Wednesday, October 1, 2008

This is not an omelette

"Can I ask you a stupid question?" I said to my Mom on the phone. "How do you make an omelette?"

This is not a conversation we had 10 years ago when I was learning to cook in college. This is a conversation we had last week when the sight of another egg was making me nauseous, and I really couldn't stand any more omelette research. If I die from clogged arteries after making and tasting 30+ omelettes this month, I want my epitaph to say, "She lived for the fish, but she died for the egg."

For over a year, my students have been asking me for an egg class, and for over a year I thought it wasn't a good idea. Eggs are the one food Jason doesn't eat, so I never cook them. But as I was thinking of new classes to offer in Helen's Kitchen, eggs were just begging a closer look. It's one of the few culinary frontiers I haven't explored yet, and I thought it would be great fun. A few months ago, I finally decided to teach an egg class and thus the egg project began. I originally thought the soufflés would pose the greatest challenge, but I breezed right through them thanks to the Joy of Cooking and Julia Child. Custards were easy too. Scrambled, hard-boiled, and poached eggs took a bit of experimentation, but soon they were coming out "perfectly delicious" as Julia would say. Good thing my friend Susan came over for lunch sometimes to help me eat the never-ending egg experiments. Just when I thought that eggs and I were becoming best pals, I got to the omelettes. The first thing I learned was that the fluffy golden omelettes I remembered from my childhood were not omelettes at all, at least not authentic French omelettes. A French omelette, as defined by Escoffier, was custardy scrambled eggs wrapped in a thin layer of coagulated eggs. It's a pale cylinder that is just barely set inside. The classic French omelette has only one ingredient: eggs (well, and butter, salt, and pepper, of course).

"How hard can it be?" I thought. I read the instructions in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French cooking, watched Julia make them on YouTube and got to work. A dozen of eggs later, I figured that the whole pan shaking method was too inconsistent, and I started looking for another way. That's when I found Jacques Pepin's technique. His fork stirring and folding method yielded more consistent results and another dozen of eggs later I was producing proper French omelettes. I was still not sure why would one ever want to eat a plain omelette instead of French scrambled eggs. When cooked over low heat, these feather-light and delicate egg curds are so easy to make and so delicious! I really wasn't sure what that thin film of coagulated eggs did for them. But of course, the scrambled eggs couldn't hold a filling, while an omelette could. So I started experimenting by filling the omelettes. Another dozen eggs later, I realized why Julia and Jacques concentrate so much on plain omelettes instead of filled. The filling can actually disturb that perfect creaminess of the inside and the process of adding it seemed to disrupt the already tricky procedure of making an omelette that is perfectly done. Since the whole process takes only 20 seconds, 10 seconds of dealing with the filling, can easily mess up the whole thing.

For my first egg class, I decided to skip the filling and just teach my students how to make plain French omelettes. The problem was that letting everyone make only one omelette didn't really work. But spending more time on this skill in class would have been silly, especially when I found out that the French omelette didn't really excite my students. They wanted to learn how to make light fluffy omelettes that lend themselves to infinite filling variations -- yes, the completely unauthentic ones. To tell you the truth, so did I. Even after I learned to produce the perfect French omelette, I still never really liked it. I thought of giving a soufflé omelette a try, but decided against it. The soufflé omelette requires you to separate eggs and beat the whites separately. It's essentially a soufflé fried in a skillet. While Delia thinks it's easier and more approachable than a soufflé, I disagree. You still have to go through most of the trouble of a soufflé, so the only thing more approachable about it is the title of the dish. People think that soufflés are hard and omelettes are easy. What a misconception!

Further reading on home cooking board revealed that I am not the only disturbed person who likes golden fluffy omelettes instead of the pale French ones. That's where I learned that even though there is great controversy about what's technically considered to be an "omelette," there are 3 major types:
  • French omelette -- pale cylinder of scrambled eggs enveloped in a thin film of coagulated eggs
  • Soufflé omelette -- egg whites are separated and whipped, then folded into the yolks. This gives this omelette tremendous volume and lightness. It's often finished in the oven or under the broiler instead of being flipped.
  • Fluffy -- eggs are not separated, but the omelette is supposed to puff up in the pan, then collapse once it's out of the pan.
Since I have never liked a restaurant omelette before, I couldn't think of any chef I could call for help. So I did what I usually do when I am in trouble -- I called my Mom. The fluffy omelettes sounded like the ones my Mom used to make when I was little. I remember them being puffy, delicate, golden, and really yummy. As they settled on a plate, they took a deep sigh, exhaling their warmth. Knowing my Mom, I couldn't imagine them being a fussy undertaking like a soufflé omelette.

"You start by mixing milk and flour," said my Mom. Good thing she couldn't see me cringing on the other side of the phone. Milk is the kind of ingredient that would make Escoffier send me to culinary purgatory. Flour would send me straight to hell. From everything I had read, it is absolutely unacceptable in an omelette. But since making another French omelette felt like hell already, I decided to follow my Mom's instructions to see what would happen. I had to make some educated guesses with measurements, since my Mom gives measurements in units of "a lot," "a little," and "not too much." I tried 1/3 cup milk, 1 Tbsp flour, 2 eggs, salt and pepper. First I beat milk and flour with a fork to get rid of lumps, then I beat in the eggs. I fried the omelette on medium-low heat, covered as my Mom instructed. It got a little puffy. When the top was still slightly wet, I flipped it using the knife technique my Mom taught me for crepes. I covered it back up for 15-20 seconds and it got really puffy. Then I stuffed it, slid it onto a plate folding it over onto itself. It was surprisingly good -- just like I remembered my Mom making.

