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   The Oeuf and I:
   An Old Love Seems New

   by Amanda Hesser

  While people travel for many reasons — for escape, for adventure, for status, or even for relaxation — many travel to Paris with a single purpose: to eat.

  You might taste a Chinon, sparkling with fruit, or return to a favorite dusty bar on the Rue de Sèvres; get your fill of croissants, or people-watch from the cozy perch of a banquette. And if you are lucky, something that you see or taste will stick with you, and you will return home changed in some small way.

  It happened recently in Paris. Or after Paris, I should say, when it eventually sank in that most of what I had enjoyed on the trip were old-fashioned dishes, like île flottante, frisée aux lardons, asperges vinaigrette and oeuf en gelée. The dishes are relatively easy to find in Paris, as many restaurants are reaching back to the past. But what makes each of these creations so good, and what quietly links them, is one simple, elemental ingredient: the egg.

  Like most cooks, I use eggs all the time. So much so that whenever a recipe calls for three of them, I invariably have only two left. I had always thought of them as either a soothing aside, like scrambled or poached eggs, or as an ingredient that gave body and structure to foods like coconut cake or brioche.

  But it is the French who really understand eggs, who see that you can enjoy all of these qualities in a single dish. The poached egg resting on top of a frisée salad is not there for heft or protein. It has a job to do. The yolk, still warm and liquid, is meant to be pierced by the diner's fork so that it can dress and wilt the frisée. The whites of the egg should still be soft, there to break up into little bits, a mild pause between bites of salty lardon.

  In the île flottante, or floating island, eggs make up both the island and the sea. The whites are whipped into a fluffy meringue, then molded and baked to create the island, which is then floated on a vanilla sauce thickened with egg yolk.

  At Chez Georges, a bistro on the Rue du Mail, the cooks sneak eggs into everything they can. There is a thick lemon-yellow hollandaise — yes, hollandaise, and not for brunch — served with a spoon for dolloping over asparagus. There is the frisée aux lardons with the plump poached egg nestled in the greens. And the oeuf en gelée is something to see. It is technically an egg in veal aspic, a relic of dining back when a dozen oysters were considered the proper way to warm up to a good meal.

  Chez Georges's oeuf en gelée comes in a short dome, like a large gumdrop. Slices of ham rim the side, a sprig of tarragon lies suspended in the aspic and beneath it lies a perfectly cooked (5 minutes by my timer) soft-boiled egg. It is as polished as a gem when still and can easily be wobbled nervous with a little shake to the plate. This is to be appreciated for a moment because once you plunge your fork into it, the beauty dissolves along with the warming aspic. The yolk will break and pour into your plate, then it is a dash to spoon up the aspic and yolk. Bread helps.

  Across the Seine, at La Bastide Odéon, warm asparagus spears are dressed with a vinaigrette "à l'oeuf cassé" that is thickened with egg yolk, and sprinkled with chopped egg whites. The dressing is soft and rich, smartly offsetting the grassy flavor of the asparagus.

  There is the île flottante at Aux Lyonnais, with an island of meringue stained pink from praline. And there is the oeufs à la neige at a tiny bistro on the Left Bank. The "oeuf" is an enormous snow-white puff poised in a butter-yellow sauce.

  It is not as if Americans have carelessly let these dishes pass them by. The French have occasionally ignored some of them, as well. Île flottante in the French culinary vocabulary has all the novelty that angel food cake (another clever use of the egg, by the way) does here.

  But trends shouldn't matter in your own home. So I did what many cooks do: I got in the kitchen and attempted to bring back that hollandaise from Chez Georges and that île flottante from Aux Lyonnais.

  I sought help from the "Joy of Cooking," which decoded one of the great culinary mysteries: the difference between île flottante and oeufs à la neige, two ever-popular children's desserts.

  Oeufs à la neige employs the same idea as the île flottante, using the whites of the eggs to create a sculptural meringue and the yolks to thicken a pool of creamy vanilla sauce. But while the molded meringue in île flottante is predetermined and tame, it is a chance for whimsy in oeufs à la neige. The whites may be formed into any shape, dollops, ovals, great round pearls, and are then gently poached in milk rather than baked. They are often splashed with caramel.

  I wanted berries in the meringue, so I opted for the molded île. It is a remarkably easy dessert. I folded sweetened blackberries and raspberries into whites whipped stiff with sugar. I buttered ramekins, filled them with the meringue and baked them for a few minutes.

  Meanwhile, I made a vanilla sauce with the yolks, milk and sugar. This I made on the thin side so that it would simply dress the meringue as you ate it. When it was ready, I popped the meringues out of their molds, set them into a bowl, then surrounded them with a moat of vanilla sauce. Mental note: serve at next dinner party.

  As I cooked, there was the predictable revelation: American eggs do not taste as rich or as delicious as eggs do (or seem to) in France, so it is worth finding the expensive eggs at the greenmarket. Those eggs, whose yolks are not butter-colored but nearly orange, have whites that practically stand up on their own.

  Revelation No. 2: hollandaise sauce is nothing more than mayonnaise made with good butter. Cookbooks will make you believe that hollandaise sauce is forbiddingly delicate, that it may break apart if you so much as pause to glance at your watch while whisking. None of this is true, but low heat does help. The rest is simply mixing together yolks and lemon juice and slowly whisking in butter to emulsify it into a dense sauce. You can make it as thick or as thin, as tangy or as mild, as you like.

  And if you follow a footnote to the recipe in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and fold in whipped egg whites, not only will you have succeeded in incorporating both parts of the egg but you will have the original, pre-El Bulli foam. It is lovely on warm asparagus.

  And yet, it was not like it was in France. It never will be. That is what keeps cooks going back there. But it was very good, creamy and tangy, and worthy of guests.

  If these two dishes were small footsteps, though, then the leap was the oeufs en gelée. The odyssey began at a Hispanic butcher shop in Brooklyn, where I could find calf's feet, veal knuckles and salt pork. Like all of these dishes, the recipe is not difficult to make, but this one is time consuming. First you must boil the feet and all the rest, then let it cool, chill it, defat it and get it to the right consistency (and this a shortcut, because I skipped clarifying the aspic). Then the eggs are soft-boiled (or sometimes poached), the ham sliced and the mold (a ramekin) filled in layers. It is like a Jell-O mold, only it is savory.

  Will I make it again? Unlikely. But I do have an amazing cache of veal stock in my freezer.

  • Recipe: Fluffy Hollandaise
  • Recipe: Îles Flottantes
  • Recipe: Oeufs en Gelée

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