Let’s Get Cracking!
You must have heard that stupid little joke: “Love means nothing to people who play tennis because love means zero in tennis”. Hilarious. Ever wonder though, how that nomenclature came about? Well, it actually comes from the French “l’ove” which translates to “the egg”, due to a resemblance between the shape of an egg and the number 0.
Tell this to a chef and he’ll scoff. To the culinarily inclined, eggs are anything but zero. One little egg can undergo an impressive number of varied transformations. In this week and the next, we will explore the humble egg. We could honestly have done a 10-part series just on eggs, but let’s stick to a 2-part crash course; a tasting menu, if you will.
Let’s start with the simplest thing you can do to an egg: chuck it in a pot of boiling water, shell and all. By varying the cooking time, you can make hard-boiled or soft-boiled eggs. Peel the shell, sprinkle some salt and pepper and you’ve got yourself a decent breakfast. There’s more you can do with a soft-boiled egg, though. You could gently crack the shell and cook it further in tea to make a beautiful Chinese tea egg. Or you could peel it completely and pickle it in vinegar or brine; or marinade it in a mixture of soy sauce, mirin and other aromatics like ginger and garlic to make ajitsuke tamago, perfect for ramen.
With hard boiled eggs, you could scoop out the yolk, mix it with some seasoning, mustard and hot sauce, pipe it back into the hollows and make devilled eggs. You could wrap it in sausage meat to get British scotch eggs or a mix of spiced keema to make Bengali dim-er devil, very similar to Nargisi kofta, but while the former is breaded and usually served as a snack, the later usually doesn’t have a breadcrumb coating so that it can soak up the flavours of the curry they are dunked into. Other egg curry dishes are much simpler and simply use boiled eggs, as in the Bengali dim-er jhol or the famous Keralan mutta roast.
You could go down another route entirely and chop up the egg, add some mayonnaise and other flavourings and you have an egg salad, perfect to be had as it is or in a sandwich. The famous Chinese century egg called pidan is made by preserving boiled eggs for weeks to months. The yolk turns green and the white turns dark brown and attains a potent flavor. It is most definitely an acquired taste.
It is now time to crack open our egg. You can crack it directly in oil and get a fried egg, which can vary from a pristine white version to one with crispy brown frills, both with a wonderfully runny yolk. If you prefer a less runny yolk, you could turn it over and cook it further to make eggs over easy. Fried eggs are staples in English breakfasts. If you’re watching your weight, ditch the oil and crack the egg into a pot of boiling water and get a beautiful orb of delicately poached egg, a crucial component in an Eggs Benedict or Eggs Florentine. If you’re up for the challenge, you could crack the egg directly into a cooked down mixture of spiced tomatoes and onions to make shakshouka, a traditional Middle Eastern breakfast.
Alright, moving on to the next step. Beat up the white and the yolk into a homogenous mixture, and you now have the base for a number of breakfast ingredients and baked goods. Let’s start with breakfast. Chuck the beaten eggs into a pan with a knob of butter, stir it up till fluffy, season, and you’ve got scrambled eggs. The north Indian anda bhurji takes them further with onions, tomatoes, chilli, coriander and other typically Indian flavours. Akuri, a staple Parsi breakfast dish, is a spiced scrambled egg with the dominant flavour of cumin.
With the beaten eggs, you could also make an omelette. The French are extremely particular about their omelette which needs to be pointed at both ends, perfectly smooth on top and uniformly yellow with no browning whatsoever. If you prefer your omelettes more cooked through and browned, go for it by all means.
Putting things into the egg mixture before you make the omelette makes for a tastier and heartier breakfast, like the Spanish tortilla de patatas made with thin slices of potato; and the Italian Frittata made using a variety of ingredients like tomatoes, bell pepper, mushrooms, cheeses and greens. If you’re feeling fancy, you can toss in some bacon bits and other goodies, pour the mixture into a pie crust and make a French quiche. Feeling even more fancy? Add some milk or cream, sugar, ground cinnamon and vanilla into the egg mixture, dunk some pieces of bread into it and fry them off in butter and voila! You have pain perdu, or French toast.
In any batter, the egg provides moisture while the yolk provides an additional fatty richness. For runny batters like crepes, a second ingredient like milk is needed to loosen it up further. Cookie dough, which tends to be stiffer, has fewer eggs compared to cake batter, which is of an intermediate consistency between pancake batter and cookie dough. An egg wash on top of a pie crust gives it a delicious brown top. Eggs are one of the most vital ingredients for a baker. Of course, you could swap eggs for some other liquid to make eggless baked goods, but the flavour will always fall short.
So far, we’ve been in familiar territory, talking mostly of breakfast dishes and basic baked goods. But there’s more to an egg. A lot more. To understand why, let’s look at the egg carefully. The egg harbours two distinctly different components. The white of the egg is composed mostly of water and a protein called albumin, and tends to cook faster than the yolk, which is mostly fat, and was originally meant for the nourishment of the developing embryo before hatching.
To unleash the full potential of the mighty egg, we need to separate these two components. There are many ways you can do so. One easy way is to crack the egg and transfer the yolk carefully back and forth between the two halves of shell, and the white will slip right off. You could also transfer the yolk back and forth between your palms. This technique works on the same principle, with the additional advantage that there is less chance of the yolk being punctured by the jagged edge of the shell. If you’re feeling incredibly lazy, you could buy one of those expensive egg-separating gadgets. I’ll judge you, though.
With the cracking and separating sorted, its time to deal with the yolks and whites separately. Next week, in part 2, we’ll see how these two components attain a life of their own, particularly in the pastry kitchen, to create marvels.