The following column is adapted from one that ran in April 2014. This year’s early spring — and early Easter — will have many folks purchasing eggs this week, so consider some alternative options. Lyn Garling no longer sells her neighbor’s duck eggs but other vendors may have some available. Quail eggs are still sold at Far Corners market and baby chicks are available at Tractor Supply, and will be available March 31 at E & L Supplies in Spring Mills, if you want to experiment with animal husbandry.
Eggs are as sure a sign of spring as the first snowdrops, the wild chives bristling on lawns and the lengthening daylight. If you want to do some backyard poultry raising on your own, check out Tractor Supply on Benner Pike where you can purchase baby chickens and ducklings — just be sure you are familiar with the local ordinances that regulate livestock and can provide them with an appropriate home.
Around the county, chickens are laying again, providing eggs for Easter celebrations that promise new life and Passover celebrations that view the egg as a sacrificial offering and spring symbol.
Vendor tables at our local farmers markets are piled high with eggs lately, perfect for spring menus. Lyn Garling from Over the Moon Farm in Rebersburg, one of the anchors at the State College Friday Indoor Farmers Market, carries local duck eggs that are produced by her Amish neighbor, Levi King, at Peaceful Acres Family Farm. Now, I have to say I was taken aback when Garling first suggested that I should try the duck eggs and I don’t know why. I know that a chicken egg from a local producer is far superior to the standard factory farm eggs available in grocery stores.
Reading about the plight of those de-beaked birds, packed into battery cages so tightly that they can’t even turn around, is enough to make you reconsider your breakfast and stick with oatmeal. But a duck egg sounded strange to me — until I tried it. As Garling said, “We should be more like the French and just eat things because they taste good.”
With three times as much cholesterol and twice as much fat, though proportionately less saturated fat as a chicken egg, duck eggs may best be classified as a “special occasion” egg. Adding to that distinction is their cost, at $7 a dozen. But this is a special time of year for egg dishes of all sorts — frittatas, soufflés, quiches, stratas and custards come to mind — including the hard boiled ones that many of us will be preparing for the holiday.
King’s eggs are from a domestic breed of duck called Khaki Campbell, remarkable for the bulging bright yellow yolk and the ultra clear albumin. The off-white shell itself is sturdy but porcelain-like in composition. The eggs are hard to separate because the white clings to the yolk and there is so much more yolk to white. But recipe experiments with the duck eggs proved why the French prefer duck eggs for their baked goods — incredible lift and body, as well as a texture in a custard or flan that can be described as more chewy, though not at all rubbery.
If you want to experiment with a chicken egg alternate that is lower in cholesterol, try the diminutive quail egg, available at Far Corners market in their new location on West College Avenue. These eggs come from New Jersey and cost about $4.50 for 18. They have brown and tan speckled shells and can lend a sophisticated garnish to your dandelion greens salads this spring.
Local sources for quail eggs may be available — just keep your eyes open at the farmers market and ask around.
Whatever egg route you choose to go this holiday season to celebrate the renewal of the earth and the potential of new life, you are best off getting your eggs from a local farmer.
A sad state of current kitchen affairs is that you can now buy hard-boiled and even colored eggs at the grocery store. That means more people are losing the knowledge of how to properly cook an egg, which can be a hunger-staving affirmation at any time of the day.
Anne Quinn Corr is the author of “Seasons of Central Pennsylvania,” of several iBook cookbooks (”Food, Glorious Food!” “What’s Cooking?!” and “Igloo: Recipes to Cure the Winter Blues”) that are available for free on iTunes. She regularly posts to the blog HowToEatAndDrink.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Some egg facts
▪ The egg is a small miracle of packaging that contains all the nutrients necessary to sustain life. The color of the shell depends on the breed of the chicken and does not relate to egg quality. If you are going to dye eggs for Easter, white eggs will be easier to color. The pale bluish-green eggs that are sometimes available at our markets are from Aracauna chickens native to South America and might not need any coloring at all.
▪ The shell is composed largely of calcium carbonate (95 percent) and protein (4 percent) and is porous, allowing oxygen to pass in and carbon dioxide to pass out.
▪ The air cell at the large end of the egg increases as the egg ages.
