In spring, a cook’s thoughts turn to eggs, before anything tender and green hits the farm stand. Humans are hard-wired by now to appreciate them in the season of rebirth.
Eggs were an easy source of protein for Neolithic man, a product of the fowl domesticated by the Chinese in 1400 B.C., a symbol of fertility in Roman times, an ingredient deemed “elegant and frugal” in 19th century America, a religious marker, to this day, of sacrifice and resurrection.
They remain a good value for your food dollar, even as we rediscover our taste for the ones from pastured hens with marigold-colored yolks, sturdy membranes and omega-3 richness.
And so egg cookbooks are hatched, promising fresh ideas. The word “versatile” appears so regularly in their front matter as to raise a tiny cliche flag — except the description is apt.
Is there anything new to say about cooking an egg? Roman recipes describe stuffed eggs that sound awfully close to our beloved staple, the deviled egg. To American cooks in the mid-1800s, French recipes were daunting in quantity and chef technique. That didn’t stop feminist Catharine Beecher, of “Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt-Book,” from advocating the use of hard-cooked eggs as an ideal garnish.
Since at least the 1920s, egg cookbooks have recommended frying eggs over low heat. I don’t know about you, but to me, the general default seems to be more of a short-order cook method: hot pan, quick in and out. We probably don’t steam them in molds much, as was popular in the 1940s. But poaching, puddings and sauces remain evergreen pursuits.
Marie Simmons earned wide praise and a James Beard award for “The Good Egg: More Than 200 Fresh Approaches From Breakfast to Dessert” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000). The same publisher sent out Michel Roux’s “Eggs” six years later. What sets them apart also makes their works complementary. Roux, a Michelin-starred French chef, and Simmons, a prolific American cookbook author and former magazine test kitchen editor, package their expertise and love of the ingredient with stories that reflect their distinct upbringings.
Of the recently laid crop, “Put an Egg on It,” by Lara Ferroni (Sasquatch, 2013; $19.95) goes beyond sunny-side-up maneuvers to include a frozen lemon meringue that would provide the perfect light end to a Passover or Easter meal. And her duck egg on brioche with spinach and chipotle cream reminds us that yolk-on-yolk action makes a standout sandwich. Andrea Slonecker’s “Eggs on Top” (Chronicle, 2014; $24.95) explores combinations with a variety of global flavors.
“The Farmstead Egg Guide and Cookbook” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014; $19.99) goes back to the basics, with details on raising chickens. Author and former chef Terry Golson accounts for the differences that fresh eggs can make in recipes, such as Ginger Pots de Creme, wherein the more pronounced flavor of a backyard yolk is balanced by a double dose of ginger, both fresh and crystallized.
The egg book making the biggest noise this season is “Egg: A Culinary Exploration of the World’s Most Versatile Ingredient” (Little, Brown and Company; $40). Michael Ruhlman and his photographer wife, Donna Turner Ruhlman, pay homage with what must have been a pricey addition to the hardback edition: a four-foot-long “flowchart” poster that puts a visual, family-tree spin on “how versatile the egg is.” (That word, again.)
The chart isn’t as utilitarian as the author’s “Ratio” apps, related to his 2010 cookbook. (If you want to look up the names of dishes from the poster in “Egg,” better tack it up close to a pertinent bookshelf.) Ruhlman’s researched prose and usual chef-pal references are enough to woo readers, few of whom would be unaware of the incredible edibleness of eggs. And one has to admire the confidence it takes to write of preeminent American chef Thomas Keller, who has taught the author so much that “I don’t know where he ends and I begin.”
Ruhlman’s collected recipes contain nice surprises beyond the standards such as creme caramel, pasta carbonara and frothy cocktails. The savory Japanese custard called chawanmushi comes from one of Ruhlman’s testers, and is a truly delightful way to dispatch two large eggs. Chef-owner Daniel Patterson of Coi in San Francisco shares an experiment that may, in fact, be something you haven’t tried: a poached omelet.
The author also reworks a Culinary Institute of America recipe for brioche into something workable for the home baker, albeit with a little less information about just how big a baking vessel is required. Fortunately, brioche crumbs and extra bits taste just as good as the buttery, eggy, two-pound loaf.
What’s your favorite egg cookbook, old or new? Author Michael Ruhlman will join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.