Quivering eggs

If you search for ‘quivering eggs’ (don’t ask, just trust that I had a really, really good reason), you find 99 ways to boil an egg, the same number want to let you know how to fry an egg (duh) and any number of variations on Shakshuka – and that is before you learn that unhatched gull eggs communicate by quivering, or that Quivering Firestorm Egg (not to be confused with Pristine Firestorm Egg) will get you into the dregs of the World of Warcraft – no I have no idea either.

What I really wanted was to look at dishes that relied on their egg component to quiver like a jelly when cooked. I had an ulterior motive… but more of that later. A couple of years ago I had a mild obsession (well, maybe a bit stronger than mild) with posset – lemon, honey, oh, and the ultimate raspberry posset. There was even a concoction called ‘medieval posset’ which I considered for about half a minute.

Medieval posset recipes, the Smithsonian tells us, varied widely, but they usually contained wine or beer, cream, sugar and egg, and were thickened with bread, biscuits, oatmeal or almond paste, which formed the top layer. One 17th century recipe doesn’t make it sound too appealing:

‘Take a quart of thick cream, boyle it with whole spice, then take sixteen eggs, yolks and whites beaten very well, then heat about three quarters of a pint of sack , and mingle well with your eggs, then stir them into your cream, and sweeten it, then cover it up close for half an hour or more over a seething pot of water or over very slow embers, in a bason, and it will become like a cheese.’

Wanting a quiver rather than a cheese I continued the search. Panna Cotta certainly delivers the quiver but that is achieved by the centrality of cream and the addition of gelatine. No eggs.

I remembered the ubiquitous Crème Brûlée which we found in almost every hotel in every town in every country we visited in West Africa forty years ago. I don’t think I have eaten one since but they were sooo good. As eggs.ca say, ‘Breaking through crème brûlée’s crispy caramelized top into a thick creamy custard base is pure bliss.’ The only better experience I can think of is sitting on the Banks of the Niger river in Niamey, the capital of Niger, in a restaurant run by a Russian national and eating flaming Baked Alaska as the sun set over the river, on the desert.

Ah, but what about coddled eggs and baked eggs? Well, coddled eggs are little more than poached eggs cooked in a container. Spruce Eats says:

‘A coddled egg is an egg that is gently cooked whole in a small dish that’s placed in a hot water bath. When this culinary technique is done properly the yolk should be slightly runny while remaining unbroken. It’s similar to a poached egg. The difference between a coddled egg and a poached egg is that a poached egg is made by cooking the egg directly in the cooking liquid, whereas a coddled egg is cooked in a small dish (usually a small ramekin) instead.’

Coddled eggs are similar to baked eggs, with the difference being that baked eggs are cooked in a dish in the oven with no water bath. So, that’s clear?

But in these dishes, although there is a definite wobble to the egg white, the yolk is left intact (so you can dip your soldiers). I really wanted a savoury egg custard with masses of taste.

And then, and then… I was watching Masterchef Australia the other night and I heard a dish named that I knew nothing about. So I hot-footed to the PC (actually, I picked up my iPad from the comfort of the couch) and searched and up came Chawanmushi. Tick, it is savoury, and tick, it is domestic, and Big Tick it undeniably delivers the quivering egg custard, and with LOTS of umami.

‘We often use the word “quivering” to describe custard dishes’, says Chichi Wang, ‘yet not all textures are delicate to such a degree. Crème brûlée, for instance, is not so much “quivering” as “creamy,” and flan is better described as “jiggly.” But chawanmushi truly quivers, a trembling mass of custard that seems to glide down your throat.’

Chawan (teacup) mushi (steam) is a Japanese dish served as part of a traditional kaiseki meal (a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner) or as an appetizer. It is normally an egg custard filled or topped with ingredients such as mushrooms, nuts, spinach, carrot and spring onion if you are vegetarian, and/or chicken, fishcakes and shrimp if you eat faces. There are vegan versions which use siken tofu.

The success of the chawanmushi very much depends on the quality of your dashi. The egg custard is steamed in a cup and mixed or drizzled with a savory sauce made of dashi, mirin and soy sauce.

There are Japanese lidded cups and steamers that can be bought to make this in, but small coffee cups, a large pan with hot water and some cling film or foil will do just as well.

In Japan chawanmushi is eaten with a spoon since the custard is very delicate and breaks easily. Guess what the recipe is this week – I hope you enjoy it.