Cracking Eggs

eggI went to Back to Basics cooking school at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts a few years back and blogged about it for The website no longer exists so I’m reprinting them here. Enjoy!

Day Two

I have always loved eggs. Not only are they beautiful, they are fun. Once, I fried one on the streets of San Diego. They are fragile and messy, especially when they’ve found their way to the kitchen floor. They are magical—they can be transformed from a runny mess into a soufflé. They are light and fluffy in a scramble, or structured and firm in a meringue. They can be dangerous if you have high cholesterol or they have salmonella. Whether it’s eggs benedict smothered in hollandaise, silky crème anglaise, or the elemental but perfect, soft-boiled egg on toast, nothing is as versatile, nutritious and astoundingly delicious as that simple little package: the egg.

“Although I cannot lay an egg, I am a very good judge of omelets.” I didn’t say that-George Bernard Shaw did- but I concur.  I know the difference between homemade mayonnaise and Hellmann’s. I can smell the difference between a fresh and a rotten egg. Knowing doesn’t mean doing as I learned in last week’s knife skills class. So, this week Steve Nill at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts is my guide to egg enlightenment.

Steve starts the class on eggs with some pointers on safety. “The most common contributors to salmonella poisoning are time and temperature abuse, cross contamination and personal hygiene,” he says. I learn that an average consumer might encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years. Pretty good statistics, but that doesn’t mean I’m necessarily good for another 43 years of cookie dough. I should probably curb my habit.

The bottom line protocol for egg safety is: refrigerate, wash your hands, wash your cutting board and cook to the right temperature. Further, if you’ve thrown out the carton and have doubts about an egg’s freshness, drop it into a bowl of water. It’s good if it sinks; if it floats, it’s garbage.

Steve demonstrates his three-bowl egg separation method (extra dirty dishes, thankfully, are not a problem in cooking class). Then, we move to the stainless steel table in the kitchen where we are assigned a recipe and a partner. Lauren is a 30 year old, recent transplant from San Francisco with big beautiful eyes, a warm smile and self-deprecating humor.  She and I are the designated quiche-makers. We start by making a pate brisee, or short pastry, for our crust. We pile flour and salt on the countertop and add butter with our fingers. We form a trough down the middle, and add water a tablespoon at a time.  We fluff it—with our fingers once again– until it is the right texture.

While our dough chills in the refrigerator and blind bakes in the oven, we learn how to poach an egg and flip a crepe.  We observe a soufflé in the works: Steve whips egg whites in a copper bowl. We take turns helping, until carpal tunnel and complaints set in. Unfazed, Steve turns the bowl upside down, and nothing falls out. They are perfect. Next, Steve constructs an aluminum foil collar, coated with butter and grated cheese, that extends about three inches above the soufflé dish.  This prevents the rise from spilling over the sides.

While the soufflé bakes, we concentrate on scrambled eggs. “The key is low heat and a lot of patience,” Steve says. We learn that the opposite is true with omelets, which require speed to avoid overcooking. Mystery solved: my scrambled eggs taste like omelets because I have been using the high heat, impatient-Mom method.

Lauren and I remove our pate brisee from the oven, where it has pre-baked. We let it cool to room temperature, while we whisk eggs blended with whole milk, Swiss cheese, salt, pepper and nutmeg. We pour the mixture into its shell, topped with diced tomatoes and chiffonade basil.  We put it back into the oven, and after about thirty minutes my stomach starts to growl and my mouth waters uncontrollably.  This whole place smells like Sunday brunch and I am starving.

At last, we gather serving dishes from the warmer (such a nice touch) garnish our creations and sit down to eat this orgy of eggs. There is soufflé, quiche piperade, scrambled eggs, frittata di cipolle and eggs benedict. Although my quiche was a little under-seasoned, the raves were otherwise unanimous. After practically licking my plate, my stomach and I waddle out together, in mutual awe of the egg.  Back at home, I vow to go on a 24-hour fruit fast.

Tomorrow: soup

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