This cookbook season, Ina Garten and Peter Meehan are publishing the same recipe in their respective new cookbooks.
Ina calls it "Butternut Squash and Ricotta Bruschettas," Peter says "ABC Squash Toast," but they're two lobes of the same brain: the roasted kabocha squash toast with fresh ricotta and apple cider vinegar served at ABC Kitchen in New York City.
ABC Kitchen’s Butternut Squash on Toast
- One 3-pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
- 1/2 teaspoon dried chile flakes, more to taste
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 1 yellow onion, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced
- 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1 large loaf of Pugliese, or smaller, thick slices country bread
- 1 heaping cup ricotta
- Flaky salt, for finishing
- 1/4 cup chopped mint
That the recipe is included both in Cooking for Jeffrey and Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables!—that it's meant for Ina devotees who don't yawn at another recipe for roasted vegetables and LP readers who geek out over sous vide techniques and know the latest restaurant openings— speaks to the Squash Toast's ubiquity. This is every person's toast. This is toast bigger than just you and me. This is an orange-topped thing the whole nation can actually get behind!!
And the recipe may sound familiar to you already. It's been published on the New York Times, Smitten Kitchen, The Wednesday Chef, and this very site. How does one recipe—which, when it comes down to it, is for roasted squash mashed with jammy onions and plopped onto a ricotta-smeared toast—move from one trendy restaurant to the national main stage?
Squash Toast A.D.
The dish itself dates back before 2011 (wait: can you even remember 2011?), when Chef Dan Kluger, then Executive Chef at ABC, put the toast on the menu. Kluger can't remember exactly how or when he came up with the recipe, its genesis being more along the lines of good recipe development than smoke and mirror magic.
They were doing "a lot of toasts"—remember, this is 2011—and it became a seasonal staple," he told me.
There was no revelatory moment: Kluger was walking through the market, saw some kabocha, and thought it'd "probably lend to a toast." From there, he started tweaking the flavor profile by adding reduced maple syrup, cider vinegar, and chile flakes to play off the squash's natural sweet-sourness; slathering on dairy (in a decision between goat and ricotta, he settled on ricotta); and finishing with mint, for freshness. It all sounds good, but none of it sounds earth-shaking or ground-breaking.
In November 2011, WNYC aired a conversation between Brian Lehrer and Chef Kluger regarding the local foods to serve on Thanskgiving in the wake of Hurricane Irene's devastation, and published his Roasted Kabocha Squash Toast, Fresh Ricotta, and Cider Vinegar in conjunction.
2012: The Early Days
But it wasn't until a year later, in November 2012, that Mark Bittman brought the squash on toast into the national arena, angling the recipe as an impressive Thanksgiving appetizer and appearing with his bud, and the owner of ABC Kitchen and Kluger's boss, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, to make it on camera.
What's remarkable about the recipe, explained Bittman—who called it an incongruous, odd combination—is not the mashed squash, or the mashed stuff on toast, but the fact the stuff on that toast is mashed squash: a classic greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts equation.
"Since there is such a broad range of foods that can go on toast, it's not surprising some of these will come as revelation. [...] Something about it drives me wild," wrote the unflappable, often deadpan Bittman. Which is saying something.
Bittman's publication of the recipe, attributed not to Kluger but to Vongerichten, is more flexible than the original: Use kabocha or another yellow-fleshed squash; use ricotta (Kluger's original pick), or goat cheese, feta, or mascarpone.
2013 & 2014: The Height of the Squash-on-Toast
In December 2013, Luisa Weiss wrote about the toast—"this roasted squash business, which I made for the first time a month ago and have cooked every week since then and have decided is my favorite food discovery of 2013"—on her blog The Wednesday Chef. Luisa took a sharp left from toast and turned the leftover squash-onion mash into pasta sauce by thinning it with starchy pasta water.
I've made the squash and onions and used it for pasta every week since then. No joke. Everyone who eats it (my mother, my husband, my friends) goes quiet and makes that wide-eyed face, you know which one I'm talking about, as they work their way through their plate. It's magical and delicious and perfect and I love it.
On October 1, 2014, Kenzi Wilbur shared the recipe—"the inspiration [...] comes from Dan Kluger of ABC Kitchen in New York, whose recipe for squash on toast has been circling the internet for some time now"—here on Food52, changing the squash type (just butternut) and the cooking method (the squash is steam-sautéed on the stove rather than oven-roasted) and making it party-sized.