▪ Two shell membranes surround the albumin, inner and outer, and provide a protective barrier against bacteria.
▪ Thin albumin (white) is nearest the shell and thick albumin surrounds the yolk and is the major source of riboflavin and protein in the egg. Thick albumin covers the yolk and spreads less in higher grade eggs.
▪ Two twisted strands of egg white protein known as the chalazae anchor the yolk and serve as shock absorbers. Prominent chalazae indicate freshness.
▪ Vitelline is the yolk membrane that holds the yolk contents.
▪ Yolk is the yellow center that is the major source of egg vitamins, minerals, cholesterol and fat.
Egg cooking tips
▪ Egg proteins are delicate, and a perfectly cooked “over easy” egg is best achieved with lower heat. The thin albumin coagulates at 145 degrees Fahrenheit and the thick albumin and the yolk begin to set at 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
▪ Poached eggs are cooked in simmering liquid. Make a whirlpool with the end of your spoon before dropping in the egg and the shape will stay more compact. The addition of a small splash of vinegar or a little salt will also help the egg set up more quickly but will change the flavor.
▪ Hard-boiled eggs should be cooked in simmering water for 12 to 17 minutes, depending on the size of the egg and its freshness. It’s best to add an additional egg or two to the pot so you can test at 10 or 12 minutes and then see if they need additional time. Some cooks like to put the eggs in cold water and bring the temperature up slowly and start timing when the water is simmering; others like to put the eggs directly into water that has come to a boil, and then start timing when it is at a simmer. Adding cold eggs to boiling water will likely cause some of the eggs shells to crack. Warming the eggs in a bowl of warm water before cooking will help prevent that.
▪ For hard boiled eggs, the fresher the egg, the more difficult it is to peel because the inner membrane adheres to the albumin if the pH is below 8.9 (a fresh egg is closer to 8). Refrigerate eggs for a few days to bring the pH to 9.2 and peeling should be easier. Advice from the 14th century Le Ménagier de Paris still holds today: “... whether they are soft or hard, as soon as they are cooked put them in cold water: they will be easier to peel.”
▪ To prevent the grayish green ring at the surface of the yolk, don’t overcook the eggs and chill them thoroughly as quickly as possible and peel them right away. The ring is formed by the reaction of iron in the yolk with sulfur in the white. The ferrous sulfide (FeS) is harmless but unsightly.
Quack! Quack! Flan
1 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
3 whole duck eggs
3 duck egg yolks
2/3 cup sugar
3 cups half-and-half
2 inch piece of lemon peel
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Pinch of salt
Caramel: Heat the first amount of sugar and the 1/2 cup of water in a small saucepan over medium heat until the sugar melts to a deep mahogany brown color. Avoid stirring while the sugar is melting to minimize crystallization. This will take about 10-15 minutes. When it is brown, pour it into a 10 inch quiche pan or pie pan that will fit inside another roasting pan or casserole. While the sugar is melting, you can place the quiche pan in the larger container and then add water to come up halfway in the outer container to make a water bath to protect the delicate flan proteins as they cook. Preheat the oven to 350 F and place the larger container in the oven to heat up the water. This is tricky; make sure the oven rack is in the center and that there is space above to slip the flan into the water when it is ready to go in.
Meanwhile, whisk the eggs and the egg yolks with the sugar and heat up the half-and-half with the lemon peel until it is just under a boil. Add the vanilla and the salt to the eggs-sugar mixture. When the caramel is dark enough, pour it into the quiche dish and carefully tilt the pan to cover the bottom. Remove the lemon peel from the hot half and half and pour it back into a quart liquid measure so you can more easily drizzle it into the egg mixture while whisking vigorously (good to have your sous chef here to help you). Pour the custard on top of the caramel once the caramel has cooled and hardened and then place the quiche pan into the hot water bath in the hot oven. Bake for about 45 minutes, until a knife inserted in the flan comes out clean. Cool on a rack and refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Loosen the flan along the edge, then invert a serving platter on top of the chilled flan and flip it over. The flan should slip out of the dish and the caramel sauce, now liquid, can be scooped up and served on top.
Option: The flan could also be made with an equal number of chicken eggs, local eggs preferred.