Hard or soft boiled? What about hard steamed? Coarsely chopped or mashed with a fork? Mayonnaise or mustard – or both? White or brown bread? The beauty of the classic sandwich-filler ‘lies in its simplicity’
If it’s true you only regret the things you don’t do (thanks, Sporty Spice), I’m looking forward to a fair few spectral egg mayonnaise sandwiches flitting accusingly above my deathbed. Thanks to a combination of infantile egg-related squeamishness and a (continuing and, I believe, righteous) dislike of vinegary long-life mayonnaise, I didn’t taste one until the age of 25. (I know. So many wasted opportunities.)
I’ve made up for it since: with the true zeal of a convert, I now believe egg mayonnaise to be one of the great sandwich fillings of all time. Creamily comforting, but substantial enough to satisfy, soft and rich without being cloying, with an old-fashioned subtlety of flavour, it’s a simple, but nevertheless profound pleasure.
Give me egg mayonnaise over avocado and chipotle chickpea wrap, or a southern-fried chicken sub any day of the week – as Gary Rhodes observes: “[it’s] one of the most popular features of afternoon tea … maybe because it’s one of those fillings we rarely make at home”. Which is a shame, because, although I’ve never come across a – passingly fresh – egg mayonnaise sandwich I didn’t like, I have to say, they’re even better when they’re homemade.
Most recipes call for hard-boiled eggs, or, in the case of J Kenji-López-Alt, hard-steamed, a method he believes cooks them more evenly, and with less risk of cracking, than boiling. I can’t tell the difference if I’m honest, but it does make life a bit easier if you’re knocking up a job lot. Cooling them down quickly in cold water, as just about everyone suggests, is a must, however – not only does it stop the eggs overcooking, it also makes them easier to peel.
In Rhodes’s New British Classics, he suggests that an egg sandwich made with soft-boiled eggs has no need for mayonnaise: “The creamy yolk will be enough.” He’s right, and it’s as delicious as a well-seasoned egg always is with soft, thinly cut bread, but I miss the creaminess of the mayo. I will, however, be cooking mine a little softer than truly hard-boiled, to avoid any powderiness of texture and to allow the squidgy centre of the yolk to mingle with the mayonnaise.
Coarsely chopping, a la Martha Stewart, would seem the obvious method to deploy here, but, in fact, this turns out to be a needless faff; you could use a fork, as Rhodes suggests, “to break down the whites, mixing them with the yolks”, but easiest and most satisfying of all is to use your hands. As Kenji-López-Alt observes, these “are gentler than the hard wires of a whisk, allowing you to break down the yolks without over-crushing the whites. You end up with an egg salad that has nice big bites of egg white, all bound together in a rich, creamy mash of yolks and mayonnaise.” And it’s surprisingly fun.
If you lack either mayonnaise or the ingredients to make it, and you’re set on an egg sandwich, then soft boil the eggs and lightly butter your bread, as Rhodes suggests, and you’ll just about get away with it. But I don’t recommend this course of action – the assertively eggy flavour makes it feel more like a breakfast to go. For me, thanks to my aforementioned antipathy to the bought stuff, homemade mayonnaise is the only way to go, but I realise not everyone is thus afflicted, so I leave the choice up to you, though I’d suggest avoiding anything made with an assertive olive or rapeseed oil; the flavour should be fairly neutral to allow the boiled eggs to shine. Chow.com (now chowhound.com) rejects mayonnaise entirely, instead mashing the egg yolks with red wine vinegar and olive oil to make a paste. This, though nice enough, again lacks the requisite creaminess for an egg mayonnaise sandwich.
The British don’t like to mess about with their egg mayonnaise too much; as Helen Graves, author of 101 Sandwiches and the London Review of Sandwiches blog, observes: “The beauty lies in the simplicity.” In the US, however, it’s a different story; it’s called egg salad over there for a reason – eggs are just one ingredient of many.
Kenji-López-Alt and Stewart both include finely chopped celery, which seems to be fairly canonical in the States. I like the crunch it adds, but the flavour is too harsh – in fact, I prefer the crunch of the radishes that the former remains loyal to in defiance of his taste testers, though as I fear revolt in the British ranks, these are definitely an optional extra. I don’t like his spring onions though, which overpower the egg completely. Graves’s chives supply “all the allium twang necessary without the squeak of onion”.
Chowhound, aiming for a cross between an egg salad and a sauce gribiche, stirs chopped parsley, tarragon and chervil into the mix, as well as cornichons and capers. These all work brilliantly with egg, and would cut through the richness of the mayonnaise perfectly, if that’s what you’re after, but the flavours are too strong to be properly soothing. Rhodes’s cress, however, adds a pleasingly peppery note – and makes me feel nostalgic for the days of growing the stuff in painstakingly decorated eggshells.
Most recipes add a dash of acidity, too; lemon juice and zest for Kenji-López-Alt (a combination that doesn’t sit well with egg for me), red wine vinegar for Chowhound, and hot sauce for Stewart, while Graves reckons the secret of her egg mayonnaise (which is, indeed, very fine) is the dash of malt vinegar, a trick she stole from St John restaurant– “and what could be more British”? Continental heresy or not, I prefer the subtler tang of the Dijon mustard used by Stewart and Chowhound, which I think works better with the richness of the mayonnaise.
I’m with Graves that it ought to be soft, and preferably white – like her, I love the chewiness of sourdough, but admit that here it would overwhelm its deliciously squidgy, delicately flavoured filling. Whether you cut the crusts off, as they do at Buckingham Palace, or leave them on, as we do in my proletarian household, is entirely up to you; just make sure you make enough, because, somehow, there’s always room for just one more sandwich.
Felicity Cloake’s perfect egg mayonnaise sandwich
(Makes eight small sandwiches)
3 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 tbsp chopped chives
2 radishes, finely chopped (optional)
4 tbsp cress
4 slices of soft white bread
Put the eggs into a small pan and just cover with cold water. Cover the pan and bring to the boil, then immediately remove the lid and turn the heat down so the surface barely shivers. Cook for six minutes.
Drain and cool the eggs under running water or in a large bowl of cold water until cold to the touch. Roll against a hard surface to peel, then squidge between your fingers into a bowl, or use a fork to roughly mash. Stir in the mayonnaise and mustard, then season to taste. The mixture will keep in the fridge for three days.
Mix in the chopped chives and radish if using, then divide the mixture between two slices of bread. Top with the cress, then the remaining bread. Cut off the crusts, if that’s your thing. Devour.
Egg mayonnaise: the king of simple sandwiches, or a malodorous abomination best avoided at the buffet? Are the British egg mayo and American egg salad divided by more than mere miles – and what else do you do with it apart from stick it between two slices of bread?
This article was written by Felicity Cloake, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th September 2015 12.27 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010