How to Boil an Egg

In cooking, as in life, sometimes the simplest things can be the most vexing. Take the perfect boiled egg. If you have not quite mastered this skill, you know how unappealing a pitted, rubbery, sulphuric, green-yolked egg can be.

With Easter on the horizon, a lesson in how to boil eggs seems in order.

First off, the egg isn’t really boiled–or shouldn’t be. Briskly boiling water will crack the egg and toughen it. It’s more accurate to refer to it as a hard-cooked egg, but since just about everyone calls them boiled eggs, I will too.

The perfect hard boiled egg has a firm but not rubbery white, a velvety yolk, and an uncracked shell that doesn’t cling to the egg white with the stubbornness of glue when you try to peel it.

As for technique, the most foolproof I’ve found is this:

  1. Place the eggs in a heavy-bottomed pan with enough cool water to completely cover them.
  2. Place on medium-high heat.
  3. As soon as the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat.
  4. Cover the pan and let the eggs stand for 15 minutes. Subtract 5 minutes if you like your yolks softer. Add 1 to 2 minutes if you like the yolks harder or if you’re cooking jumbo eggs.
  5. Drain the eggs and rinse under cold water. (I fill the cooking pan with cold water and ice to immediately cool down the eggs.)

Starting the eggs in cold water and heating them gradually makes the egg shells less likely to crack. Turning off the heat allows them to cook without overcooking. And putting them under cold water stops the cooking and makes the shells easier to remove.

It’s important to pay attention so you know when the water begins to boil. When you hear the eggs begin to rock in the pan, it’s time to turn off the heat.

If you plan to dye the eggs for Easter, be sure to add vinegar to the dye-water mixture (most dye packets will instruct you to do this). The acid helps dissolve the eggshell’s natural waxy coating so the dye can permeate the shell.

Have a bunch of Easter eggs to use up? Try using them in my recipe for a rich, buttery cookie.

Note: Eggs that are too fresh can be hard to peel after cooking. If you’ve just bought eggs from the store, it’s best to wait at least three or four days before boiling them.

Eating Like Hypocritical Toddlers

I had a friend whose 4-year-old son would eat only white foods. As many mothers can relate, this is not an unusual phase for young kids to go through. For a year, she gritted her teeth and served him nothing but pasta, rice, potatoes, white bread, and chicken breast.

I was thinking of this recently when I encountered yet another rant against “white” foods, the evil food du jour. You know, that whole glycemic index thing. Avoid white bread, white potatoes, white sugar, pasta, white rice. They’ll make you fat and lead to heart disease and foggy brain and no sex and who knows what else.

It’s like toddlerhood in reverse.

I love whole grains. Always have. I actually prefer whole-wheat bread and whole-grain pasta. (I do confess to a weakness for sugar, white and otherwise.) For diabetics, refined carbs can indeed pose a problem. And people in America and the rest of Western civilization probably eat way too many refined starches. (I do have to wonder why there aren’t more fat people in eastern Asia, given the vast quantities of white rice they eat.)

But I can’t help but notice that even as the diet books trumpet the glycemic index and your sister-in-law refuses to eat any vegetable with eyes, the “frozen treats” aisle in the average American supermarket keeps getting bigger. And bigger. And bigger. Any day now, “ice cream novelties” will engulf the entire store. Call me suspicious, but I have the sneaking feeling that maybe just a few of the folks who shun white aren’t counting the white sugar in Fudgesicles.

Come to think of it, the friend’s kid who would eat only white foods did make exceptions for things like, say, chocolate and red licorice.

I guess we never really outgrow toddlerhood.

Honeycrisp Is the Perfect Name for This Apple

I’m not a big apple eater. One of the reasons is that I rarely encounter an eating apple that has just the right flavor and texture.

First, apples should actually taste like something besides vaguely flavored cardboard. I like my apples on the tart side, but not too tart (Jonathan apples, for example, are great for pies, but sometimes a bit too tart to eat plain). They have to be really crisp. The slightest touch of softness or mealiness turns me off. (McIntosh apples taste great, but lack the crispness I crave.)

