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, says author Blanche Vaughan.
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.
A good egg has a strong white, a hard shell, and a pert yolk that sits up proud and doesn’t burst easily
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?
This article originally appeared in the Guardian. Photograph courtesy of Charlotte Bland/The Guardian.