It’s blessedly rare, but there are moments when you see or read something that isn’t just wrong, but is wrong in a very particular way, a way that gives a reflection of a fundamental truth so warped that it becomes a mockery of itself. It’s near enough to be recognizable, yet off enough to be viscerally unsettling, like the uncanny valley or a bad translation.
First, a little background. Egg-in-a-hole is a straightforward idea with an obvious appeal. It’s a more coherent dish than eggs atop toast, and it gives a gentle scratch to that particular itch, shared by most right thinking people, to see cheese stuffed in pasta, rice and lamb stuffed in a grape leaf, or a chicken stuffed in a duck stuffed in a turkey. There’s a joy in the alchemical joining of bread that’s toasted crisp in butter with a flawlessly fried, gold-yolked egg, so that they are at once single and distinct.
Which brings me to this abomination of a recipe in The New York Times, which takes a straightforward concept and in the pursuit of preciousness instead profanes:
1.) It calls for a slice of country bread sliced ¾ of an inch thick.
That thickness will force the white up into a moat that cannot be evenly cooked. You will have to choose between raw white and a barely warm yolk or cooked white and a yolk that has mostly congealed.
2.) The pictured bread is oblate.
You want to use a square or roughly circular piece of bread to facilitate getting an even amount of both egg and toast in each bite.
3.) The recipe says you should crack the egg into a teacup, then pour the egg from the teacup into your heated pan.
You can crack an egg straight into the frying pan. No need to involve intermediary teacups.
4.) About the hole cut from the bread, into which the egg will go: “Reserve the removed portion to toast, if desired.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Anyone who has eaten egg-in-a-hole knows that the point is as much the hole as anything else. That thing needs to be in the pan, up to its gills in sizzling hot butter. It should come out perfectly caramelized, needing only a little honey or jam to make it taste better than a doughnut.
Reading this - comprehending that one of the most venerated media institutions in the world could promulgate such claptrap - started me questioning everything I know. In a search for reassurance I began looking up other recipes for egg-in-a-hole, and while none were near as awful as the disaster The Times will hopefully soon be retracting, they made it clear that, though it’s a ubiquitous dish, no one actually knows the best way to make it!
The plebian, non-Times instructions are virtually identical. They tell you to make a hole in a piece of bread, put the bread in a skillet with butter, flip it over, crack an egg in the middle, then flip it again and call it a day. While this can work out, it often doesn’t. Even with thinner bread, the white can be crowded too close to the yolk to properly cook. Further, if the egg is cracked into the bread immediately after flipping, the white will seep under it, preventing the second side from adequately toasting. Result: one side that is as it should be, and one that is a melding of white and soggy bread, like a bad parody of french toast.
You shouldn’t escape the hell of the Times’ recipe only to settle for this purgatory, not when paradise is within sight. I am here, both Virgil and Beatrice, to guide you to salvation.
First, and I cannot overstate this, use a whole lot of butter. Liberally add more every time the fancy strikes you. Remember, that hole should look like it’s luxuriating in a warm bath. Second, toast both sides of the bread in the pan before you involve an egg. Check to make sure they are properly golden-brown. Don’t hurry. You’re making a sumptuous meal, not slinging hash.
Once you’ve done this, it’s time for the real trick. Crack the egg straight into the pan, away from the bread, as if you were frying it. Let it sit there. Watch the white set up on the bottom. If you want you can use a spatula to carefully coax the thickest part of the white away from the yolk. When it looks almost ready to flip, instead place the toast atop it, with the yolk centered in the hole. Cook for another minute, and then turn it over. A minute later flip it back. If you care about aesthetics, trim any straggly bits of egg that extend beyond the edge of the toast. Plate it up and serve it to a discerning five-year-old.
These are difficult times, and there are no simple solutions to most of the problems that we collectively face. I don’t claim to know much, but I do know this: if we can’t even cook a decent breakfast, hope is truly lost.
Love your suggested improvements … and yes NYT (as good as they can be) can let you down sometimes.
Appreciated your references to Dante & Co. ….