Which came first? Easter or the egg? Did early Christians give up eggs for Lent, or did they simply run out? The ability to keep birds laying year-round is relatively recent. It seems likely that over the years, it became traditional to celebrate Easter by eating eggs because the Christian Holy Week falls at the peak of bird-nesting season.
Either way, no other food is better suited to feasting. Eggs are so versatile, they amount to their own cuisine. Given the sheer number of dishes that depend on eggs, from angel food cake to zabaglione, the odd thing is that we have no words to describe their flavor. There are the viscous subtlety of the white and the rich barnyard flavors of the yolk, that combination of dandelions, sweat and spring that somehow amounts to egginess.
If the right words existed, they would have to run the gamut from pleasure to pain. Consider for a moment how profoundly the flavor changes from the teasing delicacy of a soft-boiled egg to essence of burnt rubber as aromas of overcooked egg waft up from beneath cafeteria heat lamps.
At their best, egg dishes never depart the register of sumptuous, lactic flavors of their rightful partners in the dairy -- milk, butter and cheese. It’s no coincidence that the great Easter dishes almost always involve milk products. Just as hens start laying in spring, cows calve and come back into milk while grazing on pastures new.
The timetable is so deeply imprinted in the way we cook that in my family, even growing up far from a farm, supplied with eggs year-round, Easter was about eggs. I can still feel the excitement that ran through the house when my mother would pull down Volume 1 of the two big brown Gourmet cookbooks from the shelf. It meant -- goody goody goody -- eggs Benedict. For dessert -- oh, yes! -- meringue layer cake. My brothers and I would come in from our network of backyards and playing fields and stay close to the kitchen, wolfish helpers. Carton after carton of eggs would come out, eggs for poaching, egg yolks for hollandaise, egg whites for the meringue dessert and icing.
In adulthood, as eggs Benedict became a brunch standard in restaurants, my version of the same feast changed to spinach and Parmesan tart. A signature dish of a beloved friend, Jeremy Lee, chef of the Blueprint Cafe in London, it is a kind of savory egg custard in a pie shell. In Jeremy’s manner, there are not a few eggs in this dish but eight of them; not a little cream but a pint. The resulting filling is a perfect marriage of flavors, on a par with basil and tomatoes. One friend was so taken by its jiggle, she thought it should be served in ramekins, with toast, or on brioche. Jeremy’s delivery system is pie crust.
They can take it
There are endless recipes for eggs. Oeufs a la everything. But the art to getting the best out of eggs isn’t a profusion of recipes, it’s appreciating the structure of the egg itself. This is, says UC Davis veterinarian George West, “nature’s most perfect biologic package.” Egg cartons now carry instructions to refrigerate eggs, but they don’t need it, says West. The egg evolved tough enough to remain viable to produce baby birds in scorching heat, in rain, in conditions that make postmen pale, he says. It manages for many reasons, not least because it emerges from a chicken coated with a protective film saturated with antibodies to protect the egg. If you get eggs from a farmers market, or backyard coop, don’t wash them until just before you use them; the coating will keep protecting your egg. In fact, the vacuum effect of putting eggs in and out of refrigerators is probably stressing them, says West. But eggs are so tough, they’ve been able to take it.
The shell itself is porous, which allows evaporation, but its weave also repels incursions from bacteria. The Irish butter eggs, to stop evaporation and to give the eggs a butter flavor. Northern Italians go one better and store white truffles in egg baskets to help trap the aroma.
Inside the shell, the white, or albumen, is protected by membranes that keep anything that might have got past the shell from getting any farther. Where the white appears to thicken at top and bottom are the chalazae, rope-like structures that anchor the yolk inside the white and shell to keep it from bouncing around. Protecting the yolk is another membrane.
