The scotch egg needs no introduction – their English origins (they were created by Fortnum & Mason of Piccadilly in 1738), metropolitan modishness and comedy potential having already been thoroughly chewed over, digested, and the crumbs left out for the wasps on these pages. It's got to the point where one can judge a pub's level of culinary ambition by its attitude to scotch eggs.
As the jubilee hoves into view, they've been co-opted as a celebratory snack – presumably because us food writers played our coronation chicken card too early, and thus need something else to provide a patriotic counterpart to the usual modern British picnic fare of foccacia and Ottolenghi salads. The scotch egg, being robust, conveniently hand-sized, and utterly, ridiculously delicious, fits the bill nicely.
How times change. I still remember my surprise on encountering my first ever "proper" scotch egg at the age of 21 – having been put off the things by the rubbery tennis balls that passed as summer fare at school (with or without the greying reformed egg, depending on your relationship with the dinner lady in question), its shape perplexed me. The discovery of a real life egg inside seemed to elevate the thing to a piece of culinary cleverness of Heston-like proportions. (Thank goodness there's little chance of a child growing up in such criminal ignorance these days – if you don't fancy taking yours to the pub with you, it's your parental duty to make them a batch at home instead.)
Meat: sausagemeat and mince
The most important part of any scotch egg is, of course, the meat – even Ginsters can, presumably, boil an egg. Although I was deluged with weird and wonderful recipes for venison, smoked haddock and even vegetarian versions from Twitter egg-fanciers, in the interests of sanity I'm sticking with the classic pork variety.
The vast majority of recipes call for sausagemeat, but I find a few exceptions: Tom Norrington Davies uses semi-lean mince in Just Like Mother Used to Make, while the Ginger Pig Meat Book goes for a combination of mince and pork fat. (Pork fat is not, of course, readily available in supermarkets except in the form of lard, but my local butcher was willing to slice a snowy hunk from a piece of belly for me. For the sausagemeat, I used 97% meat stuff, as plainly flavoured as possible, to accommodate the herbs and spices used by the various chefs.)
Although they're easy to work with, I find the all-sausagemeat eggs from Angela Hartnett, Gary Rhodes and Heston Blumenthal greasy in comparison with Tom Norrington-Davies' slightly dry mincemeat version. Neither adjective is ideal, frankly – if you're deep frying pork, you can afford a certain amount of leanness, but the shell shouldn't crumble in the mouth.
The Ginger Pig version falls happily in the middle, the mince providing a pleasant meatiness, and the added fat keeping everything juicy while stopping short of being oily. However, mindful of the difficulties those without an obliging local butcher will face in obtaining the fat, I experiment with a mix of sausagemeat and mince, and find I actually like it more – the two seem to combine more easily, and are easier to shape.
Heston runs his sausagemeat through a food processor, which gives it an unnervingly smooth texture and turns it into something horribly reminiscent of the "pink slime" so derided by Jamie Oliver on his recent visit to the US. I like my meat to put up more of a fight. (The food processor also contravenes my official policy on unnecessary washing up.)
Eggs: a running yolk
Although cutting into a soft-boiled yolk is one of life's simplest pleasures, I prefer my scotch eggs a little more robust – particularly if they're destined for the picnic basket, rather than to be enjoyed fresh from the fryer (if that's not a contradiction in terms). Angela Hartnett and Gary Rhodes' eggs, put into boiling water for seven minutes, are both a little liquid for my taste, and Heston's is even worse. (Given his pan of eggs is whipped from the heat as soon as it comes to the boil, and left to stand for a measly three minutes before draining, I'm just relieved they don't dissolve in my hands as I'm peeling.)
Times for eggs put into cold water and brought to the boil, which I find helps to prevent cracking, vary from four minutes (Tom Norrington Davies) to six from the Ginger Pig. I'm going for five, to keep the yolk velvety soft, yet solid enough not to drip on the rug. Once they're drained, putting them into iced water, à la Heston, rather than simply running them under the tap like Tom, seems the most effective way to arrest the cooking process.
I find rolling the eggs in a little flour before wrapping them, as Angela Hartnett suggests, helps the sausage mixture to cling better – and, although the tactile approach of the Ginger Pig is more fun (roll your sausagemeat into a ball, poke a hole with your thumb, then stick the egg inside) rolling it out between two sheets of clingfilm, in obedience to Gary Rhodes, does give a more even thickness.
