Monday, April 2, 2018

New and improved tea eggs

This is one of my husband's favorite snacks in the whole wide world. It's celebration food, comfort food, and his beloved eggs all rolled up in one. 

He will eat these from morning til night, and then get into them again at night if I don't watch him like a hawk. And so, I make these only on rare occasions because he just can't be trusted not to finish them off.

I often used to make a batch of these whenever we went down to Southern California to visit my mother-in-law. She was a terror on most days, but calmed down significantly if she got to munch on something tasty and, preferably, from her childhood. Tea eggs fit the bill perfectly. If a dozen managed to make the eight-hour trip down to her home (you can imagine how many I had to start out with), we would have a happy beginnings to our stay. 

The tasty factor
I've found a new and better way to make these, though, that gives me a softer, creamier center. The whites are tenderer this way, too. And when you think about it, this makes sense, for instead of boiling the bejeezus out of them, they are soaked in the marinade. In a ton of spices and herbs and other good things.

Tea eggs are as beautiful as they are delicious. Pasture-raised eggs tend to have a nicer flavor, more personality in the yolks, and whites that are almost sensual in texture. 

Use older eggs, if you can, as they peel easier, and smaller ones absorb the marinade down toward their yolks, which is always a good thing. For that reason, buy the eggs and set them out on a cool counter for a week or so to age them a bit. 

Prick the fat ends to release the air
Now, about that marinade. Most tea eggs turn out wishy-washy in color, with none of that deep crazing over the surface that tells you the aromas of cinnamon and soy sauce have worked their way down under the shell. When you do a repeated dip like here, the yolks get to stay cool and so not turn powdery, while the whites never have the chance to seize up. To get the flavorings down in there, I have to let you in on a few secrets:

First, you not only need plenty of seasonings in the form of the usual suspects—soy sauce, rice wine, warm spices—but you need to amplify them. And so, you’ll find a lot more of them than normal in the marinade here. But I’ve gone a step further by adding the oyster sauce. This adds a gentle richness and subtle scent of the ocean, and it works marvelously with everything else that’s going on in here.

Cradle them into the hot water
Second, you need tannins. That means lots of black tea. They will stain the eggs just like your shirt and your teeth, and for once this is something nice. Thanks to the tea, these eggs will look gorgeous.

And third, the secret most people aren't aware is even important when making tea eggs, is acid. The makes all the difference in the world when it comes to getting the egg whites to accept the marinade. For that reason you have Shaoxing rice wine leading the way, as well as a big handful of fresh orange peel, plus my secret weapon: orange juice and a lemon.

You might expect these eggs to taste rather citrusy as a result, but they don’t. The other seasonings tussle with the orange and lemon and vie for attention, so they mainly are there to provide the proper chemical reaction.

If only high school chemistry had been this delicious.

Creamy tea eggs
Your ice bath
Tángxīn cháyèdàn 溏心茶葉蛋
Makes 2 dozen

2 quarts | 2 liters water 
½ cup | 40 g black tea leaves
1 fresh peel from 1 large orange (remove the orange part only with a potato peeler)
1 stick cinnamon
3 star anise
1 teaspoon fennel
1 teaspoon Sichuan or black peppercorns
4 pieces dried licorice 
½ cup | 125 ml Shaoxing rice wine
A porcelain spoon works great here
4 slices fresh ginger
2 whole green onions
2 walnut-sized pieces rock sugar
¼ cup | 60 ml oyster sauce
¾ cup | 175 ml regular soy sauce
1 large orange, juiced
1 whole lemon

2 quart | 2 liters water 
2 dozen medium eggs at room temperature 
a large bowl of ice cubes and ice water

Try to make spiderweb patterns...
1. A couple of days before you plan to serve these, prepare the marinade by simmering all of the ingredients (except the orange juice and lemon) together for about 1 hour, or until the liquid has reduced by around 1 cup | 250 ml. Add the orange juice and lemon, and bring the marinade to a full boil before removing it from the heat.

2. Next, prepare the eggs: Bring the water to a full boil in a largish pan. Poke a small
hole in the round ends of the eggs and then slide them carefully into the water. Simmer for 7 minutes. Have a large bowl of ice cubes and ice water ready. 

... which will give you this
3. Slide the cooked eggs into the ice water to stop the cooking. When they are cold, lightly crack them all over with the back of a spoon. Bring the marinade to a boil and then add the eggs.

4. After a couple of hours, remove the eggs to a work bowl. Bring the marinade back to a full boil before returning the eggs to the pan. Remove from the heat and let the eggs completely cool down. Repeat this step four or five times, or until the eggs are as dark as you like them. Shell the eggs just before serving and cut them into wedges, if you like. The marinade can be reused.