Yesterday's Island Today's Nantucket
Volume 41 Issue 1 • April 28- May 11, 2011
now in our 41th season

Sunshine & Custard

by Jenn Farmer - chef and food fanatic

Spring has finally arrived and has begun to awaken the sleepy earth again.  Sunshine and rain have been making flowers bloom and crops sprout.  The birth and re-birth cycle is beginning, filled with anxious promise and laden with expectations, and possibilities.   I am excited about the up-coming season’s ingredients, and intrigued and amazed by the effect that spring has on the entire balance of the year.  She can be strong, full of wind and torrential rain or even snow, slowing or even destroying all the glory that is attempting to spring forth from the slowly warming ground.  Or she can be warm and docile, with gentle rain, coaxing the life beneath the soil to launch forth.  In fact, Spring reminds me a bit of a fertile egg, filled with the promise of life and energy, but obscured beneath a dainty, yet durable shell.  There is a delicate strength to the season.

The bird egg has been an important source of food since pre-history.  Birds, fish and reptiles all lay eggs and eggs are eaten all over the world.  Beyond the religious and symbolic significance of eggs everywhere, they are one of the most versatile ingredients available.   Nearly all eggs can be eaten, for the sake of this article I am going to refer to the common chicken egg primarily.  They are highly nutritious for their size, filled with vitamins, minerals, amino acids, and antioxidants.  Beyond the nutritional value, eggs are inexpensive and cook quickly, making them economical as well. 

Did you know an egg white coagulates at between 144 and 149 degrees Fahrenheit?  The color of the shell is determined by the breed of the bird laying the egg, or more specifically in chickens, the color of the earlobes (yep I didn’t know they had earlobes either!)? Also the flavor and the nutritional value has nothing to do with the shell color, but is determined entirely by the hen’s diet.
Enough facts and trivia; let us speak of the possibilities.  Eggs are versatile.  They are great leavening and emulsifying agents in all sorts of cooking and baking.  Custards, omelets, pastries, ice creams, meringues, and pastas, the possibilities are endless.  One of my favorite egg recipes has historical value, and is considered by many to be the epitome of American cuisine.  Though the recipe for Hangtown Fry was invented out west, it captures the pioneering spirit and flavors of Nantucket perfectly.

Hangtown Fry is a unique dish that was created in California during the 1850s gold rush.  A prospector struck it rich and went to indulge at the Cary House Hotel in Placerville (aka Hangtown, due to the many hangings which took place there). The newly wealthy man asked for the most expensive meal the kitchen could provide.  The dish was an omelet.  No ordinary omelet though, it had fried oysters and bacon.  By today’s standard that seems decadent but not outrageous, but remember in 1850 oysters had to be hauled over one hundred miles from San Francisco, on ice.  Not only were the oysters themselves pricy, but the ice they traveled in was very expensive, too.  The bacon was sent from the East Coast, also costly.  The result was a unique all American dish.  This recipe is a close adaptation from a café in Placerville which no longer exists, but is thought to be the closest to the original served to that fortunate prospector so many years ago. 

Hangtown Fry

1 egg beaten
1 T. milk
Cracker and bread crumbs
Vegetable oil
3 raw oysters
2 slices bacon, cut into 4 pieces
2 large eggs lightly whisked

Mix together one egg, and the milk.  Dip the oysters in egg mixture then crumbs.  Pan fry the oysters in a little oil till nearly done.  Meanwhile fry the bacon until crispy but not burned, in the same pan arrange the bacon across the pan laying the fried oysters on top of the slices.  Pour the egg mixture over the fry and cook on one side flip, then cook and fold omelet.  Serve hot.  Eat with a couple splashes of hot sauce, and a leafy green salad.  Yields one omelet, serves 1-2.

When I think of spring and eggs I think of custards.  Custard is simply milk or cream mixed with eggs and cooked.  Custard can be a sauce that is thin like crème anglaise, or it can be firm like quiche or pastry cream.  Custard base is often used in making rich ice creams too.  Because eggs and milk curdle when heated to high, too quickly custards are often cooked in a double boiler or baked in a water bath.  My favorite custard is flan.  It is so easy to make and delicious to eat.  There are so many different recipes, but this one is great.  For a unique twist, add a pinch of saffron or turmeric to the milk to brighten the yellow color and rich flavor.  Could be a great Daffodil weekend treat. 


3 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup sugar (divided into half cups)
5 large eggs

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.  Sprinkle one half cup sugar in a heavy skillet.  Cook over medium heat, taking care to stir constantly, until sugar melts and turns a light golden brown.  Immediately pour into custard cups (6-8 depending on size); let the mixture cool.

Combine remaining one half cup sugar, eggs, milk and vanilla in a large mixing bowl, (or alternately in the container of a blender) and whisk until the sugar dissolves.

Pour into a dish and, and place into a larger baking dish.  This larger dish will act as a Bain Marie in the oven.  Place the dish with the custard cups carefully into the pre-heated oven, and then add 2 inches of warm water into the Bain very carefully, so as not to disturb the custards.  Bake for 45 to 50 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Very carefully remove from the oven, and cool on a wire rack (in the water bath) until they are cool enough to handle (room temperature is great).  Remove from water bath.  Carefully run a knife around each cup and carefully flip onto serving dishes.  Allow the sugar mixture to drizzle over each one.  Yields 6-8 servings

Egg drop soup is an easy recipe that is comforting and very fast and easy.  It is one of my favorites to make for last minute guests.  Give it a try this spring, especially if you find yourself entertaining last minute.  Enjoy!

Egg Drop Soup

1 T fresh ginger, minced
1 T fresh garlic, minced
1 T fresh scallions, thinly sliced
1 quart chicken stock or broth
1 cup small diced carrots
2 cups fresh spinach, washed well (lightly chopped if the leaves are big)
1 cup peas
2 eggs, whisked well
pinch black pepper
1 T soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Splash of hot sauce

In a pan, heat a tablespoon of oil; add the garlic, ginger, and scallions, stirring constantly.  Add the carrots and chicken stock and bring to a simmer.  Add the spinach, and peas.  Bring back to simmer.  Give the soup a stir, and carefully pour the egg into the moving hot soup.  It should create long delicate ribbons.  Taste, season, and enjoy.  Yields 4 servings


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