Diluting the egg coating with a splash of milk is a helpful tip from Heston to give it a more even consistency – fewer stringy bits of white dangling off into the breadcrumbs – although chilling the sausagemeat balls before crumbing doesn't seem necessary, as none of the eggs so much as threatens to fall apart. (Actually, there's always one – but no amount of chilling could have helped Lorraine Pascale's egg, of which more later.)
A well-made scotch egg should be a crisp, golden orb of beauty – which is why the crumb is so important. The much-lauded Handmade Scotch Egg company reckons they've got to be fresh bread rather than dried but I'm a sucker for Japanese panko breadcrumbs, as recommended by the Ginger Pig – not traditional, perhaps, but they give a far crisper crumb, which can't be argued with in my opinion. And who could quibble with Gary Rhodes' double dip – an extra thick layer of crunch for your buck, and economically topical to boot.
The Ship, the Wandsworth pub which takes its scotch eggs seriously enough to organise an annual competition, fries finely diced carrot, onion, celery and leek to add to the meat, rather as if they were making a stew rather than a scotch egg. I can't really taste them in the finished product to be honest, and the same goes for Gary's shallot.
Angela Hartnett suggests adding garlic and thyme, giving the eggs an oddly Mediterranean air – which seems almost classic next to Heston's smoked paprika and American mustard hot dog of an egg. Tom Norrington Davies' lemon zest doesn't float my boat either – I'm going to stick to traditional pairings like sage, mace and mustard – but I do like the fresh herbs he includes, which give the sausagemeat a spuriously bright and wholesome look.
Lorraine Pascale flavours the flour and the crumb rather than the meat, which seems rather pointless, given the relative quantities involved: I certainly can't detect her mustard powder and thyme in the finished article.
There's little quibbling here – everyone deep fries their eggs, except the lovely Lorraine Pascale, who prefers to bake them. I'm quite excited by this, until I peep into the oven and discover that not only are they not "golden brown" after 25 minutes, but the still-pallid meat has begun to slide from the egg, leaving it horribly overcooked. Some things are simply designed to be an occasional, artery-scorning treat. (Lorraine does admit that she often buys scotch eggs at petrol stations, so perhaps our expectations differ.)
Both the Ship and Heston pop their eggs into the oven after frying, but as long as you control the heat of your fryer, this shouldn't be necessary – you can cook the meat right through without harming the egg.
Perfect scotch eggs
Whatever you're celebrating this weekend, a scotch egg will do you proud (vegetarians, if any of you are still reading, check out this recipe). Pulchritudinous, portable, and eminently patriotic, it's the best thing never to come out of Scotland.
6 eggs200g plain sausagemeat200g pork mince3 tbsp chopped mixed herbs (I like chives, sage, parsley and thyme)A pinch of ground mace1 tbsp English mustardSplash of milk50g flour100g panko breadcrumbsVegetable oil, to cook
1. Put four of the eggs into a pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Turn down the heat and simmer for five minutes, then put straight into a large bowl of iced water for at least 10 minutes.2. Put the meat, herbs, mace and mustard into a bowl, season and mix well with your hands. Divide into four.3. Carefully peel the eggs. Beat the two raw eggs together in a bowl with a splash of milk. Put the flour in a second bowl and season, then tip the breadcrumbs into a third bowl. Arrange in an assembly line.
4. Put a square of clingfilm on the worksurface, and flour lightly. Put one of the meatballs in the centre, and flour lightly, then put another square of cling film on top. Roll out the meat until large enough to encase an egg and remove the top sheet of clingfilm.
5. To assemble the egg, roll one peeled egg in flour, then put in the centre of the meat. Bring up the sides of the film to encase it, and smooth it into an egg shape with your hands. Dip each egg in flour, then egg, then breadcrumbs, then egg and then breadcrumbs.
6. Fill a large pan a third full of vegetable oil, and heat to 170C (or when a crumb of bread sizzles and turns golden, but does not burn, when dropped in it). Cook the eggs a couple at a time, for seven minutes, until crisp and golden, then drain on kitchen paper before serving.
What's your favourite variety of scotch egg – and has anyone come up with a decent vegetarian alternative? And which other perfect picnic foods will you be indulging in this weekend?
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