The journey to the perfect poached egg

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Designed by Clare Skeats and published by HarperCollins, Blanche Vaughan's new cookbook, simply titled "Egg," boasts "the very best recipes inspired by the simple egg." Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — What the hell is za’atar, and why is it so hard to find? Having parked my shopping cart somewhere near the supermarket’s frozen section, I stooped down to read the labels on the adjacent spice racks. They had everything from coriander seeds to lemon pepper, but there was no sign of this mysterious Middle Eastern spice mix.

I needed it for a recipe I wanted to try out called “egg in a nest.” It’s basically just an egg fried inside a hole carved into a slice of bread. What’s supposed to make it pop, aside from the magical runny yolk that oozes out once you cut into the dish’s crispy exterior, is the paprika and za’atar mixture generously dusted over it. In the absence of za’atar, I had to go with plan B: create my own from scratch. With the help of Google, I picked out oregano, thyme, basil, sesame seeds, and a lemon, and dumped them all in my cart.

I could blame Blanche Vaughan for this after-office supermarket jaunt. Her new cookbook, simply titled “Egg,” sent me on this quest to test what else can be done with the everyday chicken egg besides the scrambles and sunny side ups I’m used to. Her book offered a lot of suggestions ranging from breakfast staples to holiday cocktails. There were a lot I wished to try out, like the squash gnocchi, the fresh lemon curd, and Vaughan’s version of Omelette Arnold Bennett (an omelet topped with smoked haddock and béchamel sauce). But I also wanted to start off with stuff I knew I could actually manage for a quick dinner, so I opted for the egg in a nest and asparagus pasta coated in fonduta, a rich custard sauce made with crème fraiche, parmesan, and egg yolks.

At first glance, these recipes may come off a tad too fancy for a table for one. Maybe to some extent, they are, but they also manage to prove that there’s more to eggs than just playing a bit role on a plate of everyday tapsilog.

                                                             More than its shell

According to the World Egg Industry, there are about 4.93 billion egg-laying hens living today. An average hen produces about 300 eggs per year. If my math's any good, that's a little over 4 billion eggs produced every single day. If we subtract the number of vegans and unfortunate souls with egg intolerance, that's almost enough servings of omelets to feed each person in Asia. Eggs are that accessible, and their uses are diverse. These traits have made the egg somewhat of a pillar of gastronomy, a gateway ingredient to the wonderful world of cooking.

As well as covering the basics, "Egg" includes recipes for breakfast, lunch, and supper, and for puddings, sauces, and drinks. Photos by JL JAVIER

There's this prevalent adage in most culinary circles that says a chef's kitchen prowess can be gauged by the number of ways he can perfectly cook an egg. This myth, the exact roots of which are still a mystery, states that each fold on a chef's toque represents an egg dish he’s mastered over time. Although I’m no professional chef, the prospect of adding a notch to my hypothetical hat excites me, hence my obsession with Vaughan’s book.

Blanche Vaughan is no pioneer, and she doesn’t claim to be one. She is, however, a talented lady from the English countryside who happens to have a number of successful cookbooks under her belt, a respectable culinary track record, and a penchant for whipping up rustic meals at home. Thematically, her “Egg” is not the only one of its kind. A quick Amazon search returns about a dozen results for guides on egg cookery. Vaughan might have been strongly inspired by “120 Ways of Cooking Eggs,” the enduring work of the late great French chef and restaurateur Marcel Boulestin. In fact, Vaughan has shown a tattered and annotated copy of it sitting on a bookshelf in her home in Devon, England.

What makes “Egg” stand out from the works of Boulestin and her contemporaries is that her book, published by HarperCollins, instantly catches the eye. While the rest often present a carefully curated mise en place of farmhouse ingredients in either wicker baskets or busy countertops on the cover, “Egg” goes for the minimalist approach. It’s mostly clean gray with an egg-shaped oval sitting solo on the front. At its center is a circular cutout, revealing the warm yellow of its inner pages. The book’s clever design by Clare Skeats has garnered it a nod from this year’s Academy of British Cover Design Awards. And they say it’s wrong to judge a book by its cover?

"Egg" features interior photographs, by Paul Winch-Furness, of eggs and different dishes that include them as a key ingredient. Photos by JL JAVIER

More than its shell, “Egg” boasts almost a hundred dishes that celebrate the titular ingredient’s versatility. Vaughan sticks to her guns (or should I say knives?) and serves up course after course of eggs in their many forms. She boils them for dragonella sauce, whips them for a trifle, and frizzles them for a savory breakfast. Her recipes are in no way as complex or as ambitious as those of upper echelon chefs like Wylie Dufresne, whose mastery of eggs is unparalleled. His deconstructed eggs Benedict at the now-closed wd~50 had been the talk of New York foodies for years. But what Vaughan lacks in flair, she makes up for with her familiarity with the ingredient. Her British roots announce themselves through recipes obviously culled from her side of the world. There are entries like Scotch woodcock (a scramble with capers and anchovies), toad in a hole (sausages baked in Yorkshire pudding), and apple dragons (fried Welsh cakes). Often, she would play around with Asian flavors, using Marsala, soy sauce, and the aforementioned za’atar.

                                                                              Another notch

My egg in the nest turned out perfectly, if I do say so myself. The za’atar, though MacGyvered, did make all the difference, turning what could have been a plain fried egg on toast into a classy savory fare. The fonduta sauce, on the other hand, could have ended in disaster. I mistakenly left the heat too high on my double boiler, almost scrambling the yolks rather than folding them into the melted cheese mixture. Luckily, Vaughan’s instructions are straightforward, making them easy to recreate and remedy in case of mishaps. Did you know, for example, that you can actually over-whisk eggs? At the beginning of her book, she offers tips on what to do to fix the seemingly unfixable or how to act in emergency scenarios like mine. I dipped my bowl into an ice bath and beat the sauce until it was smooth again. Dinner saved.

Perhaps my only qualm with trying out Vaughan’s recipes is that what’s homey to her doesn’t exactly feel like home to me. The way she knows eggs is different. I didn’t grow up eating pudding, and I’ve never even tried a popover. I don’t have cornichons and anchovies perpetually stocked in my pantry for quick omelets. And I won’t always have the luxury of picking out a carton of free-range organic eggs during my post-work grocery run. But these are welcome challenges. The difference in her culture and the flavors she introduces in her book only expand my kitchen know-how, daring me to explore ways to cook eggs outside of what I’m familiar with. Now I wouldn't necessarily prepare oeufs en gelée (poached eggs encased in gelatin) for everyday dinner, but I would try it if I had to impress. That would add another notch on my make-believe chef’s hat.


“Egg” by Blanche Vaughan is available at Fully Booked.