In 2012 a young British chef called Oliver Dabbous opened his first, eponymous restaurant on an unremarkable corner in the West End of London. Within months it was the hottest ticket in town, with a waiting list as long as the restaurant was small. The dish at the eye of the Dabbous storm was his version of coddled egg, which he cooked with cream, smoked butter and mushrooms, and served in a nest of hay. I was lucky enough to try it, and it was an entirely memorable experience: “like,” I said in this piece for Intelligent Life, “being punched by fungi while sitting next to a smoky fire.”
Two years on, Dabbous has produced his first cookbook. It’s a huge, industrial-looking thing, printed on pale grey paper and filled with recipes for the chef’s best-known dishes. The coddled egg is pictured on page 155. White ceramic bowl, tawny woven hay, crocus-yellow yolk: it is an essay in perfection.
When Dabbous cooks it, that is. Me—not so much. Earlier this month I took the cookbook home, thrilled by the thought of recreating the “contrapuntal hymn to lipids” in my own kitchen. The instructions were mostly precise—borderline officious, in fact—and I’d had a few tips from the chef himself when I reviewed the dish, so I was reasonably confident of success. But an immediate problem was the ingredients. Tesco does not sell smoked butter. Dabbous says he gets his from Caithness; I resorted to Amazon, which listed a couple of mail-order suppliers. The first packet got returned to the sorting office because I was “out” (lies! I was in all day!); by the time I could collect it, it had gone a bit suspicious-smelling, so I ordered a second pack. Once this turned up, there was the hay. I don’t own horses, nor any rabbits, so had to improvise. After a quick trip to the end of the garden, I had a couple of handfuls of leftover lawn-mowings to play with.
The mechanics are not much easier. Dabbous instructs you to use something called an “egg topper” to slice the top off your eggshells. If I’d had to source an egg topper as well as the hay and smoked butter you wouldn’t have got to read this until well into the New Year, so instead I scored a rather wobbly line into the shells with a small, sharp knife, then cracked the tops off in pieces. It didn’t look bad exactly, but lacked a certain razor-edge precision.
The eggs’ insides went into the top half of a bain marie, their shells into a pan of boiling salted water to sterilise them. This, according to Dabbous, must be “3% salinity”. After some extensive Googling and probably faulty maths, I reckoned this was the equivalent of a rough teaspoon of salt in a litre of water. Next, the mushrooms, those silky slivers of intense fungicity that are at the heart of the Dabbous coddle. He tells you to cut them into thin slices, though not how thin, and fry in foaming smoked butter over a medium heat for at least 20 minutes, until they are “golden, crisp and completely dehydrated”. Timer, gentle heat and careful stirring notwithstanding, after 20 minutes the smoked butter had gone black and spotty, the mushrooms were not so much crisp as cindery, and the nice woodland smell in the kitchen had turned worryingly bitter.
It’s at moments like this that you realise just how much of cooking is in the detail. My pan was probably too big for the amount of mushrooms I had in it; perhaps the slivers needed to fry in a deep lake of butter, not a skinny slick. Whatever—the fault was mine, I’m sure. Being told to use green and brown paint and small brushstrokes would not help most of us paint the "Mona Lisa".
From here on it was a rapid glissade downhill. In a panic I added all of the whipping cream to the egg before cooking instead of half, as instructed; perhaps that’s why the egg didn’t thicken smoothly, but went in a blink from runny-watery to semi-curdled and distinctly lumpy. Worse, adding the blackened mushrooms to the mixture turned it from an appealing sunny yellow to the sickly taupe of a pot of Kelly Hoppen paint. The final beating in of smoked butter didn’t help; now there were tiny globules of orange fat staring at me from the saucepan. By this time stirring in chopped chives seemed a pointless gesture, but I did it anyway. Finally, my heart sunk to truly titanic depths, I spooned the mix into the prepped shells, and stood them in their greeny-browny, slightly smelly nests. It looked like I’d opened a tin of cream-of-mushroom soup, burnt it, poured it into a broken eggshell and then left the lot on the compost heap.
And that’s pretty much how it tasted, too: a bit rank, a bit bland, a bit oily, with a whiff of charcoal about the disconcertingly chewy mushroom shreds. Next time I fancy coddled egg, I’ll ring the restaurant and get in line. Even with a three-month wait, it has to be easier than Dabbous-ing it yourself.