Saturday, April 13, 2013

Slow Your Melt: The Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich

When I pictured my post-graduate life while I was still in college, I saw bagels.

The scenario was simple, but played out rather vividly for a girl who was still not entirely sure what she wanted to be when she grew up other than rich and ten pounds skinnier. In my head, I was living by the beach in Santa Monica in a coral Spanish-style duplex and walking down the street to get a bagel and coffee before work.

I never knew the specifics of what this work was (aside from it being the type of career that would make an ocean-adjacent walk-up financially feasible), but I was always wearing something fabulous as I strolled through the dense early morning fog, the world around me still groggy.

It seemed a very adult thing to do -- part of some fantastical visage of what it meant to be independent and free to make decisions like what kind of yogurt to buy at the grocery store and when to go to bed at night. As a competitive cross-country runner and compulsive reader of every book assigned to me (ie. a nerd), I'd resigned myself to a fairly structured life in college.

While I loved my years at Northwestern, there were times when I resented the rigidity of my schedule -- the 6:30 a.m. workouts, the Chai-flavored Luna Bar I would scarf as I rushed, hair still damp, to make it to a 9:30 a.m. history class on the other side of campus.

I longed for an existence where I made the rules. Where I could wake up and not have to immediately launch out of bed to go for a run. Where I could leisurely take a shower (or not) and nonchalantly go about my day without wondering how the amount of sleep I'd gotten the night before would impact my next race, or how I was going to finish my 15-page term paper on the Brazilian coffee trade before I left for Indiana that weekend to compete.

Bagels signified freedom to me -- the ability to do what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it. Which is really the whole point of growing up to begin with. Aside from, you know, being rich and well-dressed and in charge of selecting the fancy organic vanilla yogurt from Whole Foods.

It never occurred to me that perhaps the rigidity of my collegiate life wasn't so much the product of external factors -- my cross-country races and class syllabus -- but rather because of my personality and innate desire to have structure. I secretly craved the stability of a schedule, and despite my wildest fantasies of creating a more fluid lifestyle for myself when I graduated, I ultimately found myself clinging to the same sort of routines in my working life that I'd considered so imprisoning during my years at Northwestern.

Faced with 10+ hour days at the office, I went to sleep at a reasonable hour, peeled myself from bed at 6:00 a.m. to workout before work, and began eating oatmeal to tide me over until lunch, rarely indulging in something less responsible like the sugar-saturated Vanilla Almond Crunch I craved much less that hypothetical bagel and coffee.

While it's been nearly eight years since I've graduated college, I've only gone out for breakfast twice before work. The first time because I needed to kill an hour after dropping my brother off at LAX, and the second time because I fractured my finger.

When I collided finger-first into the pavement five weeks ago, I had no idea how completely it would alter the minutiae of my daily life, shattering many of the routines I'd so assiduously created for myself. Out of necessity, I was forced to slow down. To walk to the gym instead of running there. To skip workouts. To take longer showers. To type out my email responses to friends with one hand.

Two weeks ago, I woke up and decided, rather spontaneously, to walk to Joan's on Third, my favorite local cafe, for breakfast. I ordered a NY Breakfast Sandwich with eggs, bacon and jack cheese; and a pot of Jasmine tea -- my grown up version of a nutritionally suspect bagel and coffee -- and sat at the communal table to take a moment to live outside of my standard set schedule.

I read the paper, actually turning to page 7A to finish the rest of the story. I savored the crunch of the toasted white bread as it gave way to the pillowy eggs and melted cheese, slicked with residual grease from the well-rendered bacon. And I inhaled the aroma of the awakening cafe -- the cooks  lining up veggie and quinoa salads in the display case in preparation for the lunch rush, the expressive silver-haired man sipping his black coffee and carefully cutting his plain omelet into precise bites, the soundtrack of sizzling butter hitting the hot grill.

Leaving Joan's a half hour later, I spotted two girls walking down the street in Lululemon pants, a telltale sign that they had just finished a workout at the Bar Method studio down the block. The irony wasn't lost on me -- if my finger hadn't been broken, if I hadn't been forced to pause, I would have been working out with them rather than enjoying a leisurely self-indulgent breakfast.

This recipe, inspired by that NY Breakfast Sandwich at Joan's, is perfected through patience. While grilled cheese-style sandwiches are usually thought of as a quick meal, here, the key is slowing down. Gradually cooking the bacon until perfectly rendered, and studiously grilling each side of the sandwich until the cheese oozes over the edges of the egg and the bread is evenly browned and crisp.

The result is everything you imagined it to be in all your wildest dreams.

With or without a cup of coffee.

Egg, Bacon and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich
Inspired by the NY Breakfast Sandwich at Joan's on Third in Los Angeles
Makes 2 large halves (ie. this makes a big sandwich that is shareable between two people)

4 slices of thick-cut bacon (Yes, four)
2 extra large eggs
1 tablespoon milk
Salt, pepper
2 tablespoons butter, softened (you may not need it all)
2 ounces white cheddar (or jack) cheese, grated
2 thick, large slices of bakery-style sourdough bread
Hot sauce, for serving (optional)

Place bacon strips in a large nonstick pan. Turn on the heat and slowly begin cooking the bacon over low heat. When the edges start to curl up from the pan, use a fork or pair of tongs to turn the bacon and start cooking the other side. Continue turning the bacon as it cooks so that each side browns evenly. Once all the bacon is well-rendered, remove from the pan and set on a paper towel lined plate to cool and crisp up.

Crack eggs in a large bowl. Add the milk, salt and pepper to taste, and whisk together until the yolks and whites are combined.

Heat a cast iron or nonstick pan over medium heat. Add a teaspoon or so of butter, swirling to coat the base of the pan. Once the butter begins to foam and bubble, add the eggs and let sit for a minute or so. Using a spatula, gently push the edge toward the center of the pan, letting the runny egg run out to cook, then fold the eggs into a somewhat neat package, approximately the same shape as your bread. Flip over to ensure the eggs are cooked through, and then remove from the heat.

Lay the four strips of bacon on one piece of the bread. Top with the egg, then sprinkle with the grated cheddar or jack cheese (grating the cheese melts better than slices). Finish with the other piece of bread, spreading a thin layer of butter over the exterior of the bread.

Heat the clean large nonstick pan (perhaps the one you used to cook the bacon or eggs) over low to medium-low heat. Carefully place the sandwich, butter side down, in the middle of the pan. Butter the top slice of bread while the other side cooks slowly for 5-10 minutes until it achieves a deep golden brown crispy exterior. Use a large spatula to gingerly flip the sandwich over to cook the other side, again for another 5-10 minutes. Briefly flip the sandwich back to the other side to reheat for 30 seconds and then remove from the pan. Slice in half and serve immediately with optional hot sauce.

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