Making a good omelette is a simple joy that has been eluding me for many years. I never seem to have enough patience to leave well enough alone and usually end up with an overcooked jumble of scrambled eggs. Eventually, it became so dire that I thought that only the most experienced chefs must know the secret and almost gave up altogether.
But then, while watching one of my favourite foodie films, Big Night (1996) I discovered a clue. This comic drama unfolds as two Italian brothers prepare the most wonderful multi-course meal for, among others, the beautiful Isabella Rossellini (who eats it all) and Louis Prima who of course never arrives.
The highlights of this meal-of-a lifetime is a groaning platter of risotto in contrasting colours and a giant pie filled with layers of pork sausage, tomato sauce, pasta and hard boiled eggs. This marvel is called timpani (the Italian for ‘drum’) because of its generous shape. And in this way, a legendary dish entered the public realm, beguiling food-lovers ever since. So much so that co-director and writer Stanley Tucci named his production company after it.
But my favourite scene takes place the following morning, when – penniless, heartbroken and betrayed – the brothers share the simplest of omelettes, cooking it while jiggling the pan over the flame to make it puff up. Life goes on, so we may as well eat an omelette.
My childhood friend Katherine, who lives in the South of France, tells me that in her neck of the woods, even if the kitchen is closed, one can almost always get an omelette, accompanied by some excellent green beans or a similar dish of seasonal vegetables. I must say, I find it marvellously comforting to think that one can rely on getting an omelette when you most need it.
My favourite food writer Elizabeth David knew this most of all. In the essay An Omelette and a Glass of Wine (which would also become the title of her collection of best known food writings) she describes a legendary pre-World War I restaurant in Normandy that was famous for its omelettes. As the years went by diners speculated on the proprietor Madame Poulard’s secret, becoming more and more elaborate, one citing cream, another foie gras. At last, in 1932, someone wrote to her and she replied as follows:
“Here is the recipe for the omelette: I break some good eggs into a bowl, I beat them well, I put a good piece of butter in the pan, I throw the eggs into it, and I shake it constantly. I am happy, monsieur, if this recipe pleases you.”
There you have it. The last piece to fall into place was finding a copper pan. I was quite taken aback when I realised that because copper is such an excellent conductor of heat, the result was a thin, fluffy and almost perfect omelette. In fact, I would venture so far as to say that don’t even bother making an omelette in any other pan except copper or of the good non-stick variety. I also find that cooking with gas also makes the world of difference as it becomes easier to control the heat. You can then choose the right moment -– when the eggs are unctuous but not overcooked – to tip your omelette onto your plate, which has been warmed, ready and waiting.
After trying it a few times I realised that it’s all down to the jiggle, which I saw Stanley Tucci do in Big Night, but only fully understood once I had tried it for myself. This involves purposefully yet not too vociferously jiggling the pan backwards and forwards while keeping it on the flame, as described in my recipe below. The last, and most important ingredient, is butter. Make sure you use enough of it and never opt for margarine or olive oil. It may have become a cliché but everyone knows Butter Is Always Best.
Omelette with brie and chilli & tomato jam
Bring half a wedge of brie to room temperature before you begin. Cut into long, thin slices and coarsely chop about a handful of fresh coriander leaves or the same amount of flat leafed parsley.
Preheat a copper pan on medium heat. If you like a bit of a bite, finely chop half or a quarter of a small red chilli, removing all the seeds and white membranes. Or use 2 tablespoons of tomato and chilli jam if you prefer a milder flavour. For a step-by step recipe follow this link to Yuppiechef
Turn the heat down to low. Crack three large free-range eggs into a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisking briskly with 4 teaspoons of cold water to combine. Add a dash of white pepper and fine salt.
Melt a generous knob of salted butter (about 2 tablespoons) in the pan. Swirl to coat the whole pan, including the edges. Then, working quickly, pour in the eggs while keeping the pan on the flame and jiggling the pan backwards and forwards by the handle. Keep doing this for about 20 seconds until lava-like folds start to appear. Now, the bottom of the omelette should be nice and loose. When the top is wobbly but barely set, lay the slices of cheese on one half of the omelette and sprinkle with the chilli and coriander. Then tilt the pan so that the unfilled half gently flops over onto the filled half. Continue cooking gently for a minute or two. Then gently nudge your perfect omelette onto a plate and enjoy, with a glass of wine of course.
For further inspiration, read this article in Bon Appétit magazine: My First Perfect Omelet