Friday, June 22, 2012

Hard Eggs, part 2

In Part 1 I tried out Alton Brown's recipe for hard-cooking eggs in the oven.

Next I'll show you the results of cooking eggs in ashes and in salt, the more historical methods.

Well, the first attempt was not really in ashes after all.  The fire pit in my field kitchen was so hot that I thought I should just put the eggs in there.  I even built a little heat block so the eggs didn't cook too quickly.

This turned out not to be the best idea because after two hours in there, I cracked one to see how it was doing.  Oops!  It was only partially cooked and when I put it back into the heat, it popped open.
I put some hot coals right next to the remaining two eggs and let them sit for another two hours.  They were still somewhat raw, but that didn't stop the people who like soft-cooked eggs from eating them.

I would call this a "failure".

I tried again later by putting the eggs right into the hot ashes.  This fire was a lot hotter and it took all of five minutes for both eggs to explode with a startlingly loud BOOM!  They didn't make a mess (they just opened up; no shrapnel was ejected) but it sure scared me when they exploded.

Then I tried later that same day when the fire wasn't as hot and put the eggs in the ashes.  This time it took about 10 minutes for them to explode.  No such luck in getting eggs cooked in ashes.  I still consider it a failure.

Next I tried cooking eggs in the salt.  I put a layer of rock salt in a cast iron pan and set the eggs on top.

Then I covered them completely with more rock salt.  One thing I realized is that if I kept the salt reasonably clean, I could use it over and over again.

Then I put it into the fire pit with the full force of the heat.  I turned it once after about an hour since most of the heat was on one side.

After two hours I took out one of the eggs.  It was cooked to the point of being scorched around the edges!

All three eggs were like that but again, that didn't stop the hard cooked egg eaters from devouring them.  In fact, the feedback was that the eggs were very tasty.

I would call this a "success" with the caveat that I should try again to get the right timing down.  I thought it was interesting that the first attempt at both methods had the salt eggs cooking quickly as compared to the ones just in the fire pit.  They were all placed in the heat at about the same time.   And then I had such trouble getting the eggs in ashes to cook without exploding.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Hard Eggs, part 1

I know.  You are not used to seeing "hard eggs"; you expect to see "hard boiled eggs".  Well the Alton Brown recipe for Hard Cooked Eggs strolled across my desktop one day and I knew that I had to try it.

He tells you how to cook eggs in the oven instead of boiling them on the stove.  Here's his recipe:  Hard Cooked Eggs

I'm excited about this idea for two reasons.  One is that if I'm going to make a few dozen hard eggs then I hate having to haul that heavy pan full of water and attempt to keep the eggs from cracking while they are cooking.  (You have to regulate the heat just right to keep them from boiling vigorously.)  The other is the historical connection.  It made sense to me that people who cooked on a hearth had heat and ashes to spare so why fill a pan full of water and bring it to a boil?

A little reading told me that even during the Elizabethan period in England, people hard boiled eggs.  But before that, when pans for boiling liquids were not as prevalent, what was done?  Easy!  You bake them!

I have seen two references for the process:  bake them in ashes or pack them in a shovel full of rock salt and bake them.  I can see that the first is the easiest but it takes experience to regulate the heat.  When you pack them in salt, it acts as a heat regulator; that is, it heats the egg more uniformly.

I decided to try all three methods.

First I used Alton Brown's method.  I put the eggs on the rack in a preheated 325 degree oven and baked them for 30 minutes.  It was so easy!  I put them in, set the timer, and ignored them until the timer went off.

The eggs sit right on the rack when they cook.
I didn't quite follow the directions when I tried the recipe the first time.  I didn't put the eggs into cold or ice water when I removed them from the oven -- I just put them on a rack to cool on the counter.  I was curious to see how they turned out.

Eggs cooling on the counter.
 Nearly every egg had the little brown spots.  A few were lightly cracked but none exploded or leaked white into the oven.

But the big question was:  How well did they cook? I took one egg and sliced it in half right through the shell.

It looked great!  Both the yolk and the white were firm and cooked.  I saw a little bit of the green ring around the yolk that tells me it was overcooked and I confirmed it by pulling out the yolk.

I assumed it was my fault that the yolk was overcooked because I didn't put the eggs into cold or ice water when they came out of the oven.  I have tried this several times since and put them in cold water -- and they always come out perfectly cooked.

I wondered why they were all spotted with the brown dots.  It looks like the little air pocket that all hen's eggs have is the culprit.

