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Butter and Eggs


1.
The circular cast-iron skillet, used for nothing else, is an eighth of an inch thick
and broad enough to let its contents spread unhindered.

The skillet is set over high heat, its cooking surface greased
with a mild oil, or butter cut with oil, or best of all clarified butter, itself pure oil.

Broken into a bowl and salted, two eggs are sprinkled with coarsely chopped
   parsley and chives,
then beaten roundly with a small fork until they twirl in a ring.

The oiled skillet smokes faintly. The beaten eggs, tipped into its center,
sizzle in a circle that tilting widens as desired.
Joggling the skillet shifts the thickening eggs back and forth and at last
slides them to the rim opposite the handle, where the emerging lip
is flipped with the tip of the fork towards the center of the circle
and rolled back towards its nearer edge. The opposite edges
may not quite fold shut, but any gap is closed
by neatly overturning the contents of the skillet onto a plate.

On the plate the eggs continue to cook,
so a moist interior in the skillet yields a dry interior on the plate
while a moist interior on the plate wants a runny interior in the skillet,
and for a runny interior on the plate the interior in the skillet must be
   disconcertingly soggy.
These facts are variously modified if, across the circle of newly poured eggs
(in these cases lacking the speckling of herbs),
mushrooms are aligned, or diced fried lard, or grated tart cheese.

2.
Hot water is poured two inches deep into a small pot
that is set covered over a high flame until it boils. The flame is lowered;
a fresh egg, its shell pricked at the rounder end with a medium-fine pin,
is lowered with a spoon into the simmering water; the lid is set back in place.
After four minutes the egg is—at sea level—spooned out and rinsed in cold water;
at higher altitudes, allowance is made for the progressively lower temperatures
at which water boils: ten seconds is added for every thousand feet.
In Santa Fe an egg is not cooked in less than five minutes.

The egg may be broken into a bowl, then buttered and salted;
or set in an egg cup, small end up, in which case the shell
is circularly crackled by tapping with the back of a knife
half an inch below the tip, then opened with a thrust of the blade.
Salting should be restrained but never omitted, as the French maxim implies:
"A kiss without a moustache is like an egg without salt."
A spoon of wood or plastic leaves the savor intact.

3.
In a tall three-quart pot, two quarts of water are brought to a boil.
A tablespoon of vinegar is added. The water is stirred with the spoon
in a strong circular stroke that spins it against the sides of the pot
so as to form at its center a vortex whose momentumsustains itself
while an egg is broken into the whirling hollow. Instantly cooked,
the white of the egg enwraps the yolk, restoring a shape
like that of the unbroken shell. Use then determines the time
when the egg must be extracted with a slotted spoon:
whether, dried in paper toweling, it is to be set on a trimmed slice of toast
to be eaten salted, soft, and hot; or, cooled and firm,reserved for immersion
in a ramekin of aspic lined with a thin slice of ham, with two leaves
of blanched tarragon laid crosswise on the congealing stock.

4.
A tablespoon of fat—butter, bacon grease, mild oil—is gently warmed
in a small, trustworthy skillet. A lid that can seal the skillet
is placed directly on another flame, set high. Two eggs are broken
into the warmed skillet, with care not to rupture the yolks,
and moderately seasoned with salt and pepper. When the lid
is too hot to touch, it is set over the eggs
and from time to time briefly removed to observe them:
patience and attentiveness are both required
to seize the moment of perfection
when the whites are no longer glairy,
the yolks not yet whitening,
and the eggs are tilted (unstuck if needs be with a rubber spatula)
at once out of the skillet onto the breakfast plate.

5.
A tablespoon of oil, bacon grease, or clarified butter
is heated in a medium or large skillet set on the highest possible flame.
Broken into a bowl, two eggs seasoned with salt and pepper
are briefly but strenuously beaten. When the fat sizzles and smokes
at maximum heat, the skillet is withdrawn from the flame,
the eggs are poured into its center and there with a fork or wooden spatula
immediately stirred and turned so that no part of them
stays long in contact with the scorching surface but the whole
is uninterruptedly mixed and remixed until, attaining a soft solidity,
it can be folded upon itself and promptly flipped onto a plate.
Scarcely ten seconds pass between the moment the eggs
touch the skillet and their removal. The flame should be extinguished.

6.
Eight quarter-pound sticks of butter are pressed
into a two-quart double boiler or bain-marie
that is brought to a boil and kept simmering
while the butter softens slowly into a muddled yellowish soup
that gradually separates on three levels: floating at the top,
a layer of foamy casein; a residuum of casein settling
on the bottom; and between them a depth
of clear oil of butter. When these strata are stable,
the flame is extinguished and the upper pot
removed slowly and surely to a counter where it rests
until the casein layers have steadied. The froth
is then skimmed off with a spoon or tea strainer,
and with surpassing gentleness the butter oil is poured
into a jar. The operation may need to be performed
more than once to keep the underlying casein
from slithering over the rim of the pot while one salvages
every possible drop of oil, which afterwards—except
for what is of immediate use—is sealed in its container
and refrigerated. This perfect cooking butter
will not turn rancid and, heated to high temperatures,
never brown or burn: it is a clarified blessing.

—Harry Mathews



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