Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas with the Family: S.O.S.!

I come from a line of limited traditions. Those we have are all about food: sushi on Christmas Eve, strudel-making on the dining room table, and from my mother’s family, creamed eggs on Christmas morning.

Creamed eggs, hard-boiled eggs suspended in an unflavored béchamel and slopped over toast, debuted in its most refined state in the late 19th century as Eggs á la Goldenrod, an acceptable culinary exercise for the genteel young ladies that flocked to Fannie Merritt Farmer’s cooking school (she published a recipe for the dish in1896 in The Boston Cooking School Cookbook.) In American Food Writing, Molly O’Neill cites feminist food historian Laura Shapiro: Eggs á la Goldenrod was for the “ambitious homemakers” who wanted to learn “how to make plain, wholesome breakfast ingredients look so decorative and non-nutritive you could even serve them to ladies.”

By the second World War, it was known by its more frank monikers, “apcray on apcray” (for those of you fluent in Pig Latin) and S.O.S.” (i.e., “shit on a shingle”), and certain sissy steps like putting the yolks through a potato ricer and sprinkling them on top of each serving were 86ed. Macho things like chipped beef were added (sometimes replacing the eggs altogether).

Eggs-and-chipped-beef is the version that my mom’s family grew up eating and the provenance of the dish my two uncles and aunt make every year for their families on Christmas (but not my never-much-of-a-conformist mom). In the family, the eggs are credited to their late dad, Hal, although I’ve heard that my grandma Sue has said indignantly, “I was the one who made them!” So let’s split the difference and call it a joint effort.

Yesterday, after 90 minutes of gift-opening, I helped my uncle make Hal/Sue’s creamed eggs. We met halfway between the S.O.S. version and Mrs. Farmer’s Eggs á la Goldenrod: the sauce was fortified with ham (my uncle’s way), but we added a garnish of crumbled yolk and we cut the toast slices into “points” (Fannie’s way).

The result is über-comfort food, a homely, filling meal that goes down a treat with kids and fills everyone up for a second round of gift-opening.

On a side note, let’s talk about boiling eggs. Only recently have I realized that such a straightforward gesture is, in fact, a cooking triple lutz. Getting them right ain’t easy: boil them too long and the yolks take on an unsightly grayish-green tint; boil them too little, and, well, they’re not hard-boiled eggs. Improper cooling after cooking makes the shell cling to the egg and come off only in the tiniest, most aggravating little bits. My uncle’s technique produced yolks that were dull on the surface and had shells that just wouldn’t give up their post. He’s been boiling eggs all his life – what did he do wrong?

In The Elements of Cooking, Michael Ruhlman recommends that you put eggs in a single layer on a pot and pour in cold water (this reduces the chance of cracking the shells in transit), bring water to a boil and then remove from heat, cover the pot, and allow to sit 12 minutes (on average – some eggs will take a bit less time, others more). Then place the eggs in an ice bath to cool completely before peeling (and if you’re going to peel them right away, Ruhlman advises that you crack the eggs as they go into the ice bath. So if you accidentally crack the eggs at this point just play it off as technique.)

The method outlined above is counterintuitive to most of us – turn off the heat to cook the eggs? My mom is deeply disgusted by runny yolks so she’d rather boil the bejeesus out of ‘em than risk a bit of yellow goo.

My uncle actively boils his eggs for 10 minutes. In light of Ruhlman’s recommended technique, it’s no wonder they were overcooked and cracked in the pan from too much jostling. But then you turn to another authority – say, Kids Cooking: A Very Slightly Messy Manual, my first cookbook – and learn that 12 minutes of active boiling is desirable. What gives?

I intend on experimenting with a dozen eggs and a timer -- but not in the middle of the holidays. For now, the best answer I have is that most of us overcook our boiled eggs, and to achieve the bright yellow, creamy yolk that grace the salad course of fine dining establishments everywhere, we’d do well to ease up a bit (incidentally, same goes for scrambling).

