EGGS ARE WHAT YOU MAKE THEM
Louis XIV was so crazy about them he often parked his crown and turned chef; in Egypt they symbolized all creation; in the Yukon they won a woman’s love. So let’s give the egg a break
EGGS ARE the gourmet’s delight and the joy of plain eaters. They have a marvelous sunlit taste all their own. They are the making of a thousand other good things—cake (where would angel food be without their airy whites?), velvet-smooth sauces, rich brown batter, even soup (Peruvians serve a kind of broth with a fried egg at the bottom of the plate). Eggs are wonderful and well-loved. Yet a lot of cooks don’t really respect them.
This widespread lack of respect is pretty strange when you look back through history. When the ancient Egyptians wanted a symbol for the creation of the world they picked an egg. King Louis XIV of France was crazy about eggs and sometimes went out to the royal kitchen and cooked a dish of them himself. Cardinal Richelieu wasn’t above discussing the right temperature of eggs to be used in mayonnaise. Lovers have won the hearts of beautiful women with eggs, as Swiftwater Bill Gates did in Dawson City in the days of the Yukon gold rush.
Swiftwater was courting a luscious young creature named Bella Lamarre, and getting nowhere. Jewels didn’t mean a thing to her. Neither did spangled dresses, Russian sables or French clocks that played tinkling little tunes. She wasn’t even impressed by money. But she loved eggs, and when Swiftwater found that out he didn’t hesitate. There were 2,000 eggs in the whole of Dawson and they sold at $2 each. Swiftwater bought them all, had them delivered to Bella’s cabin, and enjoyed her favors from that moment until he tired of her the following year and ran off with her mother.
A Mouth-watering Work of Art
MAYBE Bella was a soiled dove, but at least she had a proper respect for eggs—something that can’t always be said of virtuous women today. Many a pastry-proud housewife, whose piecrust is as light and flaky as a summer cloud, will think nothing of turning out an omelet that would make a vulture shrink away and cover its face with its wing. And many an otherwise good and imaginative cook will plug along for years perfectly content, where eggs are concerned, to stay in a deep unenterprising rut.
What makes this such a pity is that there’s absolutely no need for it. The number of ways in which eggs can be cooked is practically unlimited. Escoffier, one of the greatest chefs who ever lived, listed 238 egg recipes in his famous “Culinary Guide” and admitted he hadn’t even scratched the surface.
Egg cookery can be intricate and complicated (Eggs Daumont, for instance, involve 19 different ingredients and seven distinct steps in preparation). It can be spectacular (few things make a braver show than a rum omelet surrounded by leaping blue tongues of flame). It can be as plain as food ever gets to be. Unfortunately it can also be dismal. But a simple touch or two, plus obedience to a few general principles, can turn egg cookery into a mouth-watering work of art.
S Let’s begin with the basic recipe of them all—■ how to boil an egg.
Maybe that strikes you as a little too basic. You probably figure boiling eggs rates somewhere between taking candy from a baby and falling off a log. But eggs can be boiled by several different methods, and spoiled by several different mistakes.
The standard method is straight boiling for aB many minutes as you fancy. It means plunging the egg, which is either stone-cold from the refrigerator or at most no warmer than the air in the kitchen, into water at a temperature of 212 degrees. Consequently, cooking starts with a sudden burst of high heat and the egg toughens, losing its most tender possibilities.
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Eggs Are What You Make Them
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applies, not quite as strongly, to the method of boiling for one minute and then taking the saucepan off the fire and leaving the egg in the hot water for as many more minutes as you would have boiled it in the ordinary way. Boiling by steam in a special gadget, while better, is apt to toughen the egg a bit too if you don’t handle the thing just right.
To get a really tender egg, put in just enough cold water to cover it and bring the water to a full rolling boil. If you lift the egg out at the precise moment it will be cooked as much as if you’d boiled it by the standard method for exactly two minutes. That is to say it will still be very soft, and the white will barely have begun to firm.
