Eggs are the building blocks of life, the first step to creating you and me and most other animals on Earth.
Isn't it a little weird, then, that they are also so delicious?
Though they are scientifically complex, eggs are culinarily quite simple. For our purposes as cooks and eaters, they consist of only three parts — the white, the yolk and the shell, and there isn't a lot of call to eat the shell.
And yet, look how much you can do with eggs. You can boil them hard and soft. You can poach them and fry them. You can scramble them and omelet them, coddle them and bake them, frittata them and soufflé them and turn them into nog.
They can be benedict or quiche, strata or migas, deviled or meringue or egg salad. You can even drop them into soup.
No wonder they're called the incredible edible egg. True, it's the American Egg Board that calls them that, and they're probably biased. But still, eggs are pretty incredible. Food guru Alton Brown calls them "liquid meat."
Eggs are delightful for breakfast, of course, and casually decadent for dinner. But the meal at which they reach their fullest potential would have to be brunch. When served at brunch, eggs dress up in their Sunday best. It is when they are at their most elegant and are most eager to please and impress.
Brunch eggs take a little more effort than a couple of Tuesday morning eggs over easy served with a side of toast and a cup of coffee. But brunch is for guests, and guests will appreciate the extra time and care you took to prepare them.
They don't need to know how much of the work was done in advance.
The first dish I made for an egg-filled brunch was a Shakshuka, and to be perfectly honest I decided to focus on eggs this week because I wanted to make Shakshuka. This is a dish I encountered several years ago in an Israeli cookbook. I saw a photograph of it, and I was instantly hooked. It was like falling in love; it was one of those moments that changes you forever — or at least as much as you can be changed by eggs poached in a tomato sauce.
It is the intensely flavored sauce that makes Shakshuka so special. Tomatoes are cooked with paprika, cumin, caraway seeds and turmeric, given a sweet and sour kick with honey and vinegar and then mixed with feta cheese and chopped greens. I made mine fiery hot, which is traditional, but you could easily dial down the heat if you like. A poached egg on top is the perfect accompaniment; when the runny yolk hits the tomato sauce it is the equivalent of culinary paradise.
Shakshuka originated in Northern Africa but is especially popular in nearby Israel, where some restaurants keep pans of the hot tomato sauce at the ready. The sauce can easily be frozen, so you can keep it on hand for whenever you get the urge. You may end up making it every week.
I next made an egg strata, which is precisely the sort of dish they invented brunch for. It's bread soaked with eggs, milk and cheese, baked until it puffs up all creamy and delicious. I topped mine with bacon (I used turkey bacon — it's half the cost and two-thirds the calories of regular bacon) and asparagus.
Egg stratas are so irresistible because, at their core, they are really just thick, savory portions of French toast. Like French toast, they do better when you use bread that is slightly stale (mine was fresh, but I cut it into cubes a couple of hours before making the dish and that worked fine). The longer you can soak the bread in the eggs and milk, the better it will taste. I soaked mine overnight, which was ideal — both for the flavor and for the ease of preparing it the next day.
All I had to do in the morning was put it in the oven and sit back to enjoy the aroma while it baked.
For a true indulgent treat, I made baked eggs. At first glance, baked eggs would appear to be nothing more than eggs that have been baked in an oven. But what makes them so deliciously special are the other ingredients you add to them.
Following the French origins of the dish, I made mine with Roquefort cheese, walnuts and heavy cream (the French call this dish oeuf cocotte au Roquefort). The baked eggs are a little creamy in texture to begin with, and they only become more special with the addition of the heavy cream and salty, pungent cheese. The walnuts bring a crunch but also a bit of an earthy counterpoint to all the other richness.
And this dish is most certainly rich. You won't want to serve more than one per person. On the other hand, you also won't want to serve less.
I next pointed my kitchen toward Iran for a famous Persian dish, fresh herb kuku. A kuku is like a less eggy version of a frittata, and herb kukus are traditionally served on the Iranian New Year. They can be served hot, cold or at room temperature and are great any way.
The kuku I made packs a huge amount of herbs and greens into a dish with relatively little egg. To help bind it together, it uses a mashed potato, which is brilliant.
Because of the high herb-to-egg ratio and the baking powder, the kuku is almost spongy in texture. But the taste of the herbs isn't overpowering because the bulk of them is made up of relatively mild parsley. Often served in Iran as a side dish, this kuku is pleasant and quite delightful.
I saved dessert for last. Brunch eggs can be sweet as well as savory, so I made a German dish that is a wonderful combination of two French dishes: omelets and soufflés.
An omelet soufflé — a Schaumomelett — mixes the beaten egg yolks of a standard omelet with the whipped egg whites of a soufflé. When heated on the stove, this mixture cooks into a dish that is ethereally light and delicious. It has lemon zest in it for added flavor and a bit of sugar for sweetness. But the real genius of the dish comes once you take it off the stove.
Before you fold the omelet over, you first smear the inside with jam or a fruit spread. Suddenly, what was once an omelet becomes something more: a crepe with delusions of grandeur, perhaps.
Whatever it is, it's fluffy. It's sweet. It's superb. It is an egg that is more than an egg.