- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Easter conjures up all sorts of associations. For some, it’s a purely religious holiday with perhaps a smattering of brightly colored jelly beans, marshmallow chicks, chocolate bunnies and potted lilies. When I think of Easter, I think of stuffed eggs.

The egg as the symbol of creation and fertility reaches far back in time; the legend and lore of the egg in history contributed significantly to the rituals of the Easter celebration. As a food, it is a miracle of nature, a powerhouse of nutrition and the starting point of all sorts of kitchen magic.

I can’t imagine a world without eggs. No lemon meringue pie, chocolate souffle or creme brulee. Or soft-cooked eggs with warm strips of buttered toast for breakfast. Or warm hard-cooked eggs mashed with mayonnaise and spread on toasted whole wheat bread.

I could never, ever consider celebrating Easter without the egg — especially a big platter of perfect, hard-cooked and stuffed eggs. Of all the hundreds of recipes for eggs, perhaps the easiest, yet most confounding, is the simple, hard-cooked egg. Notice that I use the term “hard-cooked” rather than “hard-boiled.”

The latter may be a good description of a tough guy, but it’s a misnomer for eggs properly cooked in the shell until firm. Indeed, to boil an egg is a no-no, according to food scientists, since the high temperature causes the protein in the egg to tighten and squeeze out the moisture that keeps the egg tender.

An egg that has been boiled is as hard and leathery as an old wallet, not to mention ringed with an unsightly green that encircles the yolk. The green tinge, iron sulfide, is a result of prolonged heat exposure, or in lay terms, overcooking. While it doesn’t affect egg flavor, it is certainly visually unappealing. So here’s my tried-and-true method for perfect hard-cooked eggs.

Place the eggs in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Add tap water to cover by at least 1 inch. Set over medium-high heat and heat, uncovered, until the water is almost boiling. Keep an eye on the water. When you see a couple of bubbles break the surface, it’s time to remove the pan from heat. Cover the pan and let the eggs sit in the hot water for 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the eggs and the preferred consistency of the white and the yolk. For a just-set yolk and a tender but not rubbery white, 12 minutes is sufficient. For a slightly firmer consistency, 15 minutes is the maximum time.

Once the time is up, immediately tilt the pan over the sink and drain off the hot water. Set the pan in the sink and cover the eggs with cold water and a handful of ice cubes.

One by one, lift the warm eggs from the water and break the shells at the large, more rounded ends by giving them a tap with a heavy spoon or hitting them against the edge of the pan. This will allow the cooling water to seep between the shell and the white, making it easier to peel. Return the cracked eggs to the pan and let cool completely.

When the eggs are cool to the touch, remove them, one at a time, and crack the shell evenly all over by rolling it on a work surface, while lightly pressing with the palm of the hand. Carefully peel, removing the shells in small pieces, then dip the eggs into the pan of water to remove any clinging bits of shell.

For easy peeling don’t use extremely fresh eggs. I know it sounds like heresy, but a mini science lesson and a quick overview of the anatomy of an egg will help explain the reason.

According to Harold McGee, authority on food chemistry and author of “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen” (Scribner), a fresh egg has a high level of acid in the white, which causes it to cling to the membrane that lines the inside of the shell. The solution is to buy eggs intended for hard cooking at least one week ahead.

Mr. McGee claims that as the eggs age, the acidity drops and the shells peel more easily. He also says that if we end up with a carton of fresh eggs and need to cook them right away, we can add a half teaspoon of baking soda to a quart of water to make the cooking water more alkaline. The only problem is that this can intensify a sulfur-like flavor.

Another reason an older egg is easier to peel is related to the size of the air cell, located in the larger end of the egg. As explained by the American Egg Board in its publication Eggcyclopedia (visit www.aeb.org): “When the egg is first laid, it has no air cell, or only a small one. As a newly laid egg cools, the albumin contracts and the inner shell membrane separates from the outer shell membrane to form an air space. The formation of the air cell and the separation of the shell membranes is the reason that a slightly older egg is easier to peel after hard-cooking.”

Once you’ve mastered the simple art of the perfect hard-cooked egg, you’ll be all set to celebrate the Easter holiday with an impressive platter of delicious, stuffed, hard-cooked eggs. Now that’s magic.

Italian parsley and olive-oil-filled eggs

This recipe substitutes olive oil for the mayonnaise typically used in egg stuffing.

4 large eggs, hard-cooked, peeled and halved lengthwise

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1 tablespoon minced flat-leaf Italian parsley

1/4 teaspoon minced or grated garlic

1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt, or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Paprika for garnish, optional

Parsley leaves for garnish, optional

Carefully remove yolks from whites. Place whites, cut side up, on a plate. Press yolks with the back of a spoon through a sieve set over a bowl, or mash with a fork. Combine yolks, half of olive oil, parsley, garlic, salt and a generous grinding of black pepper.