I suspect the air inside expanded and cracked the egg.  The moisture inside boiled and that is what caused all the splattering.  It certainly doesn't affect the taste of the egg!

The Verdict:  A resounding success!  Much better than I had expected because it is easy.  The second time I tried it I cooked a dozen eggs at once and it was just as easy.  *It helps to use some tongs to move the eggs to the cold water.  I used the metal kind that has loops as the tong ends; it made grabbing the egg and getting it to the water simple and risk-free.

So that's my experiment with an alternative method for cooking eggs until they are hard.  A later attempt used eggs cold from the refrigerator -- very cold -- and half of them cracked when done.  None leaked or caused a problem in the oven.  I would recommend letting them warm up for even 10 or 15 minutes before putting them in a hot oven.

In the next part, I play around with cooking eggs in ashes and packed in salt.

Friday, June 1, 2012

My Own Tudor Kitchen

Not only do I like to try historical recipes at home, I sometimes demonstrate historical cooking techniques for the public.  This year, with a lot of help from my friends, I created a Tudor Kitchen -- as close to what was found during Queen Elizabeth I's reign as time and budget allowed.

It is actually a field kitchen because it is outdoors.  If a noble person or the Queen herself traveled, sometimes the Kitchen would travel ahead and be set up and cooking when the Lord or Queen arrived.  Or, in the too-often event of a kitchen building burning down (this is why they were built separately from the living quarters), a field kitchen would be erected so food preparation could continue.

The idea was to create a theater set that convinced people they were actually seeing a period kitchen in action.  Certain adjustments for modern fire regulations and to help control public access were made but overall, I thought it turned out well.

Here is the morning of the first day it was open, before the public arrived and before the tools, serving containers, and other items were out.  In other words, this is an undecorated set.

We made it visually interesting by using a lot of colors.  The red and brown box you see is both a counter and a place to hide the modern ice chest and other food supplies.  This is handy because you don't have to leave the set to get your food items and it keeps them shaded and therefore cooler.

Here is a close up of the fire pit.

It is built out of cinder blocks (unmortared) and has a cinder block base to keep the fire up off the ground.  I plastered it over with a mix of clay, sand, and water to make it look less like modern cinder block.  Unfortunately, most of that mix didn't survive the torrential rains that followed the first weekend.

Then we pulled out the props:  bowls, plates, platters, knives, fire tools, cooking pots, spoons, cooking forks, goblets, tankards, etc., and we decorated the set.

I had spent time examining pictures (drawings) of medieval and Elizabethan kitchens and realized that what made them interesting was the joyful clutter of items.  Perhaps those drawings were "condensed", meaning the items were more spread out or not always out but were put into the drawing just to show them.  But I was there to cook and entertain the public, so I reached for the cluttered look.

It turns out this was really too cluttered -- the entire counter top was full and there was almost no room to put food that was being pulled out from under it.  So after that we didn't put out as many props.

Here's what it looked like the second weekend:

That's not me.  That's my assistant, "Lizzie".
The wooden cabinet on the left was a wonderful place to stack the quantities of bowls and platters I would use throughout the day.

To the right of the cabinet we had shelves that were reserved for the "special" items, like glass (expensive at the time), nice tankards, a marble mortar, and fine pottery with turned wooden lids.  There is even a baker's peel and realistic-looking skinned hare.

By the end of the day, those "S hooks" near the hare were filled with fresh herbs tied and hung for drying.

Here are most of the cast iron pots and pans that I cook with:

This cook yard was put to use both Saturday and Sunday for seven weekends by me and by others.  It was functional, roomy, fun, and fascinating to observe.  Some visitors were pulled in by the smell of the cooking food -- especially when we had a chicken roasting on the spit!  Others were intrigued by all the items we had set out.

I had many a good conversation about what I was cooking, how I was cooking it, the various spices and preparation techniques utilized, and whether or not that rabbit was real.  (Of course it is real.  It is not imaginary!)

We produced a number of tasty dishes each day; I did mostly cooking and the person using it on Sunday did mostly baking.  Much of the food went to feed the rest of the people who were there to demonstrate and entertain.

The Verdict:  Success!  It was the best place I have ever had for demonstrating historical cooking techniques.  We got a lot of positive feedback from our fellow performers as well as the public and I have many fond memories of cooking, making mistakes (and laughing them off), learning new techniques, and having excellent conversations about it.

Look for a future posting that goes into detail about the cooking pots and special tools I used.