Michael Zee is serious about breakfast. How much? When he packed his bag for a trip to New York from his home in London this week, he included his teapot so he could prepare a proper drink to accompany his morning repast. For further proof of his breakfast love, check out his Instagram account, symmetrybreakfast, where, every day, he posts iPhone photos of the identical, gorgeous meals he makes for himself and his partner, Mark van Beek. He started the account in 2013, and today, more 646,000 followers later, it’s a certifiable internet phenomenon. Now, in a new book, SymmetryBreakfast: 100 Recipes for the Loving Cook, which is out today from Powerhouse Books, he’s showing readers how to make their own meals for two.
I caught up with Zee by phone in New York, where he’ll be launching the book at the Powerhouse Arena in Brooklyn tonight from 7 to 9 p.m. Today and Friday, he’ll be giving clues on Instagram about where he's having breakfast. The first three people to come find him will get a signed copy of the book.
Extra Crispy: How did you come up with the idea for SymmetryBreakfast?
Michael Zee: It started because Mark was working at Burberry, and after we moved in together I realized how little he was around because he was always working and he had quite a demanding job. The only time we saw each other was during breakfast, so I started to put in a little bit more effort into those moments together. It was my way of making something good out of a bad situation in a way. After many months of doing this, I was making things from scratch, making my own bread, making better coffee, and it evolved to the point where I was thinking I was doing something really different, so I took a photo and put it on my personal Instagram. It was a slow development to begin with and at the very start it wasn’t even everyday. Then Mark’s old boss suggested I post the photos under a separate Instagram account.
Why do you think the account became so popular?
From the beginning, this was really just a record of what Mark and I were doing. I look at the earliest photos I posted and I think, "Wow, they’re really crap." It was never about the technicality or the quality of the photos. I think the story was more the hook for people.
You write in the book about the importance of plating. Why should people care about how their food looks?
First impressions matter and plating has an immediate emotional effect. It makes you happier. When you go to a restaurant and they have sparklers on the cake instead of candles, it elevates the experience. We’re visual creatures. When you offer something of value, there’s a relationship between how we perceive it and how it make us feel. It’s a transaction.
Does having someone to cook for motivate you to pay more attention to presentation?
It massively helps. When I eat alone, it’s fuel, but I want it to be delicious first and foremost. It’s tricky to say that all the time I care about how things look, because if you met me in person, I’m actually a very messy person. People are kind of amazed, because I do something so strict and precise and methodical.
The recipes in the book come from all over the world. What have you learned about breakfast by studying meals across cultures?
I think wherever you go eggs are just so socially associated with breakfast. I always thought tea and coffee might be universal but then you go to places like South America, tea’s not so much a drink that’s common. But most of the world drinks coffee or tea and eats eggs for breakfast. That covers 95 percent of the world, but you always get those exceptions.
What do you make of American breakfast habits?
I’ve only ever been to a handful of places in the United States. I’ve been to New York, Florida, California, and Hawaii, but I think those places are not necessarily indicative of everything else. The way I stereotype America is that everyone eats in diners and you have the waitress going around with the free coffee refills. For me as a British person, it’s a very strange concept, free refills. One is enough. An interesting thing in America with breakfast especially is that America has invented the all-day breakfast. That’s different from Asian countries like Vietnam where you have a dish you can eat for every single meal of the day. You have broth and noodles breakfast, lunch, and dinner. They don’t have this distinction for what you eat in the morning versus the evening. In America, it’s like, "This is what we have for breakfast, but we’re going have it all the time." No one’s done it the other way, dinner for breakfast.
Would you eat dinner for breakfast?
Depends what it is. In England, we have bubble and squeak, which is made from last night’s dinner. If you go to a restaurant in England you’ll never find it. It’s something you have exclusively at home. You need to have leftovers from the Sunday roast. You mash it all together like a fritter and have it with an egg or a piece of bacon. It’s called bubble and squeak because of the sounds it makes in the pan when you cook it.
A lot of Americans regularly skip breakfast. What do you think of that?
It’s one of those things where, if you have a busy schedule, something has to give. What we do in the morning is not just about getting up, eating and going to work. People exercise in the morning or want to sleep later. People who say they skip breakfast have a coffee or juice but giving themselves that moment to sit at a table and cook something is a luxury many people are willing to sacrifice. But that, in essence, has given rise to the weekend brunch because it makes eating breakfast a special occasion. If people didn’t give up their weekday breakfast, weekend brunches might not be such an event.
Churros with Ham and Caramel Dipping Sauce
For the churros
- Yields: 8 churros
For the Caramel Dipping Sauce (Cajeta)
- Yields: 3 jam jars of sauce
To make the caramel dipping sauce a.k.a. cajeta, place the milk, sugar, and vanilla in a large, heavy-bottomed pan (large is important and you’ll see why later). A copper pan is traditional in Mexico, but any heavy-based enamel or steel pan will work fine. I’d advise against using cast iron because of the risk of damaging the pan.
Over a low heat, slowly melt the sugar into the milk and add the vanilla extract. Bring to a gentle simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, so you don’t burn your hand.
Dissolve the baking soda in a tablespoon of water and quickly add this to the milk, still stirring. Within seconds the liquid will double in volume, so quickly turn the heat down if you need to.
Now, for the next 4 to 5 hours, with the heat on low, it is a matter of stirring occasionally and making sure it doesn’t burn. Perhaps use this time to finish those odd jobs around the house you’ve been putting off.
Sterilize three jam jars. The easiest method is to wash them in hot soapy water, rinse but not dry them, and then bake them in the oven at 350°F for 15 minutes.
The cajeta should now be glossy and caramel colored. It will thicken as it cools. Carefully pour into the sterilized jars, screw on the lids, then immediately turn the jars upside down and leave to cool completely. This will create a vacuum seal and it simply means that you’ll be able to keep the cajeta for longer. You can store it in a cupboard until opened, then keep it in the fridge and use within 6 months (if you can manage it; it’s more likely that you’ll scarf the lot).
To make the churros, you’ll need to invest in a heavy-duty piping bag with a star nozzle or a specialist churro gun, which you can find online.
Gently heat the oil in a heavy pan. You want the oil to be at least an inch deep.
In a separate pan, add the water, light brown sugar, and butter, and melt. Bring it to a boil and add the flour and salt. Combine the lot with a spoon and some elbow grease until you have a batter that looks like wallpaper paste.
Beat the eggs in a bowl with the vanilla and combine this with the flour mix. You will now have a smooth, glossy batter.
Finely mince the Serrano ham and add this to the batter. Combine the superfine sugar and cinnamon and set aside.
Load up your churro gun or piping bag with the nozzle already inserted. Test the temperature of the oil with a pea-sized ball of the batter. If it browns fully in 90 seconds, then it’s ready.
To create the classic teardrop shape, pipe the mix on to a sheet of the baking parchment and, using a pair of scissors, snip the batter clean from the nozzle.
Gently lower the churro, paper attached, into the hot oil. After 30 seconds it will come free of the paper; using tongs, carefully discard the paper.
Continue to cook for 1 minute, then flip and cook for another minute. Remove from the oil and drain on kitchen paper. Repeat with the remaining batter. Leave to cool for a minute so that you don’t burn yourself, then sprinkle each churro gently with cinnamon-sugar. Serve with cajeta and coffee.