They’re the beating heart of a kitchen, the ideal bed partner for many ingredients, and breed endless possibilities for the curious cook. Yet eggs are strangely undervalued. With the launch of my book, EGG, in the U.S. it feels like the right time to give eggs the praise they deserve.
Eggs are magical things. These beautiful ovoid forms are one of the greatest gifts nature ever gave to the cook. No other ingredient can perform in such a complex way. They are simple and yet protean, indispensable but taken for granted, sometimes treated harshly and misunderstood, and yet continue to be the cornerstone of cookery.
Underneath the shell – that perfect vessel both to store and protect it – the egg gives us not one, but two ingredients: yolk and white. These parts can be separated and used either individually or together, both of which offer unique elements that perform in completely different ways. Yolks can emulsify to make thick, creamy sauces, while egg whites can be whipped into a foam and grow into great clouds. Whole eggs can be poached, fried, boiled, baked; or beaten together to give body and lightness to cakes.
Boiled eggs, sitting snugly in china egg cups, is one of my first memories of the table. Later, I learned to watch my mother as she cooked, breaking eggs and separating the yolk from the white, carefully dropping it between the two cracked shells. Their presence in my life remained constant and unquestioned until, not long ago, my doctor told me to eat more eggs. No longer vilified for contributing to high cholesterol, they are now back in favour with health experts. Suddenly, I started to take eggs more seriously – how could I make the most of eating them? This was the inspiration to write my book, Egg.
Consuming more eggs made me consider their provenance more carefully. While the sensation of plucking a warm egg, fresh from the nest, and cupping it in your hand is one of life’s great grounding pleasures, realistically, most of us are taking a box from the supermarket shelf. Unless you’re buying direct from a farm, often it’s the supermarkets that can supply the freshest eggs, because their turnover is so high. I always go for free-range and organic, if possible. It makes sense, as free-range hens that are fed on natural feeds and move about in spacious areas lay healthier, stronger eggs. Currently, Clarence Court Burford Browns are my first choice for their lurid, bright orange yolks.
It’s a simple rule with cooking: if you begin with good ingredients, you will get better results. A good egg has a strong, gelatinous white, a hard shell and a pert yolk that sits up proud and doesn’t burst easily. They poach perfectly; make superior cakes; shine through in rich custards; and, most importantly, taste exceptional.
As I explored the subject further, I thought about the role eggs could play in any meal of the day: prepared in a matter of minutes for a rushed breakfast (my favourite is soft boiled with anchovy butter soldiers). A fail-safe lunchtime dish is sformata, a simplified take on soufflé, made of whole eggs beaten with ricotta, spinach, marjoram and parmesan. It emerges from the oven slightly puffed up, golden brown on top and fills the kitchen with beautiful baked smells. My apricot, orange blossom and pistachio cake – made with four eggs – has become a staple at teatime.
At dinner, eggs perform crucially in the guise of sauces: flavoured mayonnaise, chopped boiled eggs enriched with herbs and capers to eat with simply grilled fish, or warm hollandaise for scooping the new season’s asparagus spears into. After dinner, I might shake up a cocktail, using egg whites to create that inimitable creamy topping on a whiskey sour.
What started as a prescription has ended in a book, a love and a lifestyle. Where would we be without eggs?
Soft boiled eggs with anchovy toast
This is my favourite way to eat a simple boiled egg: crisp toast soldiers dipped into rich, runny egg yolk. There is something magical about the combination of salty anchovy, buttery toast and warm yolk.
I like to use salted anchovies, rather than those preserved in oil, as they blend more easily into the butter. They come packed in salt and need to be cleaned and filleted, which is easier than it sounds: just rinse them gently in water and remove the backbone with your fingers. Anchovies in oil will also work if you haven’t got salted ones; just make sure you drain them well. It’s worth making a larger batch of anchovy butter as it keeps for up to a week in the fridge and means that breakfast will be quicker to prepare next time.
eggs 1-2 , depending on how hungry you are
white bread or sourdough a slice, toasted
anchovy 1 whole, salted, cleaned and filleted
lemon juice a squeeze
unsalted butter 10g
freshly ground black pepper
Boil the egg(s) to your preferred consistency – I recommend soft-boiled. While the eggs are cooking, toast your bread and prepare the anchovy butter. Chop the anchovy finely and pound it with the lemon juice in a pestle and mortar, which will cause it to dissolve slightly. Add the butter and pepper, pounding until smooth and spreadable. (If you are using an anchovy in oil, you may need to add some salt at this stage.)
If you don’t have a pestle and mortar, you can do this on a chopping board. Chop the anchovy finely and then use the flat side of the knife blade to squash and spread it repeatedly. Transfer to a bowl and use a fork to blend with the lemon juice and then the butter.
Spread the butter on the toast and cut into soldiers. As soon as the eggs are cooked, crack open the top and get dipping.