My mom is the best cook. I know I’m far from the only person to feel strongly about a parent’s cooking. I’ve had many conversations with friends about parents’ cooking where we recall stories of improvised last-minute masterpieces, treasured secret recipes, and aversions to measuring anything. It warms my heart to think of all the people lucky enough to grow up with an amazing cook for a parent. Yet I remain convinced that even ranked among other mothers and fathers surrounded by culinary superlatives, my mom really is the best cook.
She makes mostly Chinese food, with as much skill and grace as you’d expect from someone who has been doing so for over 50 years. It wasn’t until after college, when I started cooking for more than just myself, that I started appreciating how impossibly difficult it is to put five different hot dishes on the dinner table in under an hour—something my mom does with the apparent effort of someone checking their Instagram feed and while talking to you about your day.
I love everything she makes, but my favorites tend to be the simple dishes: scrambled eggs with tomato, braised beef shank, fried rice, even just stir-fried bok choy. She doesn’t use exotic spices, sophisticated techniques, or even particularly expensive ingredients. Just skill, a flawless sense for how things are supposed to taste, and care. In those simple dishes, with only a few humble ingredients, what I taste most is the care and attention of a mother feeding her family.
Sometimes, to keep things interesting for my brother and me, she would experiment in what we all imagined “American” food was supposed to taste like. When I was in elementary school, I remember reading a book that described (with cute line drawings) how to cut out a hole in the middle of a slice of bread, place it in a hot buttered skillet, and crack an egg in the hole—egg in a basket. The hipster in me would like to point out that this was years before Stephen Fry made the dish cool in V for Vendetta. Anyways, I had to eat it. So I asked my mom to make it.
But my parents grew up in rural China during the Cultural Revolution. Wasting food to them was an obscenity. Why would you cut out the middle of the bread and throw it out? My mom decided that was nonsense, so she put it back on top of the egg. And put a slice of cheese underneath for good measure. If you do this all carefully, the bread fuses with the cheese and egg and seals everything up inside. “Our new invention needs a name,” she said. I pictured the rich, gooey yolk and melted cheese tucked away, hidden inside of its crispy browned container. “Treasure box!” I replied.
It stuck. Not to the pan (most of the time), but to our breakfast repertoire. Twenty years later and 3000 miles away, treasure box is still one of my go-to breakfast recipes on peaceful weekend mornings when I feel like something simple, rich, and rejuvenating. I have a hard time imagining a better use or more optimal arrangement for a slice of bread, an egg, a slice of cheese, butter, salt, and pepper. It is pure comfort food that is rooted not in a historical culinary tradition, but in my mom’s love, creativity, and values.
I’m not shy about claiming that I make a good treasure box. Excellent even. I’ve probably made dozens of treasure boxes by now (if only making actual treasure were so easy). I’ve included the “recipe” for my version below. But even with the most perfectly seasoned cast-iron skillet, the free-est range eggs, and the most neurotic attention to detail I can manage—mom’s is still the best.
Time: 15 minutes, but only if you’re not in a hurry
1 egg, because how can it be breakfast without an egg?
1 slice of bread, whatever you happen to have around
1 slice of cheese, I prefer American but it’s America so you do you
1–2 pats of butter, depending on how sassy you feel that day
salt and pepper to taste
Place a pat of butter in a nonstick or cast-iron skillet over medium heat.
While the pan heats up, cut a large hole in your slice of bread. Keep the piece from the middle.
Once the pan is nice and hot, put both pieces of bread in the skillet. Immediately flip the outer piece (we’re going to make sure to toast both sides of the bread because we’re not amateurs). Give it a few minutes until the bread is nice and browned.
Remove the inner piece of bread to a plate and set aside. Flip the outer piece so the browned side is face up. Add a little bit more butter to the hole in the bread, and, once that melts, crack the egg into the hole. Sprinkle some salt over the egg to taste. If the yolk manages to stay relatively centered instead of drifting to one side, your luck is good that day and maybe consider buying a lottery ticket.
If you have a lid that fits, cover the skillet at this point and lower the heat to medium-low to allow the top of the egg to set. Use this time to frantically try to make some coffee or tea. Or just pace nervously back and forth.
Some small, arbitrary number of minutes later, or once the egg white has fully set but the yolk is still runny, uncover the skillet. Place the cheese on the egg. Take the reserved inner bread piece and place it toasted-side-down on the cheese.
Carefully (carefully!) flip this whole assembly, adding some more butter if you really want to have a good time. Let it brown on this side for a few minutes. Some of the cheese will probably escape and melt down to the pan. “Life is giving me lemons!” you cry, “now this cheese will stick to my pan!” Don’t worry, some patience will turn those lemons into delicious crispy cheese crust once the cheese browns properly.
Add pepper to taste, and some more salt if you’re using unsalted butter. Otherwise I find additional salt unnecessary.
Remove from skillet and serve immediately to someone you care about.
Originally published at https://masontang.com on December 23, 2018.