What a perfect thing an egg is.
It comes in its own elegant casket, pleasingly shaped to fit in the hand.
You can boil it, poach it, coddle it, fry it, scramble it, stuff it, beat it up into an omelette or a quiche or a tortilla, make an unctuous mayonnaise, whip up a syllabub, a meringue, a custard or an eggnog, use it to enrich soups and sauces and in pastries and cakes … life would be duller and cooking the poorer without the egg.
And regardless of which came first, the vast majority of the eggs we eat come from chickens.
Hens are odd creatures. We have five at the moment, two brown, two dapple grey and one black Maran with a copper collar.
The brown hens rush up to the back door to be fussed and stroked and would come into the house if I let them, the Maran has become known as Hendini in honour of her escapology routine and the two grey hens, who I fell for because they were pretty, are quite the silliest and most hysterical creatures I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet.
They are all, it has to be said, rather stupid. Mine still haven’t learned that to get to the back yard and the corn I’m scattering about, they have to go the long way round through the gate, not directly through the wire fence.
And hens get the weirdest diseases. Bumblefoot, Scaly Leg, Gapeworm and Gizzard Worm. It’s enough to put you off your breakfast.
If you add up the cost of building the hen run, buying their very badly designed hen house and feeding and doctoring them, I probably have the most expensive eggs in Suffolk.
But I’m enormously fond of the chooks and even fonder of their eggs.
I’ve already talked about the joys of the Spanish tortilla. But the Italian version, the frittata, is also a thing of beauty. To be honest, they are virtually the same thing, with the addition of grated parmesan.
And if real men really don’t eat quiche, they’re missing out badly, more fool them. So, at the risk of teaching you how to suck eggs, here are a couple of recipes.
1lb (450g) fresh asparagus
3 oz (85 g) freshly grated parmesan
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 oz (25 g) butter
Rinse any dirt off the asparagus and bend the spears towards the woody end. They’ll snap at the point where tender turns to tough. (Discard the ends or use them, well washed, when making a vegetable stock).
Cook the asparagus in salted water until cooked but still firm to the bite. Set aside to cool then cut into 1/2 inch (1 cm) lengths.
Beat the eggs in a large bowl and season. Add the finely grated parmesan and then the asparagus.
Heat the grill. You’ll need it a bit later in the process.
Melt the butter in a skillet over a medium heat. When it starts to foam but before it goes brown, pour in your egg mixture. Turn the heat down very low.
When the eggs are set and only the centre is still a bit runny, pop the skillet under the grill to finish cooking the top.
Turn onto a plate and cut into wedges to serve.
Ham and Egg Flan
We’d never heard of quiche when I was a kid. We had this – pretty much the same thing except my mum made hers with milk, not cream. Cream was for pouring over strawberries on special occasions.
My cookery heroine Katie Stewart, who died earlier this year, always swore by using self-raising flour for quiche pastry. She said it helped avoid the dreaded Soggy Bottom even though you don’t pre-bake the flan case and I’ve stuck with her recipe because it always works for me. I use a food processor because I’m heavy-handed with pastry but you can make it by hand if you want to.
6 oz (150g) SR flour
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 oz (38g) butter
1 1/2 oz (38g) white cooking fat/lard
About 3 tablespoons of cold water
Sift the flour and salt into a mixing bowl or into your food processor.
If working by hand, cut the fats into the flour in cubes and rub it in with the tips of your fingers until the mix looks like fine breadcrumbs. Or give it all a quick whizz in the processor.
Add two tablespoons of water and mix until the dough clings together. Add another tablespoonful if it still looks crumbly.
Remove from bowl, turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead once or twice to remove the cracks.
Wrap in cling film and put in the fridge to chill for about half an hour.
Ingredients for filling:
1/2 pint (0.28 litres) of single cream (or 1/4 pint of double cream plus 1/4 pint of milk)
3 oz (85g ) freshly grated parmesan (or other hard cheese, cheddar is also good)
A double handful of cooked ham, cubed
1 onion, chopped and sweated in butter until soft and golden
Salt and pepper
Remove pastry from fridge 15 minutes before you want to use it (or it won’t roll out).
Heat the oven to 375F/190F/Gas 5. Put a baking tray in to heat up.
Roll out the pastry on a floured surface and use to line a greased 8″ (20cm) loose-bottomed flan ring.
Leave a bit of an overhang at the top, the pastry will shrink in cooking and you can trim the rough bits later.
Chill the pastry again while you prepare the filling.
Chop the onion and fry gently in a bit of butter until soft and golden. Allow to cool.
Beat the eggs and cream/milk and season with salt and pepper. Go easy on the salt as you are going to be adding cheese and bacon.
Mix in the finely grated cheese. (If you’re using something stickier like cheddar, add it with the ham and onion).
Take your flan case out of the fridge and scatter the onion and ham evenly across the base.
Carefully pour over your egg and cheese mixture and try to get it to the oven without spilling it.
Place it on the preheated baking tray in the centre of the oven and cook for approx 40 minutes or until set but still with the faintest of wobbles in the middle.
If the filling is still uncooked but the pastry is beginning to catch, fold some kitchen foil into strips and curl them over the top edges of the pastry.
The egg will souffle up a bit in the oven then sink back down as it cools. Serve warm.
You’ll see from my picture that I over-browned the top rather – it should be golden – but the set was fine. Regular readers may notice that we are eating asparagus with everything. We have lots in the garden, the season is short and frankly we’d be mad not to.
NB: for those too young to remember, the slogan “Go To Work On An Egg” was reputedly created by the author Fay Weldon, then working in an advertising agency.
The commercials, starring the comedian Tony Hancock, were made in the 1950s for the UK’s Egg Marketing Board.
According to Wikipedia, plans to rebroadcast them in 2007 were scuppered by the authorities, on the grounds that the ads didn’t suggest a varied diet.