I felt while writing this that it was somehow an indulgence, and I’m not sure I ought to post it, but all the cool kids are doing it, so here I go.
It’s cooled on the stovetop all morning in its glass pie plate. The custard is firmer now than when it was hot, and butter no longer bubbles between the crust and the glass rim of the pie pan. The edges of the pastry, roughly crimped and pale gold, rise a centimetre above the mottled gold surface of the filling. The humps of crust are cracking and crumbling inward – light pressure from a finger snaps off a little mountain, like the division of a Toblerone bar, and sends it to rest on the yellow floor which it has failed as a battlement. A few leaves of spinach and the dark corners of mushroom slices surface to punctuate its shiny, uneven veneer, and a few bubbles have baked into permanent craters around them.
The first slice comes out cleanly, trailing only a few threads of caramelized onion, clinging to the mothercrust. A thirty-degree wedge sits now on a chipped white stoneware plate, surrounded by crumbs of defeated pastry – crimping, while pretty, turns out to be unable to withstand even an arm’s-length journey without some trauma. A few vegetables spill out of the off-white interior of the custard, and the dark, thin crust beneath holds its shape, denying the sunken ones escape by underpass. The aroma, now that the slice is cut, is first of onion – beneath the eggy cap of this pie lies a deep bed of alliums so darkly caramelized that they resemble shoelaces in toffee. Then comes egg’s distinctively rich and protinaceous tang, followed by salt and cheese. To be honest, the aura is more of dairy than any specific milk product. Crowding the bright, local eggs out of the spotlight in this slice of quiche is a lactic army fronted by cream cheese and backed up with milk, cheddar, Jarlsberg, sour and whipping cream and butter, and they render the mixture pale, smooth and creamy. Their scent gives way, finally, to the steely smell of cooked spinach. Such an aroma is, bafflingly, the stench of dread to thousands, but following the overwhelming richness of the other ingredients, or indeed independent of them, it is welcome.
Another fragment of crust snaps off without resistance, but it crunches loudly between the teeth, collapsing creakily. Slightly salty, it crumbles into smaller grains which require more pressure to destroy. The taste of butter pervades. Next, a bite of the entire ensemble. The tip of the slice, a small triangle from the very centre of the tart, trembles on the fork. This is the least-cooked part of the portion, and it shines damply and sways like gelatine. A tender spinach leaf glows greenly as it hangs off one of the tines. This mouthful is not uniform in texture, as pastry gives way to onion, then egg dotted with greens and mushrooms, but it requires barely any chewing at all. The crust underneath is softer and more buttery than at the edges, and the mild custard is smooth and submits willingly to a gentle tongue. The onions are slippery-sweet and sting a little in contrast to the comfort of the egg mixture. A small piece of mushroom is firmer, but the entire salty, supple bite requires barely any mastication at all.
The next few forkfuls are much the same, but working out from the centre of the quiche, the egg becomes slightly firmer and contains its cargo of vegetables more effectively. Fewer escape on their way from plate to mouth, and a cache of onions on the third bite almost overwhelms the cheese, before disintegrating to reveal a slice of mushroom, the most prominent textural diversion within the tart’s filling. Cooked earlier in a blend of garlic, butter, pepper and vermouth, it is soft but toothsome and, unlike the rest of this dish, releases its flavour less willingly, withholding its reward until it is crushed in the back of the mouth.
Now the edge, and the unstable corner where the walls of pastry slope outward has lost its anchoring mass to the fork to which it, too, now falls prey. This mouthful is richer, surrounded as it is on two sides by crust, and more besides, as some of the dental mouldings atop have persisted in their proud content of nothing at all, surviving the jolting attacks of cutlery upon their castle. These crisp decorations stick in the teeth for a moment, then soften and give way to the firmer fungi they protected so ostentatiously. The filling at the thinnest edge has a consistency akin to cheesecake, and takes a firmer squeeze between tongue and the roof of the mouth before it is swallowable. Does it need more pepper? No, there’s the kick in the back of the throat, concealed for a moment, perhaps, by the firmness of its vehicle. The onions, mushrooms and spinach were distributed unevenly, partly by nature of their shapes and sizes, and the last mouthful is one composed entirely of crust and custard. Without the interference of the vegetables, the flavours of the egg mixture assert themselves more strongly. They come in succession – milky, salty, sweet, then tangy, and their creaminess is more noticeable as well when unburdened of its verdant freight.
There are now only a few crumbs and a small piece of pastry and custard left on the plate. They gather easily on the back of the fork, and the final sensation is of mild creaminess, with the lingering tastes of onion and greens. It was a rich slice, but in a few minutes, it will be all too easy to go back for more.
I have no emotional attachment to quiche that I know of. I don’t remember my parents ever making it, though I can’t fathom why – it’s possible that this is the easiest “fancy” lunch you can make, and certainly one of the tastiest. There pastry is a simple flour, butter and egg affair that only kind of requires chilling, and the custard is exactly as creamy, milky, eggy or indulgent as you choose to make it and can be bulked up with almost any dairy product you choose. And then what you put inside of it! My god, the options! Whatever vegetable you care to name, along with bacon, ham, seafood (I am desperate to make one with lobster), different kinds of cheese, herbs… it’s like making a sandwich, but feels ever so much more glamourous. With all this in mind, I don’t know why I had barely ever eaten quiche before I started making it here.
It was, of course, due to the wonderful Deb Perelman of SmittenKitchen.com, and my ritual early-morning “random button” surfing of that site, that I decided that an egg tart was what was missing from my life some weekend last semester. I think I kept it pretty simple. Cheddar, mushrooms, onions. I used whole wheat flour because I had nothing else. I used cheese in the crust because I’d run out of butter (this is a good thing. Try it). And it was fantastic. Compact, delicious and somewhat healthy energy that I could keep in my fridge for a few days or share over the weekend. It was a saviour of a snack when I’d been running on crackers and peanut butter all day: fast enough to gulp down between a cappella and ensemble practices, but “serious food” at the same time, and enough to keep me from swallowing (quite so many) handfuls of chocolate covered almonds.
The way quiche makes me feel changes almost every time I make it, and I make it a lot these days, especially when I’m home. I often reproach myself for forgetting some little detail – this time it was chopping the mushrooms finer – but I always enjoy it immensely. It shocks me, even when I don’t use many high-fat dairy products, how creamy and smooth eggs and milk can bake up. I also think that, although it doesn’t have to be, quiche is one of the most satisfying vegetarian meals out there that still feels like a legitimate treat. Served with a salad and – dare I hazard the suggestion – a glass of wine, there is really nothing more pleasant or more satisfying than a couple slices of quiche. If such a thing as elegant comfort food exists, then quiche is it. It isn’t guilt food, at least for me, for all that my ingredients list may send your arteries running for Canada. When I make it, it’s loaded with vegetables that I might not eat on a regular day otherwise, and I’m not apologizing for choosing something this rich and eggy over a white bread and fluff sandwich. And it’s good, it’s more than the sum of it’s parts. Scrambled eggs and spinach are nice. Quiche is special. I’m usually sated by my first piece, but I’ll also usually go back for another, because time is short, and somebody else has his eye on the last slice.