Granny Smith, Gala and Fuji apples come very close—when you get a good one. Increasingly, too many of them are not that good.

That is why I’m always on the lookout for “new” apples. I was in Michigan a couple of weekends ago and saw a sign for Honeycrisp apples, a variety that was new to me. I bit into one, and suddenly I love apples again.

The Honeycrisp, a pretty red and green freckled apple, is fairly tart, but still with a good amount of sweetness. And it is one of the crispest apples I’ve tried.

A cross between the Macoun and the Honeygold, the Honeycrisp was developed in 1960, but has been commercially grown in the Midwest only in the past decade. It’s still hard to find outside of orchards and farm markets in season (September-October), though you can order it online at

If you’re anywhere where this tasty apple is being sold, grab it while you can. It’s a keeper.

Update, fall 2013: The Honeycrisp has since struck it big. The good news is that it’s readily available; even Costco carries it.  The bad news is that mass production means there are way too many good-but-not-great Honeycrisp apples out there.  I recommend buying Honeycrisps−or any apple, for that matter−at farmers markets and orchards.

The Joys of Cherry Season

“Ah!” I shrieked. My husband stomped on the brakes, wondering if we were about to hit something.

“Look!” I said. “The pie cherries are in!”

We were in Michigan, dropping our daughter off for camp, and were passing a roadside farm stand. There it was: “Pie Cherries, 99 cents a pound.” I was lucky; the season was running a bit earlier than usual.

The Michigan sour cherry season is brief, only a couple of weeks in July. Most of the sour cherries are sold to food processors to be canned, frozen and turned into ready-made baked goods. Those that are sold fresh are highly perishable. Because they’re meant to be cooked, pie cherries are softer than the standard sweet cherries like Bing, and deteriorate rapidly. You have to buy them, pit them, and use them within about 24 hours.

Toss in the facts that so few people make fruit pies from scratch these days and that pitting cherries by hand is tedious work, and it’s no surprise that fresh pie cherries are getting increasingly harder to find.

This year, they were well worth seeking out—the pie cherries I bought were outstanding, bursting with flavor. I ate plenty of them as is, and put the rest into my famous cherry pie, an eagerly awaited annual ritual in our family.

You can make this pie with frozen, thawed or canned cherries (unsweetened, not cherry pie filling), but fresh cherries are the best.

Rather make a cobbler? Check out my fresh cherry cobbler recipe.

Fresh Cherry Pie

Makes 6 to 8 servings

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter, cut into bits
1/2 cup chilled vegetable shortening, cut into bits
4 to 5 tablespoons ice water

5 cups pitted fresh sour (pie) cherries
2 1/2 tablespoons quick-cooking (fine-grained) tapioca, or cornstarch
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons Kirsch (cherry brandy) and/or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Make the crust: Whisk together the flour and salt. Cut in the butter and shortening until well-blended; mixture should be coarse and mealy. Stir in enough water so that dough just comes together in a ball.

Press dough into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

Divide dough into 2 parts, one slightly larger than the other. Roll out the larger portion on a lightly floured board or pastry cloth to a circle about 11 inches in diameter.

Drape dough over rolling pin and ease it into a 9-inch pie pan. Press the dough gently into the bottom of the pan and trim the edges. Refrigerate while you prepare the filling.

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.

To make the filling: Combine cherries and their juice (if using canned or frozen, thawed cherries, use 3/4 cup of the juice) with tapioca or cornstarch, sugar, and Kirsch and/or almond extract. Pour the cherries into the prepared pie shell.

Roll out the remaining pastry to 1/8-inch thickness. With a biscuit or cookie cutter or a knife, cut into rounds, strips, or other shapes (stars are nice). Arrange the cutouts in overlapping circles atop the cherry filling, or create a lattice crust with strips.

Bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and bake for another 35 to 45 minutes, or until the crust is browned and the filling is bubbly.

