WHICH CAME first, eggless baking or the egg?
Easy, right? After all, eggs have been part of cooking and baking traditions since antiquity, and with good reason, from a chef's perspective. Among the ingredients, they're handy multitaskers, contributing texture, structure and/or taste, depending on use.
So, the recent bad news about eggs hit a lot of people right in the gut.
It wasn't just the half-billion eggs that were recalled (another brand was named this past weekend) after 2,000 people were sickened. It was also the federal Food and Drug Administration's report on filthy conditions in these egg farms - the unsettling scenes of contamination and close-packed misery that help make salmonella as common as it is (an estimated 2 million eggs a year carry salmonella, and the federal Centers for Disease Control says that 100,000 Americans are sickened every year by salmonella in eggs).
As a result, while Congress gears up for hearings on the issue next Monday, a lot of us are now paying attention to the presence of eggs in foods and wondering about the alternatives.
It almost seems like a brave new frontier, finding new ways to achieve what eggs do without actually using them. But eggless cooking and even baking have been around for quite a while, and there are expert chefs who have worked out delicious ways around the egg.
A dish of scrambled eggs is a breakfast dish easy enough for even the klutziest cook to pull off. And eggs like this, in their natural element with little adornment, seem like they'd be hard to replace. But in fact, scrambled tofu has a long and storied history among non-egg-eaters.
Extra-firm tofu has a density and jiggly texture surprisingly similar to scrambled eggs, so it's easy enough to chop it into rough cubes (or tear it for rougher) approximately the size of egg pieces in scrambled eggs and fry it up in oil (replicating eggs' oiliness) along with seasonings like onion, garlic, paprika and turmeric.
The turmeric adds some pleasant flavor but also turns the whole dish yellow to mimic the appearance of scrambled eggs. Diced green pepper is a favorite addition.
But it's in baked goods that eggs are often considered most indispensable. Without eggs, how can you make fluffy cakes? Cookies that stick together? Rich, fudgy brownies? What about quiche? What about meringue, for goodness' sake?
For these, we went to the experts.
Sweet Freedom is a bakery near Broad and South that specializes in egg-free, gluten-free, dairy-free and processed-sugar-free desserts. With all that left out, you might wonder what's left. The answer is delicious tarts, cupcakes and cookies that taste as rich and decadent as anyone could imagine.
Co-owners Heather Esposito and Alison Lubert were certified health counselors who encountered clients with different food allergies and saw a niche. They started experimenting in the kitchen.
"Very few things are great the first time," Esposito admitted when I stopped by the bustling shop. "We've had to test ideas a lot and refine them." Their throng of regulars attest that they have it right.
One egg-free pioneer who has made her mark in the brownies realm (see sidebar) is Allison Rivers Samson, of Allison's Gourmet, founded in 1997 as Allison's Cookies.
"What I do," she said, when asked about baking without eggs, "is look at the recipe's ingredients. What are these ingredients accomplishing? The reason eggs are in things varies. They can function in different ways, whether as binder, leavener, texture or flavor.
"So, the question then is: What do I have that I can use to create whatever effect is called for? I may have to use a couple things. In brownies, for instance, eggs are doing all of the above."
Exactly which ingredients will do what, and in what combination with each other, is a science, or "alchemy," as Rivers Samson calls it, that takes some experimenting. But a surprising number of ingredients can be substituted, she says, including water.
"People do get excited and scared about replacing eggs," she said, "but if a recipe only calls for one or two, you don't need to do anything but add more water or other baking liquid - for example, rice milk. When it's that few, it's just a question of a puffy texture, and water will do that."
For more involved functions there are a variety of options. Freya Dinshah, who co-founded the American Vegan Society and lives in New Jersey, noted that flavors may determine the best approach.
"Ground flax," a good go-to binder, "has a little nutty taste, so you can use it well in nut brownies, for instance. One tablespoon ground flax and 4 tablespoons water equals one egg.
"Chickpeas and soybeans also both work as binders when soaked [cook the soybeans first], combined one-to-one with water and pureed. Chickpeas have a stronger taste, so you can only use them in savory items, but soybeans can do sweet or savory."
Dinshah also pointed out that flour can be a good binder "as long as there's enough water," and that fluffiness can be achieved by various acid-rich additions. "Tomato juice, vinegar or lemon juice will all boost the leavening power of baking soda or baking powder."
Freya's daughter Anne Dinshah, who works here in Philly in between collaborating with her mother on recipes, recounted her experience in attempting eggless brownies for a special friend: "I tried bananas, they had too much banana flavor. Then softened raisins, but he didn't like those at all. The version that he really liked was the one with sweet potato!"
Nowadays, with people paying attention to eggs, along with gluten, dairy and other allergies, eggless cakes and cookies don't raise the eyebrows they once did. Many people are still surprised, though, to learn about eggless French toast or eggless quiche.
There are many varieties of both, with swap-ins such as coconut milk, tahini and chickpea flour. I've even seen a recipe for a sunny-side up "fried egg" that's eggless, though I have yet to be moved to try that one.
It almost makes you wonder: Is there any egg-related confection that can't be done egg-free?
Crème brûlée, a gourmet custard dish mainly consisting of cream, sugar and plenty of eggs, was thought by many to be not even worth trying to veganize.
But Kate Jacoby, dessert chef of Horizons, kept at the puzzle until she arrived at the amazing version now served at the upscale South Street eatery, along with an eggless chocolate mousse.
She explains her method:
"If the egg is enriching and binding a dish, as is the case in crème brûlée and the mousse, then something like silken tofu will replace the creaminess while not steering the flavor profile too far away, like peanut butter might. Actually, a combination of tofu and another fat, such as vegan margarine or shortening, might work well."
More-with-less pastry artists like Jacoby and the women at Sweet Freedom are still testing these limits, though the latter have a special task, given that they also work without soy: There are some dishes like key lime pie or spiced cheesecake that Heather Esposito wonders if they'll be able to pull off within a soy-free, nut-free context.
"We keep trying things and testing in the kitchen," she said, noting that a particular challenge is a lemon bar, usually stuffed with confectioner's sugar.