Symmetry Breakfast by Michael Zee, powerHouse Books, 2016
See if there is any bacon, and if there is, ask the cook which pan to fry it in. Then ask if there are any eggs and if so, try and persuade the cook to poach two of them. It is better not to attempt toast, as it burns very easily.
Michael Zee takes (and in this book, records) a much more hands-on approach to breakfast.
Moved by love, curiosity, and an admirable sense of order, Zee gives the morning meal more attention than it is usually afforded. He is not about to serve a marginal muffin or grab a paper cup of coffee on the way to work.
This is an approach I appreciate. If I get up early, it’s to move through the quiet and make a nice warm meal, not to blow-dry my hair and paint on eyeliner (though I do spend a bit of time on that sort of thing). Even better is is to share that meal with a partner. And sometimes, if the light is right, the meal is good, and the plates are perfect, to take a picture of it.
Basically, that’s the premise of Zee’s book, times 100. It grew from a series of Instagram posts and the symmetry comes from his arrangement of plates and cups for photography–on an axis, shot from above. But there’s also a symmetry in the couple he’s part of, and the regular cooking and presenting of a morning meal.
The concept has life because Zee never serves Lucky Charms (which he’s tried but doesn’t like). Instead, his curiosity leads him to breakfast tables around the world, here grouped by intuition–a chapter called Keep It Simple groups Mexico, the Southern US, and Canada, on the theory that simple things like beans and fried chicken are among the hardest to get right.
On a bolder morning, you might turn to recipes from Thailand, India, and Myanmar in the Sweet, Sour and Spice chapter. Zee’s goal is to wean you from the familiar blanket of chewy muesli in favor of puffy Idli rice pancakes and a milky spiced Masala Chai or Thai grilled pork skewers with a chili dipping sauce. As I said, on a bolder morning.
And there’s nothing wrong with dinner’s leftovers for the next day’s breakfast, though none of the American slacker’s cold pizza for Zee. He suggests Ethiopian stews–Doro Wat and Mesir Wat, served with spongy injera bread.
He sees breakfast as a matter of identity–are you coffee or tea? Borek or spanakopita, blintzes or pancakes. Seeing they differences in something as seemingly simple as breakfast is what makes cooking and eating fun. That Zee shares his table with us makes it even more fun.
Courtesy of the author, here’s a recipe:
PASTEL DE NATA EGG CUSTARD TARTS
Makes 12 tarts
1 pack ready–rolled puff pastry (13.8 oz is standard in most supermarkets)
1 whole egg
2 egg yolks
2⁄3 cup superfine sugar
2 tbsp cornflour
1 2⁄3 cups whole milk
Zest of 1⁄2 lemon
Take the pastry out of the fridge and packaging at least 30 minutes before unrolling.
In a cold pan, place the egg and egg yolks, sugar, and cornflour, and mix until combined. Pour in the milk and gently whisk until you have a smooth liquid.
Place the pan on a medium–low heat whilst continuing to whisk. The secret to smooth custard is to take your time; if the heat is too high you risk making scrambled eggs. Once it starts to thicken you can turn theheat up very slightly and continue to stir for another 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and add the lemon zest. The custard should have a thick yet pourable consistency. Pour the custard into a glass bowl and cover with cling film to prevent a skin from forming.
Preheat your oven to 425°F.
Unroll the pastry and remove the plastic. Cut it in half lengthways and place the sheets on top of each other. With the long side facing you, roll the pastry tightly into a long sausage and cut it into 12 discs. Place each disc in a lightly greased muffin tin. Dip your thumbs into some water and press into the middle of each round. You want to flatten the bottom and push the pastry up the edges. It is OK if the edges come up a little above the tin.
Divide the cooled custard between the 12 pastry cases and bake for 20–25 minutes. You want the tops of the tarts to be burnished with black spots and the insides still to be soft, with a little wobble. Leave the nata to cool and enjoy them like the Portuguese do, with a small coffee –um pingo (espresso with a touch of milk) – and eat with a teaspoon. That way it seems to last longer.