The egg’s compartmentalization is exactly what makes it so versatile in the kitchen. It allows us to separate the white and yolk. The two components have entirely different but wholly compatible natures. Yes, whites lack flavor, but they bring a mix of protein and water that somehow just begs to be whipped. Miraculous things happen when you do. The proteins trap air, forming a satiny foam that can be folded into souffles or buttery cake batters to help give them body without using yeast or the often bitter-tasting baking powder. A whisked egg white is a delightful thing stirred into hot chocolate for a frothy head or breathing air into chantilly cream. Or egg whites can accept almonds, sugar and a touch of flour and become a meringue or the gooier pleasure, the macaroon.
As gratifying as it can be, beating eggs is not a good way to thrash out stress. One must stop beating when they reach the proverbial soft peaks. Beat more and the proteins break down, water spills out, and the egg is finished.
When you cook meringues, the whites continue to be tricky. Baking on humid days can add hours to cooking times. Push meringues too fast, and the ephemeral batter turns to sticky glue. Cook them too long, and they crumble. If this happens, all is not lost. Break them up, cover them with fresh strawberries and cream and declare them the English boarding school dish Eton Mess.
And so to the yolk, the heart of the egg, a luscious mix of protein and fat that can be more or less yellow depending on how much green alfalfa went into the chicken feed. The yolk evolved, of course, as a medium for life, nature’s recipe for making a chicken from scratch. For the cook, however, the beauty of the yolk is that the white has essentially come with its own sauce. Italians take advantage of this with the perfect spring dish: poached eggs lightly seasoned with sea salt, pepper, maybe Parmesan -- served with steamed asparagus. They puncture the egg yolk with asparagus spears, dipping and eating, then eat the sauced white, mopping up the last with a good chunk of bread.
The yolk is the test of an egg cook. Although it is the richest part of the egg, it has so little fat that when overcooked, it quickly takes on the burnt-rubber flavors of stressed protein. Nancy Silverton, co-chef of Campanile restaurant, is so serious about eggs that she keeps her own chickens. She jokes that the way to test a restaurant is go in, order a hard-cooked egg and, if it’s not good, leave. Perfect hard-cooked eggs will be firm but will retain their fresh barnyard flavors.
The art is packing the eggs tightly in a pot just big enough to hold them, she says, then covering with well-salted water (if there is a crack in the egg, it sets the white right away). “Bring it to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook from five to seven, maybe eight, minutes,” she says. You want to quickly drain and set them on ice to arrest the cooking when the yolk is not quite set but runny in the center, because it will keep cooking for a while under its own heat. The only way to catch it at the right minute, she says, is the “sacrificial egg,” a test egg pulled at five minutes and ripped open under a running cold tap to check for done-ness.
Once cool enough to peel, the next key to a gutsy egg salad, she says, is never reducing them to a nasty dice but ripping them up in big, attackable chunks.
Integral to sauces
Countless sauces rely on egg yolks, and in every case, the integrity of the sauce comes back to how tactful the cook is in referring back to the basic egg flavor. In recipes for hollandaise, in which butter is melted into egg yolks, the butter must be fresh and sweet, the lemon bright and the hand with salt and pepper sure. There is nothing worse than ordering eggs Benedict in a restaurant and discovering that some fiendishly original chef has added curry powder to the sauce.
Of the other great egg sauce, mayonnaise, even our most discriminating food writers often miss the point. Elizabeth David used to recommend using strong green oils. She was wrong. Sharp Tuscans clash with the egg’s basic floral flavors, creating a bitter, nay, entirely vile new taste. The French have it right, using vegetable oil, vinegar and a touch of mustard.
In both instances, hollandaise and mayonnaise, do not make the mistake behind so many sickening church social potato salads and make the sauce bland. Eggs are a medium for life. Once they are broken, this includes bacterial life. The vinegar or lemon are not there just for their bright acidity. The change in pH arrests pathogen growth.
