My name is Karen Palmer, and I make eggs in purgatory over and over again. Perhaps you find that uninspired or even boring given the bounty of exotic ingredients at our fingertips these days. Headlines on food websites scream at us to be adventurous cooks (“The Persian Stew That Will Change Your Life,” “10 Ways With Vadouvan") and social media has made cooking into sport, where ridiculous flourishes like avocado roses win the gold medal. To play the game, you have to compete—even if it means shelling out $12 on an ingredient that will soon, no doubt, gather dust next to that bottle of pine syrup you haven’t touched in three years.
I’ll say it: There’s nothing wrong with repetition. In fact, it can be liberating. In the past year, repetition is what’s kept me going.
I’d taken a several-year hiatus from cooking. It used to be something I loved to do—the acts of slicing, chopping, and stirring are the closest I’ll probably ever come to meditation—but years of busy food media jobs had me running around San Francisco and New York City, checking out the next coolest, newest restaurants, that finding time to cook always seemed impossible. (I know, I know—poor me.)
It wasn’t until last summer, when I stepped off the digital media hamster wheel to go freelance that cooking became an important part of my life again. Suddenly, I had free time, and much of it was spent just steps away from my tiny kitchen. Small though it is, I found myself sidling up to my long-neglected stove making warm, nourishing lunches and dinners like slow-scrambled eggs, soupy beans and greens, and chicken thighs braised with olives and lemons.
During the slow days of freelance work, of which there can be many, cooking gave me a purpose, an assignment. The simple act of cooking and feeding myself gave me something to achieve—not to mention a little time to think while I stirred eggs or sauteed onions. Time to slow down and eat something good.
Baked eggs have always been a favorite brunch dish of mine to order at restaurants, but I was shocked at how wildly they varied from one place to another: the whites too runny at one, the yolks gummy and nearly solid at another. (The whole point of the dish is for the yolk to run into the sauce so you can sop it all up with good, crusty bread.)
When I realized that inconsistency is probably when I started tinkering. Eggs in purgatory is a deceptively easy dish to make, but can quickly go wrong if you're not paying attention. Knowing the exact moment to pull the eggs out of the oven (when they're still very jiggly) is key—and something you can really only tell by giving them a look and a good shake of the pan. I experimented with different oven temperatures, even once trying to cook them on the stovetop with a cover, but the tops of the eggs cooked too quickly. Once I nailed the baking time, I fiddled with the sauce, reducing it to just the right thickness for the eggs to nestle in perfectly. I played with how much caper juice to add, when and how to salt it. I tried adding white wine (too much acid), omitting the black pepper (too blah), and baking it in stainless steel (just didn’t look as pretty, quite frankly).
Making the dish over and over could be described as an obsession, but to me, I was like a baker perfecting the crumb on her sourdough, or a yoga teacher working his way to 10,000 hours. Repetition is what makes people (and dishes) great, sometimes even what makes them icons. And while I’ll probably never become the Mrs. Fields of eggs in purgatory, (although I wouldn’t mind that), at least I know I can make it really, really well.
In my career, I’d always been laser-focused on what was next, clawing my way up the editorial ladder, managing deadlines, other people, and my own ambition. Here, all I had to do was take the eggs out of the oven at the right time to feel like I’d done something good. I know that once I get my next job, I’ll hop right back on that hamster wheel. But for now, I'll be deciding what dish I’m going to perfect next.
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for serving
- 1 pinch chile flakes
- 1 small onion, diced
- Kosher salt, to taste
- 3 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
- 1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 1 tablespoon capers, plus 1 tablespoon of juice from the jar
- Freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
- 4 eggs
- 1/2 cup roughly chopped parsley, for garnish
- Parmesan cheese, for garnish
- Thick-cut toasted bread, for serving