Eggs á la Hal and Sue

6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper, to taste
Paprika or cayenne, to taste (optional)
½ cup chopped ham
6 to 10 slices of bread

  1. In a small saucepan, set milk over medium-low heat and slowly bring to about body temperature. Meanwhile, make a roux: melt butter in a large saucepan over low heat. Mix in flour until combined. Slowly add warm milk, mixing in each ¼-cupful until incorporated. When milk is completely incorporated, season with salt and pepper and paprika or cayenne. Continue to stir occasionally until sauce has thickened, about 20 minutes.
  2. Meanwhile, separate egg yolks from whites. Crumble yolks with a fork. Roughly chop egg whites.
  3. Add egg whites and about half the crumbled yolks to the sauce. Add ham. Adjust seasoning. Meanwhile, toast and lightly butter bread. Slice into halves, diagonally. Serve each person two toast triangles with sauce and a liberal sprinkling of yolks on top.


Arif said...

I follow the "Elements of Cooking" method and it works perfectly every time. Uses less energy too. Oh, the ice bath isn't really all that necessary - cold tap water will do just fine, though it tends not to stay very cold for very long if you've got enough eggs in there.

Dave, 'LunaPierCook' said...

The best way I've found to get the best-possible "hard-boiled" eggs is to use a commercial steamer box. The yolks always come out perfectly yellow, and peeling's a breeze. Maybe it's time I figured out a way to do this without the $500 box, eh?

srhcb said...

My Mother used to make creamed eggs with canned tuna, which she served over Toast Boxes, (recipe follows):

Toast Boxes

Bread, store bought white - 1 slice/person
Butter, enough for number of slices

Toast Bread, medium to well done works best
Butter Bread

Cut Toasted Bread into 16 pieces a bit larger than 3/4" square. You should end up with four interior squares with no crust, eight four-sided pieces with crust on one side and two pieces with crust on two adjacent sides, and two pieces with two straight sides and one curved crusted edge each.

Reassemble the pieces in the shape of the original slice, and serve on a small plate with a fork.

For some reason we considered these to be a special treat, perhaps because eating toast with a fork seemed rather exotic.

srhcb said...

As for the hard cooked eggs, (not hard boiled eggs), Ruhlman uses a version of Shirley Corriher's method, which is a bit more precise:

Start with eggs that are seven to ten days old because they’re easier to peel. Bring them to room temp by submerging them in warm water for about five minutes to help prevent cracking. Place enough eggs to just cover the bottom of a heavy pan with enough cold tap water to cover them by 1 1/2 inches, add a bit of salt to raise the water temperature and to help close any cracks (important at Easter), partially cover the pan and bring to a full, rolling boil.

Boil the eggs for only 30 seconds — timing’s important for both steps here – then remove the pan from the heat, cover it completely, and let stand for 15 minutes. Run the eggs under cold water for about five minutes to cool them quickly and shake them in the pan, if they’re going to be peeled, letting them bang against each other to make peeling even easier.

Remember that cooking is just the physical act of transfering a desired amount of heat energy from one substance (the water) to another (raw eggs).

Shirley's method is really a scientific calculation that takes into account the amount of heat energy in a certain mass of water that has to transfer to the mass of raw egg to produce non-rubbery whites and slightly moist yolks without gray edges.

(additional hint: for perfectly centered (and cooked) yolks set the egg carton on its side overnight before cooking.)

danny said...

hmm.. tonight i boiled two eggs, it came to a boil and then i turned it off and just let it sit there for 10 minutes. it was not over cooked, but it was not the gooey consistency that you sometimes see.

Nora Leah said...

Y'know, not long ago I would have said talking about boiling eggs is like talking about watching the grass grow, but judging from these responses, I'm guessing I'm not alone in my newfound enthusiasm and interest! Rock on, food geeks!

srhcb said...

"Cookwise", by Shirley Corriher, (you've seen her on Alton Brown's show), devotes 56 of its over 500 pages to the scientific theory and practice of cooking, and cooking with, eggs, including some good recipes.

Remember that eggs are protein, and slow and gentle is always the best way to cook protein.

Anonymous said...

Nora, you posted the bad picture of me! >[

btw, it's your sister.

Idaho Boy said...

I am totally with Arif on the eggs. I don't know where my brother got that over boiling method. I learned the method when I worked at Nick's Delicatessan near Georgetown in DC the summer after I graduated from college--with a degree. What was I doing working at a deli?

Nora this blog is brilliant (in both the English and American senses!) I love how you captured both the essence of the food and the essence of the family debate!

With love,
Your Uncle