Mastering the basics
Two egg dishes appear on the menus of most restaurants, from greasy spoons to Michelin three-stars: scrambled eggs and the omelet. In texture and flavor, they go from rubbery to ambrosial. Made well, each dish needs just a touch of fat added. In the case of the omelet, this is a splash of milk. Whisk it in briefly; you don’t want to fold in air. Heat the omelet pan to the smoking point, add oil, then butter, drain excess and add egg. Remove completely from heat. Turn with a spatula, rolling quickly so the egg doesn’t fry but remains fluffy and smooth, blameless and yellow. Omelet masters can cook the dish on just residual heat, flipping without a spatula. Most of us will need to return it to heat, but we should do so carefully and only briefly. At its best, the center will remain slightly runny -- or, as the French call it, baveuse.
The most elegant, delicious addition to an omelet isn’t a filling but a good pinch of chopped spring herbs -- chervil, parsley, chives maybe, straight from the garden. Their just-snipped perfume is perfect with the fresh egg flavor. This dish, which had to be French and whose proper name is omelette aux fines herbes, is best with wine, a dry one, a Chablis or Pinot Gris.
Scrambled eggs are an altogether lustier proposition. These can stand up to an accompaniment of vodka, Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and tomato juice. For this, the egg mix needs more than milk. It needs cream. Stop pouring after you say “luxury.” Whisk eggs five or six beats, no more. You don’t want to trap air in this instance. Heat a saucepan, add oil, drain excess, then melt a knob of butter. When this is melted, add eggs, stirring as they set, never letting the mixture brown, stick or congeal but keeping it moving, keeping it moist, intermittently removing it from heat and walking it around the kitchen as it slowly sets into sumptuous buttery folds. Serve immediately on good, hot toast.
One can’t seem to write about eggs these days without taking a microbiological turn, or printing rote warnings from federal agencies about the dangers of eating eggs that haven’t been cooked to Washington, D.C., and back. Suffice it to say here that my own route to safe eggs is to eat them in places where cooks don’t need signs in bathrooms telling them to wash their hands.
In short, I’m not worried the egg is out to get me; I’m worried about what I might do to the egg. It’s all too easy to ruin eggs and altogether more difficult to capture their delicate fresh flavors. Maybe there’s more to giving up eggs for Lent than the chickens being out of lay. Maybe we need to give up eggs every year to rediscover something exquisite.
An egg primer
Eggshell color is dictated by the breed of chicken. Brown eggs usually come from Rhode Island red birds favored by organic farmers. White eggs come from White Leghorn hens. Green, blue and pink eggs come from Araucana chickens.
Organic eggs come from chickens fed corn, soybeans and peas produced without pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or commercial fertilizers.
Free-range organic eggs come from birds raised on an organic regimen and also given access to the outdoors to forage and roost.
Free-range eggs come from birds housed in sheds rather than in cages and given room to exercise in adjoining yards but fed conventional feed.
Farm-fresh is a marketing term for conventional eggs from caged birds. However, eggs from farmers markets are often organic and almost always fresher than supermarket eggs.
Fertilized eggs are from hens kept with a rooster.
Omega eggs were developed in the wake of the vogue for diets high in fish oil. Hen feed is supplemented by fish oil and algae so their eggs provide some of the fatty acids normally found in oily fish.
Grades A and AA reflect the condition of the egg. Buy Grade AA for pert eggs with strong shells. Grade A are less strong. There is also a Grade B, but those eggs rarely get to the retail market and are usually pasteurized and used in cooked commercial products. Federal regulations demand that from point of collection, eggs from large commercial producers be kept no warmer than 45 degrees. However, in intact Grade AA eggs, the shells, albumin and series of membranes should be enough to keep bacteria from reaching the yolk naturally. Egg lovers prefer to buy eggs few and often, storing them at room temperature.
Dating reflects the date the eggs were packed. Eggs sold in food stores will have been washed, dried, “candled” (held against light to inspect for cracks and blood spots), sized, packed and refrigerated.
Freshness counts. While usually safe to eat, old eggs will have lost some water to evaporation and won’t perform as well in the kitchen. Fresh eggs will feel heavy in the hand, and they are when cracked, the yolk will stand up pert in the pan.
Blood spots are not from fertilization but from a tear in the hen’s oviduct during egg formation. It is a harmless defect usually but not always caught in candling.