Competing For Bragging Rights in Deviled Egg Contest
The Sunday before Memorial Day we inaugurated cookout season '08 with the usual orgy of fire, meat, and booze. But this year, my friend Alvina brilliantly suggested a deviled egg competition. I was ready to battle. Mostly because her eggs were reputed to be the best, but partly because it would address a common cookout flaw: deviled egg deficiency. With five eventual contestants, I figured there'd be 120 deviled eggs, more than enough to squelch any deviled egg guilt. You know the feeling, on an overflowing table, there's that lone tray of deviled eggs, which works out to like 1.3 eggs/person, and you want five but dare not take more than two, lest ye be judged a greedy bastard.
The amount of labor involved in making deviled eggs no doubt contributes to their scarcity at get-togethers. And they are in a class of foods that are usually better homemade. I've never been able to find a store-bought deviled egg that didn't suck: cold, rubbery egg white that, no matter how long you chew, just divides into ever smaller yet distinct chunklets, until you finally concede defeat and swallow the bland, gravelly mass. And the filling has too much mustard but still smells faintly of fart. This is what happens when the most important ingredient is omitted--love. Or in my case, love's slutty cousin, ambition.
Some claim deviled eggs originated in ancient Rome, but Apicius (the ur-cookbook of the Western world) mentions nothing about stuffing halved eggs. We know for sure that such preparations appeared in 13th-century Spain. As a kid I assumed deviling meant mashing or pulverizing the hell out of something, mostly because of my dad's post-divorce reliance on canned meats for sustenance. In fact, deviling indicates spiciness, because in 18th century England, spice = heat = hell = duh! Today it seems the spice aspect is secondary to the association with ground-up mixtures. I think the implication of evil inherent in the destruction of meat is much more badass.
To keep the field level, I imposed a no-lobster-and-such rule--besides, it's a better test of skill to work within reasonable constraints. Traditionally a good deviled egg consists of a tender white and a creamy filling with acid and complexity that's still mostly eggy. You're basically building in a sauce to prevent the caulklike consistency a standard hard-boiled egg takes on after some mastication.
A properly cooked egg is critical--in order to achieve a resilient but not rubbery white, and a fully set but not discolored or sulfury yolk, the egg can't be overcooked. I use a method that is a bit time consuming but is really easy and conserves energy to boot (see recipe at www.citypaper.com/eat) Regardless, I ended up with the only potential kibosh in deviled egg making: hard to peel eggs. Anyone who's faced this calamity can attest to how much it sucks-the shell, instead of slipping easily off the albumen, remains tenaciously adhered, taking bits of egg off with it, at best resulting in a pockmarked egg, at worst an egg rent asunder.
The problem: Fresh eggs are harder to peel. In my zeal to stack my entry with über-ingredients, I done played myself. One way to mitigate freshness (how's that for a rare sequence of words) is to add a little baking soda or salt to the water, which changes the alkalinity.
The stuffing, however, is really where the battle is won or lost. Recipes vary wildly, of course, but the standard ingredients include mayonnaise (for creaminess), lemon juice and/or prepared mustard (for acid), and spices--cayenne pepper, dry mustard, and/or paprika (the "devil," as it were). Notably, there exists a splinter group of pickle relish fans, who seem to think it's a required ingredient in authentic deviled eggs. I find the idea unfathomable.
In any case, the ingredients are normally just mashed together with the yolks. I, however, use a variant of the French oefs durs farcis, wherein the yolks are made creamy with bechamel sauce. I don't go that far, but I do start with a pan of butter over low heat, which offers a window of cooking that's normally absent. I add cayenne pepper and sweet paprika to the hot fat, which becomes imbued with the pepper flavor, enabling more even distribution in the stuffing and cooking out much of the cayenne's heat. I also add some very finely grated lemon zest, which adds a clean high note, and finely chopped chives, which add onion flavor with minimal crunchiness. Finally, I press the yolks through a sieve for extra-fine texture.
Back to the cookout. When all the contestants finally arrived, my eggs were obviously the odd man out. I prefer mine completely unadorned, while the others had the ubiquitous sprinkling of paprika (or--gasp--chili powder). One set even had each egg meticulously garnished with a perfectly trimmed parsley sprig--curse you, Alvina! Also, turns out I'm the only person in Baltimore who doesn't own a deviled egg platter.
We picked the six most sober people and sequestered them away for judging. After much deliberation, and even a recount, yours truly emerged as the winner! Woot! In fact, although the overall margin was slim, it was texture and appearance that won it for me. Alvina came in second, mostly due to tricking out her eggs with chopped bacon--in a rare case of bacon backfiring, the crunchy texture turned judges off. Other entries had nontraditional seasonings like curry powder and horseradish, which hurt their scores.
My high appearance scores were baffling, but I was told later that it was because my yolks "looked all piped-in and swirly." A zip-lock bag with a corner cut off is my filling tool of choice. I gotta give credit to my nemesis for having the strength to ask me for my recipe afterward. I would have been way more bitter. Last tip--keep the Febreze handy, because as they say, "Huevo duro, pedo seguro."
Henry's Deviled Eggs
1 dozen eggs, not too fresh
2 tablespoons mayonnaise (homemade if possible)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons milk or cream
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon very finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon finely chopped chives
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
salt, white pepper, and lemon juice to taste
Place eggs in a large pot and cover with cold water, adding 1/2 teaspoon of salt or baking soda if the eggs are very fresh.
Bring to a rolling boil.
Boil for two minutes.
Cover pot and turn off heat; after 20 minutes, carefully drain and cool eggs in cold water.
While eggs are cooling, melt butter in a small pan.
Heat cayenne and paprika in butter for 30 seconds.
Add milk, zest, and chives, heat for 30 seconds, then allow to cool.
While mixture is cooling, peel and carefully halve eggs, reserving yolks to a mixing bowl.
Press yolks through a sieve using a wooden spoon or spatula, producing very fine particles; if you don't have a sieve, mash yolks thoroughly with a fork or whisk.
Add milk mixture, mayonnaise, and mustard to yolks, and combine until smooth.
Add salt, pepper, and lemon juice to yolk mixture to taste.
If desired, slice a thin strip off the bottom of each egg half so it will stand straight; otherwise arrange egg halves on a bed of greens for stability.
Spoon yolk mixture into a pastry bag or zip-lock bag with the corner cut off (about 1/4 inch).
Gently fill egg halves, squeezing from the top of the bag, as you would toothpaste.
Garnish with additional chives and paprika if desired.
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