Serve slightly warm, with vanilla ice cream.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Cobb Salad: A Meal in a Salad Bowl

Much to my delight, I realized today that I have the makings of a Cobb Salad on hand. This hearty mix of lettuce, eggs, bacon, avocados, tomatoes and blue cheese is my favorite salad meal. It seems to have fallen out of favor during the 1990s low-fat craze, but recently I’ve noticed it on more restaurant menus, sometimes generically labeled as “chopped salad.”

Cobb salad is named for Bob Cobb, who was owner of Hollywood’s legendary Brown Derby Restaurant in the 1930s. Legend has it that he invented the salad one night in 1937 out of leftovers he rummaged from the kitchen. Or maybe he invented it in 1929. Or maybe his chef really invented it. Whatever the case, it quickly caught on.

Some restaurants serve Cobb Salad with blue cheese or ranch dressing, but I consider that overkill. The blue cheese should be lightly crumbled into the salad, which is dressed with a vinaigrette. Cobb Salad does require that you plan ahead; the bacon, eggs and chicken need to be cooked and cooled before you toss the salad together.

Whisk together your own vinaigrette out of white wine vinegar, olive oil and a bit of dry mustard, or use your favorite store-bought vinaigrette.

Serve this with a little Italian or French bread and some iced tea and you’ve got a simple, satisfying dinner.

Cobb Salad

Makes 2 servings

2 strips crisp-cooked bacon
2 hard-cooked (boiled) eggs
1 medium avocado
1 medium tomato
1/2 medium head iceberg lettuce
1/4 cup crumbled blue cheese
1/2 cup chopped celery or 1/4 cup chopped green onions (optional)
1 cup diced chicken or turkey breast (boneless and skinless), optional
Vinaigrette (homemade or store-bought)

Crumble the bacon. Coarsely chop the eggs. Peel and pit the avocado, then coarsely chop. Chop and seed the tomato.

Tear or chop the lettuce into bite-size pieces. Divide between 2 dinner plates. Sprinkle the bacon, eggs, avocado, tomato, blue cheese,  celery and chicken over the lettuce and toss. Add vinaigrette to taste and toss again.

Serve immediately.

The China Syndrome

The massive recall of pet foods containing wheat gluten contaminated with melamine, an industrial chemical, has focused attention on an issue most of us would rather not think about: the heightened food safety risks that come with widespread importing of foodstuffs.

As demand for its food products has exploded, China has tried to improve food safety. But it’s difficult in a land where there are so many scattered small family farms and pressure to keep up with the ever increasing demand. Drugged farmed animals, industrial pollutants, overuse of pesticides, cutting corners to save costs—all have led to food scandals in China and abroad. (In one of the more notorious cases, substandard infant formula caused malnutrition in hundreds of babies and killed at least 12.) Europe, Japan and even Hong Kong have banned some Chinese food imports.

Americans treat their pets like children, and a scandal of this magnitude will hopefully exert pressure on Chinese suppliers and the American companies that deal with them to tighten the controls.

But this may also be a good time to question why we are importing so much of our food. Does anyone else find it ironic that America, the world’s leading exporter of wheat, is importing wheat gluten from China?

Steamed Up Over Espresso

I got an espresso machine for Christmas and I’ve had fun playing with it ever since.

Reading up on the art of espresso making has left me a tad dizzy, though. Espresso lovers make wine snobs look tolerant. The laws of espresso leave little room for forgiveness:

  • One must have the proper amount of cream (froth, not the dairy product) atop the coffee.
  • One must never drink milky espresso drinks (cappuccino and lattes) after noon. Actually, one should never drink lattes at all, since they’re a crime against the universe.
  • One must produce espresso that is full-bodied but not bitter (good luck with that one).
  • One must grind the coffee just right, in a grinder with burrs, not blades.
  • One must use a pump-powered espresso maker, not, heaven forbid, a steam-driven machine.

I break just about all of these laws, starting with the one that forbids lattes after noon. But then I’m not an espresso purist, just someone who likes strong, flavorful coffee with a lot of sweet frothy milk.

There is a certain comfort to the ritual of making espresso. But what really attracts me to this method of coffee making is the steam. I love that high-pitched cry when the steaming wand meets the cold milk. I stare in fascination when the machine hisses and belches steam, like a classic train locomotive pulling into the station. It’s awesome.

