The ultimate Trojan horse of breakfast

Egg in a nest. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

Egg in a nest. Photo by Ari LeVaux.

Egg-in-a-nest, a perennial children’s favorite, never seems to get old. To prepare it is to create a tractor beam between a child’s mouth and breakfast. As we grow up, it maintains a residence in many an adult heart. The novelty of using edible materials as a form of cookware with which to encase other edible materials doesn’t easily wear off. And the artistry with which it can be presented, and the flavors that can be created, are limitless.

With young and old alike, eggs-in-a-nest are especially appropriate this time of year, as far as I’m concerned, because holiday season is also nesting season. It’s time to snuggle up, get cozy, and wait out the bottom of the year. Get yourself a quilt, a fire, a pot of coffee, and start preparing variations on an egg-in-a-nesty theme. After few servings, the days will be getting longer already.

And to all the evil parents and their diabolical plans to inject fibrous chlorophyll into their children’s food whenever possible, eggs-in-a-nest are the ultimate Trojan Horse of breakfast. If prepared properly properly, pieces of green can be easily concealed. And more importantly, by sandwiching vegetables between grease, protein and carbs, they become more palatable.

In the traditional egg-in-a-nest, the nest is made of bread. But there are alternative versions as well, in which the nest is constructed from various other materials.

Traditional style begins with a generous amount of butter in a pan on low/medium heat. Sometimes I add olive oil as well, to increase the fat and reduce the chance of burning butter. Bacon grease, it should go without saying, works.

When the fat is hot, place a slice of bread in the pan. While the fat sputters and soaks into the bread slice, turning it gloriously crispy, carve out a nest. I like to use the side of a large spoon, the shape of which rolls easily in a circular direction. Press it into the bread slice as it cooks from underneath. Cookie or biscuit cutters can work too, but you don’t want the hole to be larger than the diameter of your yolk. At least I don’t. And I’m the master.

There, I should acknowledge, is a school of thought that would have us excavate a larger hole, crack an egg into it, and call it a morning. This would result in a serviceable breakfast of egg and toast, but lacking the chemistry and mystery that a proper egg-in-a-nest can deliver. The point of contact between the egg white and bread is central to the power of this dish. It creates a spectacular contrast with the buttery brown crisp on the other side of the same piece of bread. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After the slice has cooked sufficiently on one side, with the removed hole quietly sizzling alongside it, remove it from the pan. Check pan for adequate butter, adjust if necessary, and then crack an egg onto the pan, as if you’re making a straight-up sunny side up egg.

In a moment you will place the fried bread slice atop the egg, so the yolk sticks through the hole. But first, parents, now is your chance to add those unmentionable plant parts. A sheet of crushed nori seaweed, perhaps, or a little pile of chopped spinach that will quickly wilt. Thin-slice some leftover Brussels sprouts or cauliflower florets. Just don’t let any of these end up on top of the yolk where they could be seen from above.

This is also the opportunity to add meat, cheese, spicy things, or anything else you believe would make the egg taste better. Perhaps a dab of pressed garlic for the grown-ups.

Place the bread on the egg, crispy side up, so only the yolk is visible in the nest. This allows the soft side of the bread to soak up the white and slowly meld into a hybrid food species all its own as it cooks. Cook until the yolk looks right to you. When eating, this crispy butter bread can be pulled apart as needed and dipped into the liquid yolk in the middle. You can’t get more egg-in-the-nest than that.

But if you construct a nest out of hash browns for your egg, no breakfast connoisseur could fault you. To do so, bake a potato the night before. In the morning, use the coarse face of your grater to shred it. Season with salt and pepper, and press it into a generously buttered muffin tin, pushing it around the side and essentially shaping it into a cupcake cup. Crack an egg into the center and put it into the oven (preheated to 400). Bake until the egg’s top starts to develop a white glaze, about 12 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool. Before attempting to remove a potato nest from the pan, run a thin knife all around the side, between pan and nest. Then it should pop out for you.

If you don’t have bread or potato, you could build a nest out of practically anything edible. A piece of bacon, on its side, can be rolled into a circle in a cupcake pan, with another piece for the bottom. Bake until crispy then add the egg. Bake again.

But what if you don’t have anything at all except your egg? That’s when you pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, and build a nest of whites.

Preheat the oven to 450. Crack an egg and carefully separate the yolk from white. Beat the whites stiff, and use them to build a little nest on a bake-able pan. Bake the nest for 3 minutes. Carefully place the yolk in the nest, and bake for another 3 and serve.

The baked egg white develops a magical texture, springy like sponge cake, but with the flavor and exterior crunch of the bottom of a well-prepared fried egg. A soft, flowing yolk completes the package. Season with salt and pepper.

Don’t be afraid to mix and match these various techniques. You could fill a hash brown nest with baked egg whites, for example, and bake the separated yolk on top. Me, I plopped my beaten egg white atop a nesty pile of slow-fried bacon and kale bits, baked for three minutes at 450, and then placed the yolk atop the white nest. It looked suspiciously like a fried egg on a nest, but technically was a yolk in a white nest upon a green brown nest. Endless nuance, my friends.

So whenever you find yourself with those midwinter breakfast blues, simply bust out your nest moves. They also work great for those lunch, dinner, and midnight snack blues. Those bright yolks shining up at you from the plate will light your journey toward springtime.