If you like your egg harder than that leave it in the boiling water for one minute longer to get a three-minute egg, two minutes longer for a fourminute egg, and so on. Since it has come to the boiling point gradually the additional time at 212 degrees won’t toughen it. You won’t believe how much the cold - water - start method improves the taste until you try it.
The other part of the secret of how to boil eggs well is accurate timing. You can’t teach an egg to wait around. So keep an eye on the kitchen clock or, better still, use an egg timer.
Be Swift With the Scrambled
The most important single thing in all egg cookery is—don’t use too much heat, and don’t use it too suddenly.
With scrambled eggs the gentle touch really pays off. Good scrambled eggs, fully up to the most exacting standards, are a magnificent dish—a fine clear yellow, which can be of various shades but never pallid and wishy-washy, a little moist, with a faint buttery gleam, and tasting as rousing as a farmhouse breakfast on a frosty fall morning.
If you want scrambled eggs like that you can’t use your double boiler. You must use a frying pan. It must be thick cast iron or aluminum and it shouldn’t be too big. The egg mixture (we’ll come to that presently) should fill it to a depth of at least a quarter of an inch when it’s first poured in; the size of the pan depends on the number of eggs you’re scrambling. The ideal allowance, unless your family or guests are famished, is two eggs per person.
Put your pan on the stove over medium heat for five minutes. While it is hotting up break the required number of eggs into a bowl and add a tablespoon of cold water for each egg. Salt and pepper to taste, then beat the eggs and water together with a fork tightly. Don’t make bubbles and froth: mix the yolks and whites until they’re almost but not entirely blended. You can use the same quantity of milk or even cream instead of water if you like, but water makes the final result lighter.
Drop a dab of butter (or margarine) into the pan, which should now be hot enough to melt it quickly but not brown it. Getting the heat just right is essential. If you aren’t sure of the temperature of the pan test it with a tiny blob of butter before you put the rest in. And don’t use too much. You only need enough to cover the bottom of the pan thinly and thoroughly, and to slosh around a bit so as to get the sides well greased.
As soon as you’ve done this (don’t dawdle i pour in the beaten egg mixture and wait, fork in hand, for the stuff to begin to set. Then, very
gently, break it up with the fork— once, twice, maybe three times, with a pause between each breaking to let the mixture cook undisturbed. When it is firm but still moist and a little shiny, and is neither broken into tiny blobs nor left in large pieces, take the pan off the stove and serve your scrambled eggs right away.
Promptness in serving is essential. Egg dishes of all kinds must be eaten hot and fresh if they aren’t to go sullen and lose the fine edge of their flavor. They suffer more from delay than almost anything else you can cook. The most celebrated example of this is the souffle, which is apt to cave in if you leave it standing around for 30 seconds; but even poached eggs, often considered pretty rugged, start falling off the instant you take them out of the water.
So there we have another general principle. Don’t waste any time getting cooked eggs to table. And make sure the plates you serve them on are really hot, not just lukewarm. You can do everything on the stove perfectly and yet spoil all your good work if you neglect this rule.
Nearly as much affected nonsense has been written about omelets as about wine. When I lived in France I read a lot of this high-flown claptrap myself and came under its spell for a while. Once I even traveled from Paris to Cherbourg, on the Channel coast, just to sample the omelets of a famous cook of that town.
The famous cook, when I got to her dark and airless little restaurant, turned out to be an old crone with a chin like the toe of a boot and the temperament of an opera star. She took my order condescendingly, looking over my head at the fly-specked mirror behind me, and creaked off to the kitchen. When she came back half an hour later she served me the omelet and stood waiting for the usual cry of wonder and joy at my first sight of her renowned specialty.
I’m afraid I hurt her feelings with complete silence, but I’d have hurt them more if I had said what I thought. The masterpiece was a pale yellow slab of wettish slurp which tasted pale yellow, too. I ate it largely because I didn’t have the moral courage not to, and left Cherbourg by the next train.
