Food & Drink: Cracking under pressure

Cooking an Imperial banquet is nothing compared to boiling an egg
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The Independent Culture
THE RUSSIAN coulibiac of herbed crepes wrapped around a whole salmon with hard boiled eggs, mushrooms and shallots and enveloped in a light brioche dough was a breeze. Preparing the mighty Cassoulet de Castelnaudary with its haricot beans, pork hock, pork ribs, shoulder of mutton, pork rinds, garlic sausage, preserved goose liver and goose confit, took only three days. Even Beijing's famous Dragon and Phoenix, a 10-plate Imperial banquet dish of finely cut meats, vegetables, and fish in shapes representing dragons, birds, crabs and Chinese characters no longer holds any terrors for me, although I'm not sure I'll be doing it again.

The thing that really scares me silly, however, is boiling an egg. There is no room for error in boiling an egg; no margin for creativity or whim, and no place to hide if it is less than perfect. Just the plain-boiled fact of how one likes one's egg done (firm white, runny in the centre), and how to achieve it. A boiled egg, you see, is not merely an egg that has been boiled. It is a self-contained package, an irresistible alliance, of violence and nursery rhymes. To get into it, you must destroy it. Once broken, it reveals extraordinarily contrasting colours, like a setting sun on the shimmering white sands of a distant planet; and contrasting textures of caramel cream and gummy, molten ooze.

Such a serious matter as boiling an egg deserves serious deliberation, so I consult my favourite food writer, the late M F K Fisher. In her treatise "How Not to Boil an Egg", she gives two main ways of soft boiling. In the first, she runs the egg under cold water to prevent cracking, then places it gently into simmering - not boiling - water. In the second, she covers an egg with cold water in a little pan. When the water begins to bubble, the egg is done. In need of another opinion, I retreat to Mrs David, and discover she, too, did far too much research. In French Provincial Cooking she gives no fewer than five different ways to boil an egg.

Every damn book I pick up reveals yet another sure-fire hint designed to produce the perfect boiled egg. One insists I stir the water during boiling, to centre the yolk within the egg. Another tells me to make a pin hole in the egg to prevent leaks and cracks (yeah, tell that to my grandmother). Yet another says to salt the water which will firm the egg, if it does happen to crack and leak. Cooking times vary from author to author, according to their attitude. They also vary according to their altitude, as water will boil at a lower temperature and therefore take longer to cook an egg, the higher you go. Newly laid eggs will need a minute more than eggs that have been around a while. And so it goes.

Well, it took about five years, but I have now perfected my own method. For one perfect boiled egg, I place two 60g eggs at room temperature in a German black enamel Silit saucepan of 18cm diameter. I cover them with 1.25 litres of purified water and place the pan over a high gas flame on a Gaggenau stove top, while I sip a cup of tea (Darjeeling). When the water comes to the boil, I reduce it to a gentle simmer and cook it, uncovered, for three minutes and 50 seconds. At this point, the white should be set, but still have the slightest tremble about it, and the yolk should have a flowing heart that is just starting to set around its circumference.

I say should, because sometimes it doesn't happen that way. Sometimes my boiled egg saucepan is in the dishwasher, or the eggs vary in weight or temperature, or I'm in a bad mood, or I'm standing on top of a mountain. Then I give the second egg another 30 seconds, and try it. If that's no good either I give up, and just toss together a quick Bombe Alhambra of Italian meringue, strawberry puree, and whipped cream, lined with home- made vanilla bean ice-cream and topped with strawberries marinated in kirsch. It's so much easier.