Sunday, October 19, 2014

Re-learning how to boil an egg

It was frequently said of my beloved grandmother that she did not know how to boil an egg.  Apparently this is the height of culinary incompetence.  But over a glass of gin each, neat Dutch gin, she confided to me that she had, once, known how to boil an egg.   But now there was someone to boil eggs for her so she filed this knowledge to the back of what active grey matter she still had.   We had a second glass of gin.

This memory surfaced with the official return of the Rayburn wood fired cooking range to active duty.  Cook (i.e me) has to switch from the three ring, top of the Bosch range electric hot-plate, a Bosch electric oven-microwave and an electric spit roaster (whose maker had probably better not be named), to a solid cast iron 54 x 27 cm cooking surface of uncontrollable variable heat, a cast iron oven box 35 x 38 x 30 cm wide, deep and high, ditto...

In short, I have to re-learn how to boil an egg.  One of the first things one learns about a solid surface cast iron hot plate is that it is not an efficient means of bringing water to the boil.  It takes too long.  And the longer the hot plate insulating lid is raised, the quicker the hot plate loses heat, also the oven.

Before anything one has to get the fire very hot, using small, fast burning logs. A supply of these should be too hand in the kitchen along with some heavy duty oak logs for taming down the fire, keeping it alight until evening cooking time.

Then step one in boiling an egg on the range is to put said egg into already hot water - slowly. (Pretend it is the mythical frog.)  I use hot water from the tap, pouring lukewarm water over the egg until hot water takes its place.  This, along with pricking one hole in the egg shell (a typically Dutch trick), should prevent the egg from cracking and spitting out white as the water temperature rises to boiling. 

The egg should be placed in the smallest possible container - I use an old 1960's blue enamel, Polish made, Habitat bought 1970's Turkish coffee maker. (Yes, it will also make Greek and Arabian coffee). Obviously it takes only one egg at a time.

Step two is to place this pan, with a lid, on the apparently hottest part of the cast iron plate.   This is usually as near as possible to the insulating lid over the oven , still down, as that is where the hot air passes in high concentration.  It is important to have a lid for the pot.   I modified a very large, deep cork to fit this particular pan.
Egg boiling tools, the egg pricker,  the Polish pan plus lid,  the egg decapitator.

Step three is to program a timer which you will set in motion as soon as you hear the water boil, properly boil.   Whilst waiting you can toast bread on the exposed parts of the cast iron plate.   I recommend using a long bladed knife for turning the bread - do it frequently to avoid excessive burning.

Step four is to get the egg out of the egg boiling pot and into egg cup as quickly as possible.   Put egg boiler, still containing hot water on the flue box to keep hot for possible second egg. When the egg is slightly cooled - the time it takes to get from range to table - use egg decapitator and quickly remove top.  If egg not cooked to recipient's satisfaction, pass to someone else and try again.

Luckily for me, the cook books I acquired when I first started to live at La Chaise, namely the Larousse Gastronomique of 1938 and La Mazille's 'La bonne cuisine du perigord' (Flammarion) are both excellent on technique but vague on temperature and timing.   One puts the dish on a 'hot fire', or 'on the edge of the fire', a dish of cooked cucumbers (!) will take about one and a half hours....a roast is cooked - when it is cooked.  How did any cook ever manage to get anything to table in sequence and on time?

And how on earth could anyone imagine that such a range cooker, perhaps even one twice as long, could produce elegant dinners of many courses for a party of twenty or more?   In my view, the 'Downton Abbey' kitchen seems unreal....the largest party I remember cooking for, a Christmas one, numbered twelve.

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