This month, my new cookbook Egg was released, or should I say hatched? It’s an exploration and a celebration of this wonderful, simple and perfectly packaged ingredient. We have been cooking with eggs for thousands of years and during that time, we have come up with some ingenious ways to use them: to make risen souflees and cakes, crisp meringues, rich custards, thick mayonnaise and even foamy cocktails. When I sat down to write this book, the hardest part was choosing which recipes to leave out.
I’ve always loved eating eggs. Freshly laid and plucked from the nest while they are still warm; a poached egg on toast, the yolk running like molten lava, is one of the finest things. And that’s what the beauty of an egg is – it can be enjoyed in the simplest way or used to produce an extraordinary range of dishes.
Yesterday I cooked an egg in the fire. I buried it, in its shell in the embers and left it for a few minutes. I lifted it out and after it had cooled, I peeled it and had a bite. The yolk was runny and the white was firm and smoky tasting. This is how people cooked, before we had pots and pans, eggcups and ceramic coddlers or even those clever little poaching baskets. The liquid egg is contained in its own cooking vessel, an ingenious natural casing.
Things have moved on since we sat around fires cooking. Kitchens and gadgets have evolved to expand and improve our culinary techniques. And the egg has risen to the challenge to modernize and perform ever more demanding tasks. Imagine the great 18thCentury kitchens, the walls lined with copper pots (eggs whites like to be whisked in copper as the ions stabilize the egg proteins, keeping the bubbles from bursting), and tables groaning with magnificent meringues and towering souflees, creamy hollandaise sauces and quivering custards.
Few people eat with such decadence any longer and we have embraced the less complicated ways to use the egg. Suggested by the title of Elizabeth David’s seminal book – ‘An Omelet and a Glass of Wine’, a simple egg dish is the last word in refined eating. David recounts the tale of Madame Poulard’s restaurant at Mont Saint-Michel in France where the omelets, cooked in a battered copper pot over the fire, drew customers from all over the world. When asked what the magic recipe was, Mme. Poulard said “I break some good eggs into a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan. I throw the eggs into it and I shake constantly.”
So, while wanting to include all these things and all my favourite ways to cook and eat eggs (boiled with anchovy soldiers, sformata with ricotta and spinach or rhubarb meringue tarts..), I carefully chose recipes which would highlight the different abilities an egg has to change a dish – down to using the shells to make ‘cleared’ stock, as well as giving guidelines for the simplest preparations: poached, scrambled, boiled and fried. The book (which is divided into user friendly chapters of breakfast, lunch, tea, supper, puddings, sauces and drinks) has examples of ways to use whites, yolks, whole eggs, eggs in the shell, eggs out. Teaching techniques and tricks of how to get the best out of them, prepared in all these different ways, as well as what makes a good egg in the first place.
Think of it as both the beginning and the culmination of the journey. A summing up of everything we’ve learnt so far and the framework to develop so many new ideas, based on some simple techniques. Eggs in a nutshell. Now there’s an idea..