But my journey hadn’t been a total loss. I had learned that to me, a Canadian, the classic French omelet was something I wanted no part of ever again. Because it wasn’t just the crone’s masterpiece that tasted that way; virtually every omelet I ate in France was the same.
Anything Goes in an Omelet
Over here most of us like our omelets a little puffy, and warmly and not too deeply browned. To get them that way it isn’t necessary to fiddle around separating whites and yolks, beating like crazy, and cooking the result in the oven. Just proceed as for scrambled eggs, but with three important differences. The frying pan should be hotter, hot enough to brown but not scorch the butter (or margarine). The mixture, instead of being lightly beaten, should be beaten to a well-blended mass of bubbles and froth (but not foam). And when it has been poured into the pan the very second you stop beating, the pan should be covered a tin pie plate upside down will do fine. Don’t use milk or cream in the mixture; water does a far better and lighter job.
The omelet is done when the whole surface has cooked firm and none of it is runny— a point which should always be reached but never passed. To check on progress lift the cover and peek quickly once in a while.
To serve, run a knife or a spatula around the edge of the pan to free the omelet. Then scratch a shallow straight line across the surface exactly in the middle, and with a knife or spatula (plus the back of a big spoon or better still an egg lifter if the omelet is large) raise the half nearest you and fold it over the other half. Lift the omelet carefully out of the pan, lay it on a heated plate, and rush it to table.
If you want a cheese omelet simply have grated cheese ready beforehand (about one level teaspoon to each egg) and sprinkle the mixture with it as soon as you’ve poured it into the pan. Do the same with chopped mushrooms or whatever else you fancy; there’s practically nothing that can’t be added to an omelet at that stage. Remember, though, that whatever you do add won’t get much cooking, so if cooking is indicated you’ll have to do it before you put the mixture in.
I think it’s only fair to point out that the recipe I’ve just given, while simple and easy, is a bit tricky. You may have mild failures until you get the hang of it. But all omelet making is tricky and most methods are even chancier than mine, and much more trouble.
Now for poaching. There are about a dozen ways, but the one I’m going to recommend is neat and simple and for my money it’s the best. Once again I suggest a frying pan of the right size, though a saucepan will do very well. Put in enough water so that the egg will be barely covered. Add about half a teaspoon of salt and bring the water to a boil.
While it’s hotting up break your eggs into a saucer, or a shallow soup plate if you’re going to poach more than two, taking care not to bust the yolks. When the salted water starts to boil briskly reduce the heat until it’s just a shade more than simmering. Then take a big spoon and stir the water around and around so that it swirls like a whirl pool. Instantly, before the spinning slows down, slide the raw eggs gently but swiftly from the saucer into the water. At once increase the heat so that the simmering, which will have stopped under the chilly impact of the eggs starts again. Then wait and watch.
The poached eggs will be ready to serve when they’re cooked enough to suit you. If you like the yolks firm, spoon hot water over them while the whites are cooking. Otherwise leave them alone.
The good things about this method of poaching aie that it’s gradual and gentle, and the whirlpool effect keeps the whites of the eggs from spreading in spidery threads all over the place. 1 suggest poaching four at a time as the absolute maximum; two at a time is really better.
You can always poach in shifts, so to speak, and either keep the first lola standing by in a warm oven until all arc ready, or, preferably, serve each bntch as soon as it’s done. Make sure the eggs are thoroughly drained before you put them on the conventional piece of toast or on their plate. A soggy poached egg is a horror for which there is no excuse, considering how cheaply and easily you can get a perforated egg lifter that drains as it lifts.
Yellow Velvet With a Tang
Ever heard of Eggs Benedictine? It isn't an economical dish, but it isn’t too expensive either and it makes a treat for the family or an effective main course for a luncheon party. As it’s bused on poaching I’ll give you the recipe here just to show you what you can really do with the humble egg.
