, sometimes stirred into a soup or stew to add complexity. Consider sofrito the mirepoix of the Latin American world: the foundation on which are built many other iconic dishes.

Years passed after that initial sofrito-forward moment. I got into making shakshuka, that smoky, saucy, eggs-baked-into-spicy-tomatoes situation which, frankly, is not super different in its ingredients, just its proportions. I searched the world for the best shrimp & grits but (more to the point) for an equal to the dish we used to serve at Four Eleven.

I took a job at another restaurant prep kitchen. They made sofrito here, too, though a little differently. My friend, Shannon (once a coworker, here my boss) made a huge batch of sofrito every week. She began with an enormous brazier pan that covered four gas burners of an industrial stove. She mainly adhered to the restaurant's specific formula, but I memorized the movements more than anything: a generous portion of diced onions and garlic, beautiful orange and yellow and red bell peppers diced and shifted into the huge pan with the aromatics, to be covered with a generous layer of olive oil and gently fried till soft. The aroma of garlic, onions, and peppers filled the entire space and made my stomach flip with anticipation. Into the aromatics, Shannon broke large quantities of peeled, canned tomatoes with her hands, then seasoned it with plenty of salt, continuing to simmer the mixture until it had melted into a cohesive blend of fragrant red and orange. We used this mixture in many preparations at that restaurant, often immersion-blending it into a smooth scarlet sauce to be added to marinades and other things. Sofrito, man. It makes the world go around.

Does sofrito have anything to do with lava toast? And what is lava toast anyway? Both are completely reasonable questions. Bear with me.

Weeks ago, spurred by all these memories of the elusive sofrito, I decided to make a batch of something like it to eat with the polenta I'd made for our dinner. This time I added jalapenos and shook smoked paprika and a little cayenne into the pan. When the flavors had mingled and the sofrito burbled low and happily on the stove, I spooned it over the cheesy polenta and nestled grilled shrimp into a pool of fire-y sofrito. There. Finished. The first bite told me I'd done it.

It is, to use somewhat rough language, a bastardized version of the true thing. I don't claim to know how to make actual sofrito the way your Spanish or Puerto Rican friends might. I don't know if the Four Eleven version contained tomatoes like mine did. I know I'm not following a recipe from anyone else but my own recollections of how it should taste. But that, in the end, is good cooking: the ability to conjure memories, assess them, and recreate them at your table.

So what, you ask again, does this senselessly long and winding road in pursuit of sofrito have to do with lava toast? Now we've pecked to the heart of the discovery: the iconic Morning After.

Unlike some mornings when you wake up and regret everything from the night before, I woke up thinking about the remaining sofrito I had squirreled away in my fridge. What might happen if I ate it with toast? I slipped out of bed, cut myself a thick slice of sourdough (if I teach you anything, let it be to constantly be in possession of high-quality sourdough bread), and pulled a frying pan out of the cabinet. We don't want ordinary toast for lava toast, we want bread griddled in a splash of olive oil till crisp and golden, then sprinkled with sea salt. I put a six-minute egg on the stove.

A small note for our general benefit –

If you haven't been schooled in the art of the six-minute egg, bring 1/2” of water to boil in a small pot, then set and egg inside, cover it, and set a timer for six minutes. At the end of this time you will have achieved an ideal jammy egg, steamed to perfection and ready to spill its brilliant lava center onto your toast. I get ahead of myself. Toast finished, egg finished, I gently reheated the sofrito.

I believe that toast is one of the most underrated foods on the planet.

Let me show you: place that hefty slice of griddled bread onto a plate; a blue plate, if you have it. Trust me about the blue.

Lavish your bread with a layer of sofrito. Honestly, the more of that saucy, scarlet goodness the better.

Remove the shell from your egg and split it in half, careful to catch the molten center in each white cup.

Rest the halves on your piece of toast and sprinkle with a bit of sumac or drizzle with chili crisp. And of course, lest I fail to entreat you to put Maldon salt on to finish your plate, put Maldon salt on to finish your plate!

If you used a blue plate, you are in for a treat. Your breakfast now looks like a piece of art to be hung on a gallery wall, shades of red, orange, gold, dripping down the sides of the dark toast to pool against the cobalt of your dish. I don't know, it does a little something extra to the taste of it all. Pretty food is tastier food – I will claim this till the day I die.

Behold this lightly-spicy high-piled toast with its proud egg. I looked at it and I thought of magma spewing out of a volcano and spooling down the burnt hillside. I've had volcanoes on the brain because six or eight people in my life have made trips to Hawaii recently and left me behind. I'm not jealous, why would you ask?

Shrimp & grits, restaurant jobs, Hawaii short, the genesis of lava toast. You may do whatever you want to change up this recipe to suit your own preferences. Adjust the spice-level (it's currently pretty mild), add more or less garlic, top it with fresh cilantro, or add a dollop of greek yogurt beneath the eggs. Of course if you leave off the egg this recipe will also be completely vegan! I don't think there is a wrong way to go with lava toast-making. And of course, if you want to forgo the toast completely, you will find the sofrito “lava” a very nice addition to your latest pot of shrimp & grits. After all, the situation evolved from there.

Lava Toast

serves 4

1 large onion

4 cloves garlic

1 large bell pepper

1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed

1 28-oz. can of peeled whole tomatoes with juice

1 Tablespoon smoked paprika

1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper

salt to taste

1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for griddling bread

4 slices high-quality sourdough bread

4 free-range eggs, soft boiled

  1. In a food processor, pulse peppers, onions, and garlic until uniformly minced. Otherwise mince them very fine with a knife.
  2. In a large saucier pan heat 1/2 cup olive oil. Add the minced vegetables and sweat over medium-high until translucent and softened. With your hands, break apart the whole canned tomatoes and add them to the pan followed by the remaining juice.
  3. Simmer over low for 15-20 minutes, stirring occasionally until slightly darker and thickened. Stir in spices and add salt to taste. Set aside. Can be covered and stored, then reheated later.
  4. Toast your bread in a skillet with a tablespoon of olive oil till golden, then sprinkle with salt.
  5. Soft-boil your eggs (see instructions for a 6 min. egg above), then assemble toasts:
  6. Spread sofrito on each toast slice, then add the eggs. Finish with an additional drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of flaky salt.

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