The One Dish I Never Get Tired of Making

June  9, 2017

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.

Photo by Bobbi Lin

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.)

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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.

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Top Comment:
“I preferred laying fried eggs on top of the heated sauce, in a shallow soup bowl. Much easier, and more control of egg doneness! I had enough for leftovers for me and my husband for a couple more breakfasts , repeating with fried eggs. Nice topped with feta! Great way to get veggies in the morning! Will make regularly! ”
— Anonymous

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.

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Karen Palmer

Written by: Karen Palmer


Liz |. June 21, 2017
One of the most seasonally adaptable recipes I make. I like to add Swiss chard and spinach.
Pisanella June 20, 2017
My kinda food! I made this the other evening when we were starving but couldn't be bothered, if you know what I mean! Delicious.
Daniel B. June 19, 2017
A minute to learn, a lifetime to master. The othello of food. As a brunch hump, this is kinda plain. Keep on
Francesca C. June 19, 2017
This is such a comforting narrative. Cheers to repetition.
KarenLee53 June 18, 2017
I agree with you Nancy Studebaker. I tend to over cook the eggs 🍳 if left to cook in the sauce.
Anonymous June 18, 2017
Absolutely love this.

I preferred laying fried eggs on top of the heated sauce, in a shallow soup bowl. Much easier, and more control of egg doneness! I had enough for leftovers for me and my husband for a couple more breakfasts , repeating with fried eggs. Nice topped with feta! Great way to get veggies in the morning! Will make regularly!
CFrance June 18, 2017
Ooh, great idea, Nancy Studebaker! And the feta too. I have an electric egg poacher that works like a charm. Thanks--you've given me a good idea, and no need to use the oven.
X June 18, 2017
For anyone else out there who doesn't eat raw/undercooked eggs, I've made this dish many times with the eggs cooked well and it's always delicious. I've even thrown whole hard boiled eggs in on occasion and it was different, but also very good.
CFrance June 18, 2017
Oh, how I love that cast-iron pan with the etching and the three holes. Does anyone know what brand that is?
Kelownamom June 18, 2017
I get an ad for it below the recipe, says it's a Smithey cast iron skillet.
Catie B. June 18, 2017
That's interesting because there is nothing on my page of any kind of identification or ad.
I have a small oven, only 15 1/2 inches deep and wide. I've been looking for cast iron pan that I can lift, with short handles so it will fit in the oven. Has anyone seen an equivalent of the "every day pan", that one can find in stainless steel or nonstick, with a small handle on each side that would fit in an oven?
CFrance June 19, 2017
I have one of those in copper with a nickel lining, made by Mauviel. It has small handles on each side. They come in different sizes. They're not cheap. Zabar's used to carry them, but I think they don't anymore. But Sur La Table has a Le Creuset smaller nonstick braiser with two handles.
CFrance June 19, 2017
I'm sorry; you meant cast iron. Staub has them. Also, I saw a 9" oval one on eBay. But Google "cast iron two handles" and see what you come up with.
[email protected] June 18, 2017
Have you never heard of "Shakshuka?" Many variations , but essentially the same. Try a a spoon of paprika and a bit of toasted cumin seed. Yummy!
Cleowhiskey June 11, 2017
Isn't this another variation on Shakshuka--with a Christian name--which has been showing up all over the place, lately?
mia June 11, 2017
The name comes from a traditional italian dish (uova al purgatorio) that, like the author says, has tons of regional variations, much like Shakshuka which shows up all over the middle east and northern Africa. My Italian mom would make a very simple version of this for us as kids and I agree that it's a perfect back pocket recipe for breakfast or dinner
Cleowhiskey June 13, 2017
The contact between Northern African and Southern Italy must have yielded this overlap. It's quite a global dish. (Take that, Theresa May.)
Nico R. June 18, 2017

Did you see that Timewatch programme the other week? Spicing Up Britain, I think it was called. All about the food that immigrants brought to Britain, and they made a point of saying that immigrants have done more for the British culinary tradition than anyone else. I bet all the nationalists love to have a rant while drinking their foreign lager, and eating their pizza or kebab, or curry!

(Apologies for the threadjack!)