In An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, Tamar Adler weaves together methods about “How to Teach an Egg to Fly” and her opinion mirrors my philosophy: “meals still qualify as meals if they are eggless. But an egg can turn anything into a meal and is never so pleased as when it is allowed to.” A fried or poached egg is the perfect punctuation mark to leftovers or odds & ends that need to be eaten. I love eggs, and this love will never grow old or tired. If I ever open a restaurant, I will hire a person to walk around and ask people if they would like a fried egg with that instead of a grind or two of pepper. They are that important.
The food historian in me has always wondered how eggs have become so integral to our diet. Egg-based pasta and noodles, egg drop soup, frittatas, potato latkes, lamb and egg tagines, omelettes — the savory applications are countless and wholesome. But what really gets me is the foundation eggs provide for the world of baking and pastry. Mastering the potential of an egg–its yolks and whites, separately or together–seems to be a precursor to mastering true desserts.
My 100 word preview of the Encyclopedia Britannia article on the use of eggs in baking elucidated only the how, not the when or who. I learned that yolks are 50 percent solid (60 percent of which is strongly emulsified fat), and they effect the color, flavor, and texture of baked goods. Whites, on the other hand, are mostly protein with no fat, and are most important for texture. They also hold air well. (NB: My use of the word “learned” above is very generous.) I was pleased when a slightly more aggressive set of Internet search terms led to The Food Timeline and an FAQ about eggs. It offered the following quotation from The History of Food by Maguelonne Toussaint-Sama:
In the Roman period pastry cooks made much use of eggs for desserts as well as cakes. Apicius (25 BC) invented baked custard: milk, honey and eggs beaten and cooked in an earthenware dish on gentle heat. Eggs really made their way into the kitchen with Apicius, who mentioned them frequently in the Ars Magirica.
Lynne Olver, the author of The Food Timeline, elaborates that once eggs were recognized as binders and thickeners, their culinary applications proliferated. But when asked about when this began, she notes: “The food historians do not venture into this territory.” When one reaches this wall, one must accept defeat. And I did just that, by diving into my egg carton, separating a few eggs, and utilizing centuries of culinary wisdom with no known origin. I made Meyer lemon curd (below) and almond meringues (in progress above), and reinforced that while I can eat lemon curd all day, I’m not big into meringue cookies.
This particular curd & meringue night was before Christmas, and I put the jar of lemon curd in my Mom’s stocking. I hear she stirred it into whipped cream as topping for angel food cake, another egg white-heavy treat. She allowed the yolk and white to meet and mingle on the dessert plate, and it sounded divine.
Tonight, I answered cries from my sweet tooth by revisiting this treatment of eggs: separating them and letting the parts grow independently bigger than the whole, creating cranberry curd and chocolate cookies. I utilized Alton Brown’s lemon curd recipe but replaced the lemon juice with unsweetened cranberry juice and the lemon zest with orange blossom water. The result was ethereal, complete with tart, sweet, and perfume-y notes.
To care for my egg whites, I made François Payard’s Flourless Chocolate-Walnut Cookies. These are perfect for anyone who lusts after chewy brownies, so everyone. They taste like crunchy walnut Nutella. Unlike meringues, which are made from whites whipped into stiff peaks, these cookies utilize whites in their original form as the only liquid ingredient besides a bit of vanilla extract. They came out looking exactly like those pictured above and are now added to my list of future party favorites. Make them for your gluten-free friends, your Jewish friends (or self) during Passover (as recommended by the NYMag article), or if you would like the smell of chocolate and toasted walnuts to permeate your home.
Thank you, eggs, for making possible so many culinary wonders.