Mash ingredients together with a fork until blended. Using a wooden spoon, beat ingredients together, gradually adding remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil until mixture is light and smooth. Taste and add more salt or pepper, if desired.

Use a teaspoon to carefully stuff whites with yolk mixture, distributing evenly and mounding tops. Sprinkle tops of filled eggs with paprika and parsley leaves, if desired. Serve either chilled or at room temperature. Makes 8 stuffed eggs.

Miriam’s egg salad

This recipe is adapted from “The Good Egg.” While not a stuffed egg, this is as unusual as it is delicious. It’s delicious on a bagel or matzo.

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 cup chopped onion

2 cups coarsely chopped mushrooms

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 large eggs, hard-cooked and peeled

1/4 cup mayonnaise

½ tablespoon chopped fresh dill

Heat oil in a large skillet. Add onion and saute a few minutes. Add mushrooms and cook, stirring, over medium heat until moisture has evaporated and mushrooms and onions are golden. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and cool to room temperature.

Place eggs in a medium bowl and chop the eggs coarsely. (If you don’t have a wooden chopping bowl and a curved steel-chopping blade, use a pastry blender.) Add cooled mushroom mixture and mayonnaise to eggs. Continue chopping until mixture is very well blended. Add dill, taste and correct seasonings. Makes 4 servings — about 2 cups.

Smoked salmon and potato stuffed eggs with sour cream and caviar

This recipe is adapted from my cookbook, “The Good Egg” (Houghton Mifflin), which won a James Beard Award. It uses just half the number of egg yolks, cutting cholesterol for those who want.

1 8- or 9-ounce russet potato, peeled, cut in ½-inch pieces

6 large eggs, hard-cooked, peeled and halved lengthwise

2 tablespoons sour cream

1 tablespoon lemon juice

2 teaspoons whole grain Dijon mustard

3 tablespoons minced smoked salmon (about 1 ounce)

2 tablespoons finely chopped scallion

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons salmon caviar

Cook potato in boiling salted water until tender, about 10 minutes; drain and cool.

Carefully remove yolks from whites; reserve 3 of yolks (6 halves) for another use. Place whites, cut side up, on a plate. Press reserved yolks with the back of a spoon through a sieve set over a bowl or mash with a fork. Add potato, sour cream, lemon juice and mustard. Mash with a fork until well blended.

Stir in salmon and scallion. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Using a teaspoon, carefully stuff whites with yolk mixture, distributing evenly and mounding tops. Garnish each egg half with a few salmon caviar eggs. Makes stuffed eggs.

Curried stuffed eggs

This recipe is adapted from “The Good Egg.”

4 large eggs, hard-cooked and peeled

2 teaspoons curry powder

1/4 cup mayonnaise, yogurt or sour cream

1 tablespoon minced onion

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

½ garlic clove, crushed through a press or minced

1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon fresh cilantro leaves, snipped into small pieces with scissors

Carefully remove yolks from whites. Place whites, cut side up, on a plate. Press yolks with the back of a spoon through a sieve set over a bowl, or mash with a fork. Sprinkle curry powder in a small dry skillet.

Warm curry powder over low heat until it is fragrant, about 10 seconds. Add warmed curry powder, mayonnaise or yogurt or sour cream, onion, lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper to taste to yolks. Mash together with a fork until blended. Beat mixture with a wooden spoon until smooth and fluffy.

Use a teaspoon to carefully stuff whites with yolk mixture, distributing evenly and mounding tops. Garnish tops with cilantro leaves. Served chilled or at room temperature. Makes 8 stuffed eggs.

Parmesan stuffed eggs with toasted walnuts

This recipe is adapted from “The Good Egg.” The freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano has more moisture and a softer texture than pre-grated boxed cheese.

4 large eggs hard-cooked, peeled and halved

5 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus more for garnish

4 to 5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Pinch of Kosher salt

Freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons chopped walnuts

Carefully remove yolks from whites. Place whites, cut side up, on a plate. Press yolks with the back of a spoon through a sieve set over a bowl, or mash with a fork. Add cheese and mash until blended.

Add olive oil, 1 tablespoon at a time, mashing and beating with a wooden spoon until mixture is light. Add salt and a few grindings of black pepper to taste. Use a teaspoon to carefully stuff whites with yolk mixture, distributing evenly and mounding tops.

Place walnuts in a small dry skillet and heat over medium-low heat, stirring, until toasted and fragrant. Sprinkle a few walnuts over each egg, along with a light sprinkling of grated cheese. Makes filled eggs.

Marie Simmons’ “The Good Egg,” is now in paperback from Houghton Mifflin.

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