A Meditation on Eggs
The consummate egg soufflé emerges from the oven—which dare not be either prematurely or belatedly opened—a puffy cloud cloaked in heat-kissed bronze and barely trembling in the center.
Eggs are a delicate, finicky protein, prone to scorching yet nearly inedible in their gelatinous state. Learning how to cook the egg properly is a study in precision, method, and detail, the result of which is total sultry delicacy.
Unlocking the key to the chicken egg’s versatility, its countless forms and applications, could easily constitute an occupation in and of itself, and the French have made it theirs.
Mastering scrambled eggs was one of Julia Child’s first lessons at the Cordon Bleu. As opposed to the American technique of pulling whipped eggs across a burning hot pan resulting in a firm rope of yellow mass, the French method entails a patient stirring over low heat until a custardy texture of tiny, shapeless curds is achieved.
Yet the true signature of French cuisine lies not only in how they cook their eggs, but how they cook with their eggs. One can always discern a cake recipe of French origin from one of American origin by how and when eggs are added to a mixture.
American cake recipes call for adding the whole egg—yolk and white—at once. This makes about as much sense to the French as a neck without a scarf. It is the reason American layer cakes rely on leavening from baking soda. French cakes, on the other hand, depend on properly whipped egg whites to provide the necessary volume and lightness.
Unless concocting a dessert of little or no rise, such as clafoutis or sugar cookies, yolk and white are best addressed individually. Egg yolks impart custardy richness when added to other fats and creamed in, or slowly heated and thickened. Egg whites, when whipped to volume and stiffness, add air and stability to a batter. The yolk contributes moist unctuousness while the white lends silky lightness. Added together, yolk and white’s individual potentials are cancelled out like spouses in a dysfunctional marriage.
One can see the imprint of Julia Child’s French training most distinctly in her recipes that call for eggs. The American pumpkin pie, rendered flabby and flaccid by the addition of condensed milk and whole eggs, is transformed by Child into a luscious pillow of pumpkin soufflé in a pie crust. American cakes, either overly dense or oily and crumbly, are forsaken in her cookbooks for French gateaux as soft as silk and light as a feather.
Given the chicken egg’s unparalleled versatility, breadth of application, and achievable flavors and textures, it commands meticulous attention, preparation, and time. Like American behavior in general, American cooking would benefit from an increase in humility and restraint. The beauty of cooking in one’s own home is the private conversation between chef and food, the unfettered ability to prepare ingredients in any manner desired. Piece Meal beseaches American home cooks to pay the egg the respect it is due and approach it as would the French: with patience by the kilo.