With my dad, money was always a bit of a wild ride. Sometimes he got the bills paid, but other times he really didn’t. Champagne at Christmas many years; administratively withdrawn from school campuses for unpaid tuition some others. While raising a family of seven on an artist’s mercurial paycheck, he managed some miracles. His genius was in his agility in toggling between the flush and the lean, sometimes in the same year — the five kids piled into the station wagon and taken with our very best table manners to the Russian Tea Room for chicken à la Kiev, for the Rockettes at Radio City, walking Fifth Avenue to the tree — in spite of the electricity’s being shut off or having to siphon gas for the car. With deep practice I’ve learned to braid them into one single experience without having to switch back and forth at all. Caviar for the holidays, yes, but not rolled in on the proper silver cart, with the glittering shaved ice, the warm blini tucked in the white napkin, the mother-of-pearl spoons. I’m saying, rather, a kind of louche, very likable but humbler deal: a sandwich. With domestic farmed caviar, spooned between two thin pieces of white toast, with boiled egg and crème fraîche and chopped scallions in there, too, for an affordable, but luscious and haute, lowbrow sandwich. All at once a little messy and a little decadent and a little modest. As my father would cheerfully say, “Diamonds and burlap!”
He was a big fan of maxims like that, repeated with such frequency and pleasure when he landed on ones he found of particularly good use, meant to protect us and inspire us, I’d like to think, even if sometimes they misfired and grazed your ear like a stray bullet: “The world doesn’t need another mediocre painter!” to the high school senior hoping to apply to art school. “Professionals deliver; amateurs explain why they couldn’t!” to the 9-year-old who wasn’t able to get the shifter on the sit-down mower into gear.
One that never seemed to sting, though: “Nobody has any new ideas; it’s all in knowing who to steal from!” It continues to be particularly useful. The idea for a caviar sandwich is not mine; it comes from the Oyster Bar at Grand Central, where it is, I say with sincere and grateful respect, not executed as well as it could be. But we’ve fixed that here.
CreditPaola & Murray for The New York Times. Food stylist: Maggie Ruggiero. Prop stylist: Amy Wilson
You need to start with good white toast; Pepperidge Farm “Very Thin” is our preferred. It isn’t sweet like so many shelf-stabilized loaves, and it has excellent structure to stand up to the ingredients — delicate with a very satisfying dry crispness once toasted. Butter the toast and spread the crème fraîche, lavishly, from edge to edge — wall to wall, as we say — so that there will be no empty dry dull bites no matter where you dig in. And be sure to lay on the eggs, the caviar, the chives with as much generous abandon as you can muster. An ounce of good caviar from a reputable source is going to run some 50 bucks at least. If you can swing it, one more spoonful, one more schmear — then all the better. Stretching the tin of caviar into a sandwich that could conceivably treat four people is already all the parsimony the dish can take.
We run this as a single appetizer at the restaurant for the holidays. Does it feed four? I think the only way to answer this is to know what kind of year you are having and to decide if the kids’ tuition comes first or last! As my dad always said: “It’s shortsighted to let money be the reason you don’t do something.” Being a little more cautious myself, I’ll split this sandwich with my wife, Ashley, but our impeccably fabulous friend Patti — the giant glittering studs in her ears are not cubic zirconia — orders three of her own, in a row, when she visits us at Prune.
Since we are all here on the eve of the many special events that come in a quick series at this time of the year — Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day back to back to back — when caviar is the Thing, the true and only thing, indisputable and expected, it strikes me as a perfect time for the caviar sandwich. Even if you are sitting in the dark in your apartment in long johns and you have to share one four ways.
Recipe: Caviar Sandwich