For his latest cookbook, Cleveland Heights-based writer Michael Ruhlman takes on the fundamental, indispensable egg – a food he asserts is "the world's most versatile ingredient." Due to be released April 8 by Little, Brown, Egg manages to cover new ground not simply because of the book's content, but also thanks to its unique form. The genesis of the entire project began with a meandering flowchart, which is included with every copy of the book.
You described that early flowchart as a major "aha" moment.
MR: When I began thinking about the egg I was so overwhelmed by all it could do, I didn't even know where to begin. I said, okay, let's think about this logically: You can cook an egg in its shell, you can cook it out of its shell. If you cook it in its shell, you can cook it this way and that. If you cook it out of its shell, you can cook it this way and that, and so forth. It turned into this 5-foot-long flowchart.
It seems you can't look at a restaurant menu these days that doesn't have the option to "put an egg on it." Is the egg enjoying a revival?
MR: It sure seems so. It's probably a combination of factors all stemming from our desire to eat good food – and chefs always lead the way when it comes to fun things to do with food. There isn't a single dish I can think of, with the exception of chocolate cake, that wouldn't be made better by the addition of an egg on top.
This topic seems to fall in line with your tireless mission to undo myths about ostensibly unhealthy foods like salt, saturated fat, and now eggs. Are people wrongly afraid of eggs?
MR: Of course they are. You and I are among the enlightened trying to enlighten a generally dim-witted culture unused to thinking for itself. The return to eating eggs is a hopeful sign that we're leaving the cave. We now know that eggs aren't as harmful as they used to tell us, that they don't raise our blood serum cholesterol just because they contain food cholesterol. They're delicious and economical.
Back when we spoke about The Book of Schmaltz, you said that you are more interested in writing technique books than straightforward recipe books. Is that the case with Egg?
MR: I've always been more interested in technique than recipes. My purpose with this book was not to give you a lot of egg recipes, but to help you recognize that if you know everything there is to do with an egg, you increase your skills, confidence and abilities in the kitchen tenfold.
I can't think of a more basic ingredient than the egg. Yet it also is an ingredient that requires skill to cook properly. What are the most common mistakes people make when cooking eggs?
MR: Scrambled eggs are the most overcooked food in America. I believe this is rooted in our fear of bacteria in eggs that people want to cook them to death. Cooking them in a double boiler forces you to cook them softly, but you can achieve the same results by cooking them very gently and slowly in a nonstick pan over medium-low heat.
You call the egg the "world's most versatile ingredient." Back that claim up.
MR: One of the things that really surprised me was how versatile a whipped egg white can be. That became its own little flowchart. You can use meringue to leaven cakes, use it as a garnish on pies like lemon meringue, you can add sugar to it and fold in flour and bake it and you have angel food cake, you can add sugar to it and poach it and it's floating islands dessert...
Some recipes require the use of raw eggs. What do you say to home cooks who might be afraid to do that?
MR: Find the best quality eggs you can, whether it's from wonderful neighbors with chickens or farmers markets. But even if you have to use generic grocery store eggs – if you're a healthy adult, you don't need to worry about your eggs killing you. Salmonella is pretty rare, but even if it is present, it's not sending you to the hospital.
I was fascinated by the recipe for Aged Eggnog, which keeps for three years in the fridge.
MR: When you add alcohol to dairy and eggs, it eliminates all harmful bacteria in a matter of weeks, and therefore preserves it indefinitely. Aged eggnog takes on a funky, rich, cool flavor that improves with age. If you like how time affects food, you'll love this recipe.
Serves 4 or 5
Cooking eggs to make eggnog results in a truly delicious elixir—in effect it’s a thin crème anglaise. It has the added benefit of taking care of bacteria for those who have an uncommon fear of salmonella poisoning or who, for whatever reason, must avoid raw-egg preparations (in which case, sadly, you’ll also need to omit the meringue in this recipe). When I wrote about this technique on ruhlman.com, one of the commenters said she was grateful for it as she needed to serve eggnog to a lot of seniors (who can be badly affected by salmonella poisoning) at a nursing home, and this was the perfect solution.
I include the recipe because it is a delicious example of raw egg white manipulated into an ethereal garnish. A perfect holiday treat.
1½ cups/360 milliliters milk
1 cup/240 milliliters cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
Freshly grated nutmeg
4 egg yolks
¼ cup/50 grams plus 2 tablespoons sugar
2 egg whites
1 cup/240 milliliters rum, brandy, or bourbon
Combine 1 cup/240 milliliters of the milk, the cream, and the vanilla bean in a small saucepan, bring it to a simmer over medium-high heat, and remove it from the heat. Add plenty of nutmeg shavings and let the mixture steep for 10 minutes. With a paring knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk-cream mixture. (Put the empty pod in your sugar bowl or bag to gently infuse the sugar.)
Put the yolks and ¼ cup/50 grams of the sugar in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Whisking continuously, add the milk-cream mixture.
Fill a large bowl with half ice and half water, and float a second bowl in the ice bath. Set a fine-mesh strainer in the bowl.
Return the yolk-cream mixture to the saucepan and stir it with a flat-edged spoon or heatproof spatula over medium heat until the mixture thickens, a few minutes. It should coat the back of a spoon (you can take it as high as 165˚F/75˚C if you want to measure). Pour it through the strainer into the bowl set in ice. Add the remaining ½ cup/120 milliliters milk and stir to combine and fully cool the mixture. Cover and refrigerate the eggnog until ready to serve.
To make the meringue, whip the egg whites till frothy, then add the remaining 2 tablespoons sugar and whip to very soft peaks (do this shortly before serving for the best consistency).
For each serving, combine 4 ounces eggnog with 2 ounces alcohol in a tumbler, then add ice, top with a dollop of meringue, and garnish with gratings of nutmeg.
Recipe reprinted from EGG Copyright 2014 by Michael Ruhlman. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company.