How to Boil an Egg
There are certain times in the kitchen when you feel like you're making something magical. I don't mean fancy or elaborate, but actually magic, although usually it has more to do with causing and witnessing a chemical reaction than anything mystical. Still. This past New Year's Eve I made a lemon meringue pie for dessert -- it seemed like a good spell to cast before a new year began, to stir a pot of egg yolks, sugar, lemon, and butter until they transformed into a thick, pale, yellow curd; to whip the runny egg whites until they puffed up into clouds of white meringue.
These wonderful chemical reactions are usually linked back to eggs, and I remembered my New Year's Eve spell while reading Michael Ruhlman's newest, Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World's Most Versatile Ingredient. And indeed, as Ruhlman says, "The egg is a lens through which to view the entire craft of cooking. By working our way through the egg, we become powerful cooks." An egg is the classic example of an ingredient that's easy to prepare, but also easy to prepare incorrectly. Once you start thinking about it too much, the nuances involved in can be intimidating.
Cooks are hired on the basis of their ability to make the most simple of omelets. I'd always avoided them because I assumed I wouldn't be able to approximate that perfection and if I couldn't, what was the point? Ruhlman is best at arming home cooks with techniques rather than recipes, and I realized that I should at the very least try. My first omelet using Ruhlman's technique -- no secret moves, just a verbose description of what to do -- yielded one good omelet that slid out of the pan in a satisfying roll and maintained a nice, creamy center and one omelet that fell apart and became more of a fried egg-scrambled egg hybrid. I wouldn't have been hired anywhere, but they were both good. The best thing about eggs is that they're relatively cheap, even the most organic free-range kind, and if you mess up, you can just try again.
I used the book as an excuse to perfect classic egg dishes -- I hard cooked a dozen for devilled eggs when friends were coming over for dinner, I made mayonnaise and thought of magic again when the yolks and oil emulsified (although I thought more of science when the mayonnaise broke and I needed Ruhlman to remind me of what to do to fix it). I didn't, however, try his method for scrambled eggs in a double boiler since you can achieve big, creamy curds in a pan with low heat.
Ruhlman writes, "Cooking is so infinitely nuanced that to write completely about how to cook any dish would require a manuscript longer than a David Foster Wallace novel and include twice as many footnotes within twice as many endnotes." He attempts anyway with Egg, but when the format of the book falls short, he provides the first ever Egg Flowchart. It's over four feet long, tucked into a pocket in the back and covers every possible way you can cook an egg (cooked in shell, cooked out of shell, whole, separated, separated but used together). If you wanted, you could tack it up in your kitchen and run it across your walls like a frieze.
A book devoted to eggs is not a new thing – even before getting a copy of Egg, I'd read How to Boil an Egg by Rose Carrarini (which is gorgeous) and The Fresh Egg Cookbook by Jennifer Trainer Thompson, both of which have come out in the past two years. I also recently came across Short Stack Editions, which publishes "small-format publications" dedicated to different ingredients. They're food chapbooks, essentially, hand-sewn gems, each one a collector's item. Maybe not as humble as a chapbook considering that the founders raised over $90,000 on Kickstarter to fund the series, but they feel homey and the small selection of recipes within are always good. Their very first volume was unsurprisingly dedicated to eggs.
Most of my favorite food books discuss eggs at some point and I'm particularly fond of M.F.K. Fisher remembering her Aunt Gwen's fried egg sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper. It's a little sentimental, but maybe there's something sentimental about eggs. Even Ruhlman who focuses on foolproof techniques and ratios includes, "Kiss your spouse's crown and say, 'Love you'" in the recipe for soft boiled eggs. It's too much, of course, but also kind of appropriate. Sentimentality aside, Ruhlman's book is a solid, modern toolbox to have at your service when you feel like chasing magic at home.