soft boiled egg breakfast

In Praise of the Soft-Boiled Egg

A soft-boiled egg in a ceramic cup, served with a dainty spoon to eat it with, was part of my childhood. My brothers and I would knock the tops of our eggs off with our tiny spoons, eat the bit of white out of the shell we’d removed and then dig in, sprinkling salt into each scoop of runny, warm, thickened yolk. Sometimes we’d use skinny bits of toast crust to scoop out a savory bite, licking the drips off our fingers afterwards. If the eggs were overcooked, we’d just take them out of their cups and tap them on the table, then pull the shell and membrane off  in one piece if we could. Stuffing a whole egg into our mouths was a pleasure only available to us if the grownups weren’t around.

We just as often ate vividly-colored, sugary cereals, building cereal box barricades around each of our bowls and reading the backs of them as we ate. This would make us all very territorial, so negotiating seconds became an act of diplomacy if the box you wanted was part of someone else’s wall. Sometimes, if we could talk Mom into it, we’d gleefully dig into “little boxes”—those travel-size collections of cereal that come in a variety pack. These brought us an irrational joy that only children can understand.

When we lived in Torrance, some a well-meaning kindergarten teacher had me convinced that a complete breakfast featured “bacon and eggs, toast and orange juice” every morning. I reported this exciting new information to my mother immediately. Though she was raising three children under five while my father was in southeast Asia for a year, she mostly went along with this, and presented this farmer’s breakfast to her small children most every morning for the rest of the school year.

After dad came home, he and I made many batches of those chewy cinnamon rolls in a tube you can still find in the refrigerated section of the grocery store—though today’s version features a much larger tub of icing. Or I’d mix up some Bisquick pancake batter while he pulled out the countertop griddle, and he’d make huge batches of pancakes and bacon while we ate. If we cleaned our plates while he was still cooking, we’d shout out our orders for more, and he’d always respond with the same wise-guy voice: “Hey! What do you think I am, a short-order cook?!?” Many years later, when I was a short-order cook, this became a sarcastic retort I’d hurl at servers in various restaurants while orders poured into the kitchen.

But for me, the classic Place breakfast was a soft-boiled egg in an egg cup, milky coffee and toast. These breakfasts only occurred in Belgium, in the warm light of our drafty kitchen. When we came back from Europe, and my parents’ marriage began its slow march to divorce, breakfast gradually became something we were expected to handle for ourselves. By high school, my breakfast was a warm diet coke and whatever I could grab from a convenience store on the way to school, assuming I actually went to school.

During those same tumultuous years, Dad kept a quiet morning ritual. He’d wake up very early, tune the radio to the Harden & Weaver Show, and grind enough coffee for one cup. He’d firmly tap the bottom of the grinder to knock every bit of ground coffee into the filter-lined cone he’d already placed on his mug. While the kettle heated the water, he’d go outside and get the paper off the porch. If I was ever up early enough, I’d usually walk into the kitchen as he poured the hot water over his coffee. I never stayed. Though he never said so, I could tell this was a special, peaceful time for him, and that once he had his coffee he’d settle into the paper and the radio, enjoying the only time he ever had alone.

Many years later, a dear friend made me soft-boiled eggs for breakfast. We were at his family’s gorgeous home in southern France, drinking coffee and having the kind of thoroughly engrossing, endlessly hilarious conversations you only have with people you adore, and he made all of us soft-boiled eggs. I hadn’t had one in years. Since then, Jamie and I have prepared them for ourselves, with mixed results—it’s surprisingly difficult to cook them just right. It was only recently that he discovered that there’s a perfect, fool-proof way to prepare them. And now I’m going to tell you his secret.

Get yourself a small pot, and pour about 1/2 an inch of water into it. Boil, then use tongs, a spoon, or a steamer basket to lower up to 6 eggs into the water. The eggs will not be submerged, but that’s okay—we’re actually steaming them more than boiling them. Cover and cook for 6 1/2 minutes, and then run cold water over them for about half a minute to stop them from cooking further. Note: Though this recipe assumes you’re using cold eggs, straight from the refrigerator, it works equally well, with the same timing, for eggs kept on the counter. Go figure.

Photo credit: Yanktonirishred, via Tumblr


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4 Responses to “In Praise of the Soft-Boiled Egg”

  1. irishjenn August 14, 2013 at 12:23 pm #

    Thanks to my mom, the only way I’ve ever had eggs is thoroughly and completely cooked, whether boiled, fried, or scrambled. Something about runny yolk/eggs disturbs me. Perhaps I need to venture into the world of soft-boiled/over-easy/poached eggs to see what I’ve been missing.
    Thank you for the glimpse into your family.

    • kim place-gateau August 23, 2013 at 6:47 pm #

      Oh, the runny, warm, salty yolk is beyond delicious! Have you never tried it in pasta, or drizzled over asparagus? *swoon*

  2. Mark August 21, 2013 at 2:38 pm #

    I will have to try cooking them this way. I remember listening to an episode of america’s test kitchen radio and hearing this recipe. They just did a story on a nice technique for frying eggs on this week’s episode.