Let the aficionados argue over the art and science of making espresso. To me, it’s just fun.

Usher in the New Year With Candied Walnuts or Pecans

Every year I make a big batch of cookies to use for host/hostess gifts. And every year, they somehow disappear before the holidays actually arrive. I’m not sure how—I think the dogs are eating them. At any rate, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

What this means is that I’m often left short handed when party time rolls around, like the New Year’s Eve party I’ve been invited to. Fortunately I almost always have walnuts or pecans in my cupboard, and can whip up a batch of candied nuts in no time.

To be honest, people like them more than cookies. They’re not only delicious, but healthier (at least compared to cookies). The sugar and butter are balanced at least somewhat by the fiber and oils in the nuts.

This recipe is more forgiving than some candy recipes. If you cook the candy a little past the soft ball stage, it will still be fine.

Candied Walnuts or Pecans

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons water
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (omit if using salted butter)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups walnuts or pecan halves, toasted *
  • Butter a large baking sheet with sides and set aside.

Combine the sugars, water, butter, salt and cinnamon in a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Cook to the soft-ball stage. (A candy thermometer registers 235 degrees F, or a small amount of the syrup dropped into cold water forms a soft, pliable ball.) Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Stir in the walnuts, making sure they are all coated with the candy.

Scrape candied nut mix onto the buttered baking sheet in a single layer. Use 2 forks to separate the candied walnuts. Let cool.

Store in an airtight tin or other container.

Makes 4 cups.

* To toast nuts, spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for 8 to 10 minutes, or until they smell toasted. Pour into a bowl and let cool.

Pumpkin pie in a cup

I adore pumpkin pie spice, that fragrant blend of ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves or allspice. One whiff evokes the brightly colored hues of autumn, my favorite season, and the aromas of Thanksgiving, my favorite holiday.

I use it in pumpkin pie, of course, but also in cookies, bars, apple dishes—and coffee. I’m not generally a fan of flavored coffees, but Starbucks’ Pumpkin Spice Latte is very nice indeed. It also contains a goodly dose of sugar (something I have to eat and drink in moderation) and costs $4 a cup.

So I make my own version at home. It’s easy to do. Just add a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice per cup of coffee directly to the grounds before brewing. (I’m assuming you have a drip coffeemaker.) Brew as usual, and sweeten to taste with sugar or Splenda.

It’s not Starbucks, but it tastes good and smells great while it’s brewing. Pumpkin pie spice-spiked coffee is a wonderful way to wake up to a crisp fall morning.

Fish oil gets another nod

A study about a link between violence and a deficiency in omega 3 fatty acids adds more evidence that our french fry- and salad dressing-laden diet harms more than our figures. In a way, it “short-circuits” our brains.

This is not a new idea; some researchers have been warning for decades that the dramatic shift in the past century in the types of oil we eat may have dire consequences. In short, we all eat way more omega 6s (found in plant oils such as soy, corn and safflower) and way too little omega 3s (found in fish, flaxseed, walnuts and greens). These essential fatty acids play a prime role in brain development.

While the number of well-designed studies is relatively small and results are mixed, fairly good evidence indicates that supplementation with omega 3s (particularly the type found in fish oils) can help alleviate the symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder, and reduce aggression.

The idea that omega 3s can make your kid smarter, stave off cancer or improve your sex life is, at this point, mainly a pleasant fantasy perpetuated by people who sell fish oil supplements. Still, it probably won’t hurt to take fish oil supplements, and it may help.

Fish oil is safe—safer in many cases than fish, which can be contaminated with mercury and PCBs. Fish oil supplements tested by Consumer Lab contained no detectable levels of mercury, PCBs or other contaminants. Taking a lot of fish oil could have side effects, ranging from the minor (fishy belching) to more serious (bleeding too much, if you are on other anticoagulants).

You needn’t spend a fortune on fish oil supplements. Nearly all the fish oil products Consumer Lab tested were pure and contained the amounts of fatty acids advertised. I usually buy fish oil capsules at Costco. I like the enteric-coated ones–less fishy burping.