Less than a month later, on October 29, Deb Perelman featured "squash toasts with ricotta and cider vinegar" on Smitten Kitchen, admitting that she was "about the last person on the internet to discover this famous recipe from Jean-Georges Vongerichten." (Kluger, are you out there?) She also shared a tip that some would consider game-changing: Instead of fumbling to peel the squash pre-roast, peel it after it's oven time, when the slumped skin will be more ready to strip away from the soft flesh.
2015: Squash-on-Toast as Celebrity
The squash was silent for a year or so, until October 2015, when Mindy Kaling posted an Instagram that shook the stuff-on-toast world:
So on Friday I was lucky enough to have dinner with friends at ABC Kitchen and we had the butternut squash toast (top left). Today at work I couldn't stop thinking about them so I found the recipe online and after we wrapped I made them (bottom left). I seriously never cook and this took three pans and carmelizing onions and mint garnish and a fancy salt that costs more than my life. Then I took off my makeup and had it for dinner (right). The end! This was a compelling story.
People magazine picked up the post, made a story of it, and encouraged readers to follow Mindy's lead: "Labor intensive? Possibly, but when you think about the end result—bread fried in olive oil until golden and piled with ricotta cheese, caramelized seasonal veggies, and a sprinkling of fresh herb—it all seems worth it. Plus, if you’ve never caramelized onions before, it is actually a beautiful, transformative experience." (I'll be sure to try it, People.)
Is this the first time toast has made the pages of People? (If you're not counting sweet potato toast as real toast—and I'm not—, the likelihood increases.)
2016: Into Eternity
Which brings us to 2016, at which point ABC's squash on toast has moved off the pages of the tabloid magazines, throwaway newspapers (just kidding, New York Times), and the vacuous internet and into the gilded pages of celebrated cookbooks. Soon, this squash will be in libraries 'round the world!
Ina Garten's version, published in her 2016 Cooking for Jeffrey, is called "Butternut Squash and Ricotta Bruschettas." Bruschettas? Bruschettas! This toast just got fancy.
I love the way recipes evolve; I believe this one started with Jean-Georges Vongerichten and I also saw a version from Mark Bittman. [Editor's Note: These two recipes are the same.] Not only do I like the savory-sweet thing of butternut squash and maple syrup but I also love the creamy ricotta on the crisp toast.
Ina calls only for butternut squash, she sautés the onions in butter as well as olive oil, and she suggests using a few tablespoons of apple cider to loosen the mixture if it looks a bit dry. She also crisps the slices of bread in the oven and offers instructions for homemade ricotta cheese (an extra effort that might justify the fancy "bruschetta" name). The mint is conspicuously absent. What would Mark Bittman say? I'll just quote him: "Do not forget the mint; it’s not the same without it."
Not to disappoint you, Mark, but Peter Meehan, author of Lucky Peach Presents Power Vegetables! also forgot—or consciously omitted—the mint in his book, opting for scallions instead (though he's back to kabocha).
"This is a squash shmoo that has all the knobs turned up to eleven," Meehan writes, sounding an awfully lot like Ina, who's never not "turning up the flavor." Meehan found out about the squash not from Bittman or Vongerichten or Deb Perelman but from Amanda Kludt, Eater's editor-in-chief, who learned how to make it from Kluger himself. The man, the legend, the squash toast.
Meehan sidelines not only the herbs but the dairy, too—but if "you'd like to serve it as they did at the restaurant, smear your toasts with a couple tablespoons of ricotta, goat cheese, feta, or mascarpone, before topping them with shmoo."
Shmoo smear for everyone. When can I watch the video of everyone who's written about this toast making it together?
Why? Why, why, why?
As to why the squash toast (squash on toast, squash bruschetta, squash shmoo, what have you) caught fire across the internet and the cookbook scene, Kluger suspects it's because "toasts are something that are sort of recognizable and easy to share/eat. I think the fact that a squash was [the] 'center' of it was different, but once people started to try it they really liked it and from there it just took off."
Ryan Armstrong, ABC Kitchen's Director of Operations, presented a similar picture of mashed squash anew: "It shows a 'standard' product in a new way," he wrote to me. "People gravitate to the flavor profile because it is comforting and familiar, yet its presentation is fresh and creative. It’s the perfect combination of how we think about fall cuisine."
Colorful? Check. Comforting? Check. Spicy. Sweet. "Healthy." Ricotta! Different enough to intrigue Peter Meehan and familiar enough to be approved by Ina.
First, the United States. Next, the world. (And after that, I predict we'll be seeing squash toast in outer space.)