But this was only my first try and I couldn't help tweaking a few things here and there. I remembered reading on that beating eggs in a blender for a couple of minutes is one possible technique to help fluff up the omelettes. Since I had an immersion blender that's easy to clean, I decided to try it. To my delight, it simplified the process. Since the blender did a great job getting rid of lumps, there was no more need to beat the flour and milk separately from eggs. I could dump all the ingredients into a Pyrex measuring cup, buzz them for 2 minutes, and be ready to fry.

The flip bothered me too. It was definitely not as easy as the crepes. Either you had to wait until the center was almost set, which resulted in a slightly tougher omelette, or you had to flip a totally wet unwieldy mess. I wanted to find an easier way for my students. That's when I remembered Delia's idea of popping the omelette under the broiler to cook the top. It worked like a charm! The omelette was perfectly puffy and golden on both sides, creamy inside, and required no acrobatics or even practice. Another benefit of the no flip solution is that you are no longer bound to a small skillet. You can use a large non-stick or cast iron skillet to make a huge omelette that can serve 2-3 people. This way, you can sit down and enjoy your breakfast together instead of being stuck in the kitchen cooking omelettes one at a time.

I realize, of course, that I have exposed myself to infinite possibility for ridicule by calling this an omelette. To make sure Escoffier doesn't turn in his grave, let me just clarify that this is not an omelette, but an egg dish I have christened a Pufflette.

Helen's Mom's "Pufflette"

For 1 serving (can be easily doubled, tripled, etc)

1/3 cup whole milk
2 1/2 tsp unbleached all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
Slightly heaping 1/4 tsp Diamond Crystal Kosher salt (or scant 1/4 tsp table salt)
A few grinds of black pepper
1 tsp butter
1 tsp canola oil
2-3 Tbsp of a filling of your choice

For an omelette that serves one person, you'll need a 7-8 inch non-stick skillet with a cover. Ideally, you should be using a skillet with a metal handle so that you can safely put it under the broiler. However, the time under the broiler is so brief that I have successfully wrapped the plastic handle of my skillet with several layers of aluminum foil and nothing terrible happened. If you have a 10 inch non-stick skillet with a cover, you can double the recipe (for a 12 inch non-stick skillet, you can triple and even quadruple it).

Fork way:
Measure milk in a glass measuring cup. Add the flour and beat with a fork until absolutely no lumps remain. Add the eggs, salt and pepper, and continue beating for 2 minutes. Proceed to cooking the omelette instructions.

The immersion blender way:
Measure milk in a glass measuring cup. Add the flour, eggs, salt, and pepper. Process with the immersion blender for 2 minutes. You can also do it in a regular blender if you want to go through the trouble of washing it. Proceed to cooking the omelette instructions.

Cooking the omelette:
Read these instructions carefully before starting the cooking process. You'll have to act very quickly and won't have time to stop and consult the recipe.
  1. Preheat the broiler.
  2. Set a 7-8 inch non-stick oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Add the butter and oil and swirl the pan to cover the bottom and the sides. If you pre-mixed the eggs for several omelettes, measure slightly less than 1 cup of the egg mixture for 1 omelette.
  3. When the foam in the skillet subsides, pour the egg mixture into the skillet, cover immediately and cook for 45 seconds. The omelette should start to look set around the edges, but be completely liquid in the center and on top.
  4. Uncover and place the skillet under the broiler (2-4 inches away from the flame) until the egg mixture is puffy and golden on top, 60-90 seconds.
  5. Add the desired fillings and slide the whole thing onto a plate, folding it in half or rolling it up. Dot with a sliver of butter, spreading it over the top of the omelette as it melts.
Filling ideas:
Small and relatively dry fillings like chopped herbs, minced cooked spinach, and cooked shallots can be stirred into eggs before cooking. Chunky ingredients like cooked mushrooms, roasted peppers, tomatoes, cheese, etc, can be added in the middle after the omelette is cooked. Of course, there is nothing preventing you from doing both. Here is a spinach omelette with chanterelles and oyster mushrooms.


noisy penguin said...

Omelette, pufflette...whatever it is, it looks delicious and I can't wait to try your recipe out.

Anonymous said...

Hi Everyone,

After visiting Helen's Kitchen over this weekend I was witnessing her numerous attempts to bring my idea of the omelet to perfection, and I have to say it loud and clear that her mission was accomplished :)! I have never tasted such a heavenly goodness of eggs as her version of omelet (or pufflett, call it what you like). It's easy to make and it's one of the tastiest dishes I ever had.
Try it, you won't be sorry! I definitely wasn't in spite of all cholesterol that got into me :).

Thank you Helen
Mom said...

I love Julia Child's instruction on the omelette and have used it to 'great' success. That said, those pictures make me want to try your mom's version.

Anonymous said...

Seems very delicious

Karen F said...

Hi Helen!

Here's a cool youtube video of Gordan Ramsey using an interesting technique to make scrambled eggs. Thought you might like it!


Helen said...

Hi Karen,

Thanks for the scrambled eggs video. It's about the same method I use, except that I've never heard about adding salt to eggs turning them watery. I'd be curious to do a side by side test to see if it's really true.


Anonymous said...

Congratulaions, m'am. You have made a fritatta.

Helen said...

This might be a fritatta. Who knows? But I've never had a fritatta that was particularly fluffy, and I normally don't expect fritattas to be folded.

Anonymous said...

Are you serious? The omelet you are describing is an escoffier omlet, if you ever try to get a job as a chef you will have to demo this omlette or at least describe how it is done, and as for filling you are supposed to, after the omelet is complete, slit open the top of the omelet andplace your fillings there. You should try it and give the classic french omelet a little respect.

Alyss said...

What a great blog! I made your puflette with wild mushrooms last week and blogged about it here:

Thanks again for the fantastic recipe!