Assuming you're going to cook for
four people and allow them two eggs
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apiece you’ll need 14 eggs (eight for poaching and six for the sauce). You’ll also need eight pieces of very lean back bacon (or eight slices of lean ham ). four half-inch slices of bread, one medium-sized lemon, and half a pound of butter.
About an hour before you’íe ready to start poaching separate the six eggs for the sauce and put the yolks, without a trace of the whites, into the top part of a double boiler. Cut the butter into six equal bits and drop them in with the yolks (the whites, which you won’t be using, can be saved and kept in the refrigerator). Then add the juice of the lemon, season moderately with salt and add a pinch of cayenne pepper. Let all these things stand strictly alone in their boiler-top for at least half an hour in the warm kitchen.
When you’re ready to start cooking put a little water in the bottom of the double boiler (it mustn’t be deep enough to touch the bottom of the top part) and bring it to a very gentle boil. Next, fry the bacon or ham lightly, toast the bread and poach tl e eggs. Lay two slices of bacon or ham on each piece of toast, and on top of each meat-bedecked piece put two of tiie poached eggs. Put the four portiors on plates and stash them in a warm oven while you make the sauce—which, incidentally, is called hollandaise.
The sauce. Fit the top half of the double boiler on to the bottom hall and look at the clock; your sauce will take exactly two minutes. The instant the two halves of the boiler come together start stirring the yolks and butter gently yet firmly with a large spoon, preferably a wooden one. Around the end of the first minute lift the boiler top an inch or so (it’s vital not to have too much heat at any stage and particularly now when you’ve almost finished) and go on stirring. Stop at the end of the second minute, right on the dot, pour the hollandaise over the waiting eggs and serve immediately.
Butter-yellow, velvety, just a shade tart from the lemon juice, ti..s sauce is well up among the miracles of cookery. A lot of people have the idea it’s hard to cook, but as long as you follow the instructions exactly you can’t miss.
When it comes to frying eggs there are so many individual preferences, and they’re so strongly held, that i hesitate to make any recommendations. Nevertheless I remind you not to rush tilings, and not to use too much heat too sud
denly, because no matter how you like to fry an egg it’ll taste better if you stick to my basic rules.
A fine variation on the fried-egg theme, also French, is Oeufs au Beurre Noir, Eggs with Black (actually dark brown) Butter. Ready?
Fry your eggs lightly, sunny side up, and set them aside to keep warm. V\ hen they’re out of the pan turn up the heat and put in a generous tablespoon of butter for each egg cooked. T he instant the butter has browned, take the pan off the fire and add two teaspoons of malt or wine vinegar for each tablespoon of butter, stir briefly, and pour the mixture over the eggs. Garnish them with chopped green onion (prepared beforehand), and there you are.
The last recipe I’m going to give you is Italian—Eggs Florentine. You’ll need, per person to be served, half a pound of fresh spinach, one egg, one tablespoon butter, one tablespoon flour, half a cup of rich milk, a little salt, a bit of pepper, and a quarter of a cup of grated Parmesan cheese.
Maybe Blessirgs and Envy
Wash the spinach well and cook it lightly using no waterthe water left on the leaves after washing is enough, it’s cooked when it’s still firm and bright green and hasn’t begun to darken noticeably. While the spinach is cooking run up a batch of plain ordinary cream sauce with the butter, f our, milk and seasonings. Put the spinach into little well-buttered individual baking dishes, allowing one dish for each person. Make a small hollow in the centre of each lot of spinach, break one egg into it and pour th< sauce over all. Sprinkle them wit! plenty of grated Parmesan and bake in a moderate oven for 15 minutes or so until the sauce has set and the eggs beneath have cooked firm. After that put the dishes under the broiler to brown the cheese a bit and your Eggs Florentine are ready for the table.
Well, that’s that. Since even the great Fscofl.er’s 238 recipes are a mere indication of the different things you can do with eggs the handful I’ve given looks mighty skimpy. But if you pay attention to the principles laid down along with them your egg cookery will take a definite turn for the better. Your family will bless you and your friends will envy you.
1 figure that’s fair enough. if