Lockdown has got us all bored. Events we might ordinarily look forward to — meals out or holidays — are either forbidden or seem to move ever further into the future and instead we are forced to focus on the quotidian delights of our own cooking. For me, lockdown has also meant time to eat and appreciate a decent breakfast . . . which in turn has made me dangerously contemplative.
I began with the middle-class staple of yoghurt and fruit. It’s healthy enough in principle, though it only seems to work with the kind of fruits that need shipping halfway around the world, and you have to eat an awful lot of them to feel satiated. Then, one morning, staring at a bucket of creamy Greek yoghurt and a mound of blueberries and raspberries that had definitely flown further than me in the past six months, I had a sudden urge for eggs, the most elemental and unfussy of comfort foods.
I started with the very simplest — the boiled-egg-and-soldiers of childhood. It’s something we adults don’t do enough (pace Prince Charles, apparently). I love food that needs you to interact with it, from artichoke leaves dipped in hollandaise to a full-height plateau de fruits de mer. Boiled egg and soldiers requires as much knowledge and dexterity as getting the good stuff out of a lobster, yet it’s one of the first foods we wean our children on.
The key is getting the egg consistency right. The yolk must be as liquid as possible without any of the white remaining “snotty”. It’s a fine art. In recent years, cooks have expended huge effort creating the perfect Japanese onsen egg, steamed or boiled so it splits appealingly on top of an Instagrammable bowl of ramen. There are thousands of web pages dedicated to the process and yet astonishingly few for getting your egg suitable for dipping shards of toast. I’m not ashamed to admit I have an app on my phone that allows me to select the level of “doneness” I desire, helps me measure the diameter of my egg, asks for the ambient temperature of the kitchen and then sets an alarm for the very second it should be lifted from the boiling water and plunged into cold to stop it cooking.
I’d used this for several years before I finally realised that, for my favourite eggs, the time always turned out to be a few seconds either side of seven minutes and now, endowed with this knowledge, I just use the regular kitchen clock.
It should take a matter of seconds to get your egg into its receptacle — I use napkin rings, I’ve got bugger all else to do with them — and neatly decapitated.
Few cultures are as invested in the idea of the egg in the shell as the Brits. Many cook their eggs hard and “peel” them. Wilhelm Wagenfeld, the Bauhaus-trained German industrial designer who went on to work at the Jenaer glassworks, created a perfect, egg-sized receptacle in heat-conducting glass, into which the insides of an egg can be sealed before boiling.
It’s the only bit of breakfast kit that’s found its way into the design museums of the world, though it’s roundly shunned in this country, where we just use the shell.
Nobody seems to know why we call toast, buttered and cut into strips, “soldiers” but it’s good that we do. The world is full of writers making them “healthy” by replacing them with vegetable batons, or “indulgent” by using brioche. But these are soldiers. They’re not having any of that nonsense. A nice bit of sourdough and a smear of salty butter are standard issue and any attempt to mess with it is prejudicial to discipline.
Once your mind drifts down the rabbit hole, it’s amazing how many ways we’ve found to combine eggs and bread. In Japanese cuisine or high-end Nordic restaurants you might expect to see dishes that focus on the perfection of a single ingredient. Handcrafted udon in a simple dashi. A mushroom, lightly fermented. Poached egg on toast approaches this degree of gastronomic monomania.
Egg yolk, a pointy-headed chef will tell you, sets at 64C, while the white begins to gel at about 80C. In an egg boiled in the shell, the variation between yolk and white is pronounced. Poaching reduces the difference. When you crack the egg into hot water you can watch and control every second of its coagulation. If your egg is stale you’ll have a sort of wet-lace mess, but with a fresh one and a suitably monastic focus, you’ll be delivered of a perfectly set, unseasoned egg, ready to ladle on to toast.
But there’s a lot more to the supposedly artless combination of eggs and bread. Even as infants we understand the importance of salty butter on our soldiers and, should you experiment, you’ll find that any combination of egg and bread that isn’t leavened with lots of butterfat and salt turns to ashes in the mouth. The very austerity of the poached egg throws the focus on to its juxtaposition with the bread and the essential addition of butter, salt and a heavy grind of black pepper.
Of course, the voluptuary could not survive long on the austere pleasures of the poached egg and soon slides down the slippery slope to scrambling. The basics are this: good eggs should be broken up in a pan with a little butter and carefully managed heat. They should be seasoned with pepper and salt. As they curdle to the ideal point, more butter is beaten in to stop further cooking and then the whole can be ladled over toast.
In real life, of course, the variations are pleasingly endless. Some pour eggs into a non-stick frying pan, leave them to set, then break them up by vigorous stirring. Others lovingly pour the sieved eggs into a double boiler, stir obsessively for up to half an hour like a French sauce and serve them like a lumpy custard.
For me, scrambled eggs approach the ideal, partly because getting the eggs and toast to the table au point requires two people. There is a quasi-erotic buzz in preparing something that personal to share with someone else, and in the act itself — the attentiveness, the delicacy, the collaborative effort and the ever-present possibility of humiliating failure.
We could keep this up all day. There are fried eggs on toast, eggy bread, pain perdu, the fried-egg bap with brown sauce, Yea, even unto the princely eggs Benedict, which, apart from a single slice of ham, is surely nothing but titivated eggs on disciplined bread. After years of obsessive research, though, I have found my own egg-and-bread soulmate.
I will not call it an omelette sandwich, though many would. For me, the omelette means Elizabeth David droning on about La Mère Poulard on Mont Saint-Michel or a gastronomic peeing contest between TV chefs. Breakfast is too important and thus requires a more honest fried egg.
Cut two slices of fresh, white, crusty bread, preferably sourdough. You should ideally have this still with traces of warmth from the oven, so I suggest you do as I did and buy a bakery. Butter thickly with salted butter and place on a plate.
Melt a lump of the butter in a frying pan and, as soon as it foams up, crack in three large eggs, add big pinches of salt and pepper, then use a silicone spatula to roughly scramble the eggs into moist homogeneity. Let them spread back to cover the base of the pan and then allow the underside to set firm. You should be able to lift up the edge and see the underside with the merest hint of a tan. Fold the whole thing in half, lift it directly on to the buttered bread and top with the second slice. Now turn your back on it, cross your arms and ignore it pointedly.
After 45 seconds, relent, rotate to face the sandwich and lift the lid. It should be concupiscently anointed with melted butter on to which you should drizzle a little balsamic vinegar, creating a kind of bastard vinaigrette. Draw the lid back over the sandwich like a veil, bisect it, then take it somewhere quiet where you can eat it with your eyes closed lest, like Tiresias gazing upon Athena, you are struck blind by its effulgent beauty.
Colour grading by James Midwinter. Egg cups and spoons courtesy of David Mellor. Eggs courtesy of Pennbury Farm, Leicestershire
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