“The Incredible, Edible Egg” is a marketing slogan that was invented in 1976. In my opinion, it’s a very good one.
This seemingly simple food is mind-blowingly versatile in the kitchen. Eggs can create dishes as light as air and as rich as pure butter. They’re the key ingredient that makes angel food cake light, custards creamy, and meatballs moist.
This versatility is what makes eggs unique, according to Dr. Kantha Shelke. Dr. Shelke is a lecturer at Johns Hopkins and the founder of Corvus Blue. I spoke with her in my quest to better understand the humble egg, and she started by breaking it down.
Chemically speaking, egg whites and egg yolks are quite different. Egg whites are about 90% water along with some protein.They have very little fat. Egg yolks, on the other hand, have plenty of fat mixed in with their proteins. Dr. Shelke explains that this difference in their composition “results in distinctly different properties, taste, and nutritional attributes.”
Armed with my newfound knowledge, I wanted to make something that capitalizes on the unique properties of eggs. That meant exploring both ends of the extremes: light and fluffy, and rich and decadent. Enter: the pavlova.
Pavlovas are a decidedly retro dessert named after a Russian ballerina. They consist of a large meringue base and a topping. The topping can be anything, but it’s usually some type of fruit and whipped cream. Apparently, they’re very popular in New Zealand.
“It all starts with foureggs.”
The pavlova called to me because meringues are difficult to dupe. They’re made from egg whites and not much else. Sugar and vanilla can be added for flavor, but the unique texture relies on the chemical properties of egg whites. Yes, they can sort of be replicated with bean water (or aquafaba, but I prefer to call it what it is), but the texture and flavor of this substitute truly can’t compare.
Though they’re made from egg whites, meringues are mostly air. Dr. Shelke describes the finished product as “bubbles trapped in a scaffolding of egg white proteins.” This structure is formed by whipping egg whites and sugar until they balloon up into a pillowy mass. In an egg white, some of the proteins attract water and some repel them. When the whites are vigorously whipped, air is forced in, and the entanglement of proteins separates. Dr. Shelke explains, “the water-loving proteins cling onto the water, while the water repelling proteins cling onto the air bubbles.”
Forming the meringue base is the first step of making my pavlova. It all starts with four eggs. Meringues use only the egg whites, so I separate the yolks by cracking each egg and passing it back and forth between the halves of the shell. This allows the white to drip away while the yolk is cradled in the shell. I do this with some caution. Even the tiniest drop of yolk would break down the bubbly light structure I want to form. Throwing fat into the mix would draw all the proteins together so that they would be unable to cling to the air in the same way.
After my eggs are separated, I set the yolks aside. At this point, you could feed them to the dog or throw them out, but I have bigger plans. I want to use yolks for their thickening power to create a creamy topping for my pavlova. The dog is disappointed.