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The essential egg

Delivered in an ingenious package, it's simply the world's most perfect food.

March 24, 2004|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

Which came first? Easter or the egg? Did early Christians give up eggs for Lent, or did they simply run out? The ability to keep birds laying year-round is relatively recent. It seems likely that over the years, it became traditional to celebrate Easter by eating eggs because the Christian Holy Week falls at the peak of bird-nesting season.

Either way, no other food is better suited to feasting. Eggs are so versatile, they amount to their own cuisine. Given the sheer number of dishes that depend on eggs, from angel food cake to zabaglione, the odd thing is that we have no words to describe their flavor. There are the viscous subtlety of the white and the rich barnyard flavors of the yolk, that combination of dandelions, sweat and spring that somehow amounts to egginess.

If the right words existed, they would have to run the gamut from pleasure to pain. Consider for a moment how profoundly the flavor changes from the teasing delicacy of a soft-boiled egg to essence of burnt rubber as aromas of overcooked egg waft up from beneath cafeteria heat lamps.

At their best, egg dishes never depart the register of sumptuous, lactic flavors of their rightful partners in the dairy -- milk, butter and cheese. It's no coincidence that the great Easter dishes almost always involve milk products. Just as hens start laying in spring, cows calve and come back into milk while grazing on pastures new.

The timetable is so deeply imprinted in the way we cook that in my family, even growing up far from a farm, supplied with eggs year-round, Easter was about eggs. I can still feel the excitement that ran through the house when my mother would pull down Volume 1 of the two big brown Gourmet cookbooks from the shelf. It meant -- goody goody goody -- eggs Benedict. For dessert -- oh, yes! -- meringue layer cake. My brothers and I would come in from our network of backyards and playing fields and stay close to the kitchen, wolfish helpers. Carton after carton of eggs would come out, eggs for poaching, egg yolks for hollandaise, egg whites for the meringue dessert and icing.

In adulthood, as eggs Benedict became a brunch standard in restaurants, my version of the same feast changed to spinach and Parmesan tart. A signature dish of a beloved friend, Jeremy Lee, chef of the Blueprint Cafe in London, it is a kind of savory egg custard in a pie shell. In Jeremy's manner, there are not a few eggs in this dish but eight of them; not a little cream but a pint. The resulting filling is a perfect marriage of flavors, on a par with basil and tomatoes. One friend was so taken by its jiggle, she thought it should be served in ramekins, with toast, or on brioche. Jeremy's delivery system is pie crust.

They can take it

There are endless recipes for eggs. Oeufs a la everything. But the art to getting the best out of eggs isn't a profusion of recipes, it's appreciating the structure of the egg itself. This is, says UC Davis veterinarian George West, "nature's most perfect biologic package." Egg cartons now carry instructions to refrigerate eggs, but they don't need it, says West. The egg evolved tough enough to remain viable to produce baby birds in scorching heat, in rain, in conditions that make postmen pale, he says. It manages for many reasons, not least because it emerges from a chicken coated with a protective film saturated with antibodies to protect the egg. If you get eggs from a farmers market, or backyard coop, don't wash them until just before you use them; the coating will keep protecting your egg. In fact, the vacuum effect of putting eggs in and out of refrigerators is probably stressing them, says West. But eggs are so tough, they've been able to take it.

The shell itself is porous, which allows evaporation, but its weave also repels incursions from bacteria. The Irish butter eggs, to stop evaporation and to give the eggs a butter flavor. Northern Italians go one better and store white truffles in egg baskets to help trap the aroma.

Inside the shell, the white, or albumen, is protected by membranes that keep anything that might have got past the shell from getting any farther. Where the white appears to thicken at top and bottom are the chalazae, rope-like structures that anchor the yolk inside the white and shell to keep it from bouncing around. Protecting the yolk is another membrane.

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