Some dishes are just so perfect that you don’t need to mess with them.
But, then of course you do.
Çilbir is the perfect example of a dish that needs no further embellishment, alteration, or improvement. The quintessence of simplicity—tangy yogurt spiked with garlic, topped with a gently poached egg and drizzled with Aleppo pepper bloomed in some warm olive oil. There’s just about nothing that seems amiss with this picture. And yet…
Sometimes you just can’t leave well enough alone.
As much as I love yogurt (and I do really, really love yogurt), there are times when I’m just not in the mood for that much dairy in the morning. Whence comes this twist on the original: çilbir with cashew cream!
Now, I’m a firm believer that almost everything can be enjoyed in moderation, rather than going through the gymnastic effort of trying to replace it with foul-tasting but supposedly “healthier” facsimiles. That said, I don’t think of this dish as a compromise at all. It’ll never take the place of delicious, tart, creamy çilbir in my heart, but to me it’s a quirky, scrumptious, and dairy-free alternative. The cashew cream doesn’t quite have the bracing acidity of yogurt, but what it does have is an incredibly lush, silky texture and a faintly nutty flavor that goes beautifully with the runny yolk of the egg and the red pepper powder.
A note on cashews: Many recipes for cashew purées will instruct you to use raw cashews. While this will probably get you a smoother mixture, I can’t say I much care for the bland, milky taste of puréed raw cashews, which is why I prefer to use cashews that have been just lightly toasted—give them 15 minutes in a 300°F oven and then let them cool before storing them or using them as needed.
A note on red pepper powder: While most recipes for this Turkish dish call for Aleppo pepper, in this recipe I use sweet Hungarian paprika. The choice is yours, ultimately: I recommend using whatever pepper you have that has the finest aroma and taste. Powdered red pepper can easily go rancid during long storage, so rather than blindly use what a recipe calls for, smell (and taste) the pepper you have on hand—it shouldn’t have a musty, rancid odor. It should smell bright and fresh.
A note on walnut oil: This is purely an optional flourish. I love the flavor of walnut oil and think it goes marvelously with the eggs here, but it can be a little expensive and hard to find. If you don’t have it on hand, feel free to use extra virgin olive oil. And if you are using walnut oil, make absolutely sure that it is fresh. Smell and taste it. It should taste sweet and nutty, not dank, old, and bitter.
Çilbir with Cashew Cream
2 cups lightly toasted cashews, soaked overnight in cool water
2 tsp lemon juice
1 clove garlic mashed to a fine paste in a mortar and pestle
Fine sea salt to taste
6 large eggs
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
2 tsp sweet Hungarian paprika
½ tsp dried mint leaves (optional)
½ tsp dried fenugreek leaves (optional)
4 tbsp walnut oil
Flaky sea salt to garnish
Drain the cashews, reserving the water they were soaked in. Add them to a high-powered blender along with ½ cup of water. Blend on high speed, adding water as needed to get the mixture moving, until the consistency of a thick mayonnaise.
Pour the cashew cream into a bowl and stir in the garlic and lemon juice. Add sea salt to taste. Adjust seasoning with additional salt or lemon as needed.
Next, prepare the oil. Very gently heat the walnut oil in a small saucepan, just till aromatic. Add the paprika along with the powdered mint and fenugreek leaves. Turn off the heat and set aside to let the flavors permeate the oil.
Finally, poach the eggs. Heat 2 inches of water in a high-sided 12-inch skillet until the water is actively boiling. Turn the heat down to low so that the water is just bubbling, and pour in the vinegar.
Crack the eggs, one at a time, into a ramekin, and then slide them gently into the simmering water. As you add each egg to the water, use two forks to gather up the fronds of egg white that are trailing about each egg. The idea is to keep the whites as compact as possible.
Cook until done to your liking. For most people this is between 2 and 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to lift out the eggs one at a time. Prod them gently with your finger to test for doneness.
As they come out of the water, set them on a plate lined with paper towels. Use a pair of scissors to trim away any scraggly bits of egg white.
To plate, pour ½ cup of the cashew cream into three bowls. Top each with 1 or 2 of the poached eggs, depending on your appetite. Heat the oil through briefly and then drizzle liberally over the top of the eggs. Sprinkle with flaky sea salt and serve immediately.