Cooking them can be trickier than it seems, but the experts (and Vladimir Nabokov) can help. Plus: a recipe for a super-easy Turkish dish that might just be your new breakfast favorite.
Vladimir Nabokov’s recipe for soft-boiled eggs is a gem of a prose-poem. It encapsulates the funny little frustrations of cooking, the sense of humor one must maintain in the face of it (and in the face of life in general), and the mystery of the seemingly simple egg. “Boil water in a saucepan (bubbles mean it is boiling!)” it begins. This is my favorite part:
“If, however, an egg cracks in the water (now bubbling like mad) and starts to disgorge a cloud of white stuff like a medium in an old-fashioned seance, fish it out and throw it away. Take another and be more careful.”
Boiling an egg is harder than it seems. Some say soft-boiled ones should be stirred for more even cooking, which sounds like a seance-hazard if ever there was one. Hard-boiled, some hold, should be started in cool water on the stove, then brought to bubbling. (Nabokov’s soft-boiled solution: “Hold them under the hot tap water to make them ready for what awaits them.”) Certain schools of thought say a post-pan plunge into an ice bath is necessary to prevent the white from adhering to the inside of the shell, making peeling into a horror of cratering where all should be smooth. Should one poke a hole in the rounder end of the egg with a pushpin? Bring it to a boil, then slam on a lid and remove it from the heat, set a timer and hope for the best?
For those of us who change their method over and over — consulting Cook’s Illustrated and the internet for the umpteenth time — a plate of perfectly peeled deviled eggs at a party is a miracle of sorts. (“What’s your method?” we say, with our mouths full.)
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Scrambled eggs are easy, but the best ones, made Julia Child’s way, take a little patience. “Scrambled eggs in French are creamy soft curds that just hold their shape from fork to mouth,” she instructs (not without poetry herself, with the eggs romantically living in another language, plus the enticing image of the bite moving through the air to the imagined mouth, which is, obviously, one’s own). She subscribes to a good smear of butter all over the inside of the pan and “moderately low” heat, with an initial contemplative (or, alternately, anxious) period in which “Nothing will seem to happen for 2 to 3 minutes.” Then you must stir quickly while also moving the pan off, then back onto, the heat, without losing your nerve; when the eggs look the way you want them, a final addition of either more butter or a splash of whipping cream makes them luxurious. Oh, and, in French, mais oui, you “Decorate with parsley.”
Eventually, you may be ready for Julia’s five pages of omelet directions, including helpful line drawings … practice makes perfect.
Poaching is another proposition. Rachel Khong, who just literally wrote the book on the broader subject — “All About Eggs,” with the editors of Lucky Peach — expressed her fears about it freely in front of a class at Seattle’s Hot Stove Society last week. (“If I mess up horribly…” she said, laughing.) She pitted Julia Child’s method (hole with a pushpin, 10-second boil before poaching) against Jacques Pepin’s (vinegar in the water, go for it). (You can find a charming video of them going head to head on YouTube, with Julia’s yodeling tones and Jacques, with his winning accent, saying, “I can already see your eggs are going to be better than mine.”) Khong, nervous about cracking the eggs right at the water’s surface, opted to break them into ramekins and slide them in. Her other tips: The water should just barely have tiny bubbles around the sides of the pot (nowhere near any kind of boil), and the eggs should be as fresh as possible (if not, strain away any loose white with a fine-mesh strainer, poaching only the stuff that stays). Only one of her eggs ended up a little oddball on the plate.
We celebrate eggs at this time of year — the Easter bunny distributing them, the release of encyclopedic books about them — because that’s when our old-fashioned hens, after a dark, bugless winter, would start laying in earnest again (unlike nowadays, when commercial egg production stays standardized all year round). Khong’s cooking class (which also included the sausage-wrapped wonder that is the Scotch egg and San Francisco’s famous Yank Sing egg tart) suddenly got a lot less celebratory when someone asked about the impending demise of Lucky Peach. Khong has worked at the revered, irreverent, arguably revolutionary food magazine since it started in 2011 and is now a contributing editor; publication will cease later this spring, after the “interesting friction” between co-founders chef David Chang and editor Peter Meehan apparently got less interesting and more frictional. Khong said it was very sad, but that “Everything has to end, just like our own lives.” A few people laughed, startled by the intrusion of mortality into the proceedings; there was a bit of a silence. Then, back to the eggs.
The dish of the day, to my mind, was çilbir: Turkish-style poached eggs served atop garlicky yogurt, drizzled with a vivid chili butter. It’s creamy and rich, a little sour and a little spicy, super-easy and just right for anytime from breakfast to late night. The recipe from “All About Eggs” below comes from Turkish culinary researcher Filiz Hosukoglu, and while pide or pita are recommended, a crustier slice of bread or toast would give it a nice element of crunch.
And if you mess up your poached eggs at home, no one will be the wiser.
“All About Eggs” Çilbir
Makes 2 servings
1 clove garlic
1¾ cups whole-milk yogurt
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon Aleppo [or red] chili flakes
½ teaspoon paprika
4 poached eggs
+ salt and freshly ground black pepper
+ mint leaves (optional)
+ pide or pita bread, for serving
1. Crush and pound the garlic to a paste in a mortar and pestle; mix it in with the yogurt. They must be properly mixed. These two ingredients are good company — leave them alone.
2. Meanwhile, combine the butter, chili flakes and paprika in a small saucepan. Set over medium-high heat to melt and froth a little, about 2 minutes.
3. To assemble, spread the garlic yogurt on a plate and place the poached eggs on top, so you can see the beauty of the eggs.
4. Drizzle with chili butter, and season generously with salt and pepper. If you like, tear some mint leaves over the top for some extra color and texture. Serve with bread.
— Reprinted from “All About Eggs: Everything We Know About the World’s Most Important Food”