Without the buttery, meaty richness of winter, or the juicy, fresh abundance of summer, spring menus can be challenging for chefs across the kitchen.
This is especially true for pastry chefs.
Even for dessert, customers crave lighter, brighter flavors after months of chocolate, caramel and nuts. Lacking seasonal fruit beyond rhubarb and the first strawberries, pastry chefs reach for that time-honored staple: the humble and protean egg.
After all, an egg can metamorphose from liquid, to frothy, to softly trembling and barely set, to completely solid and sliceable. Eggs can leaven and lighten; eggs can thicken and enrich. And while the egg is essential throughout gastronomy, it is a cornerstone of classical dessert making, with much of the pastry canon resting on its curved shell.
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“Eggs can be many things,” said Thomas Raquel, the pastry chef of Le Bernardin in Midtown Manhattan. “They can be emulsifiers; they can be the base of mousses, ice creams and soufflés; they leaven cakes and cookies. They are crucial for pastry.”
Like most pastry chefs, Raquel relies on them all year. But in spring, they become the focal point of desserts rather than the foundations. This year, he is planning an elderflower meringue and his version of a tres leches cake: an egg-shaped dome filled with creamy goat’s milk mousse.
“People’s palates change as the year goes by,” he said. “In springtime, they are looking for lighter, cleaner and more fragrant desserts.”
The connection between eggs and spring runs deeper than many people may realize. Historically, eggs were a seasonal food, with hens slowing down or ceasing to lay eggs altogether as daylight waned and winter set in. When spring came and the days lengthened again, the hens resumed laying.
The advent of electricity changed that; farmers put light bulbs in their chicken coops to keep hens laying all winter long. But that natural cycle is one reason eggs are symbolically linked to spring, Easter, Passover and the celebration of the vernal equinox. Once you had eggs, you knew spring was finally coming back.
You can still see this symbolism at play in traditional springtime desserts, including the egg-enriched Easter sweet breads common across Europe, and in the egg-leavened nut tortes served for Passover.
“Spring menus need to suggest the brightness and lightness that’s coming in summer,” said Samantha Kincaid, the pastry chef at High Street on Hudson in the West Village. “Texturally, eggs are great for that because you get aeration.” When beaten with a whisk, eggs capture air, growing into a voluminous froth.
Folding beaten eggs into mousses and custards can both lighten the mouthfeel by introducing air, and can sharpen the flavors by lessening the need for butter and cream.
“Eggs are a good carrier of flavor because they don’t coat your palate the way butterfat does,” she added.
Known for adding savory notes to classic sweets, Kincaid flavors her meringues with vegetable powders – dehydrated carrots and beets – and her egg custards with caraway and toasted bread. For her take on lemon curd, a particularly thick type of egg custard, she whisks in the juice from a jar of preserved lemons, which adds a complex, slightly funky brininess to the usual citrus tang.
At the restaurant, she pipes the piquant curd inside plum-size cream puffs. Here, I pair it with a lemon-imbued angel food cake, which is fluffier and more ethereal.
At Lupulo in Chelsea in New York City, George Mendes offers another take on an egg custard, this one baked into the classic Portuguese desserts called pasteis de nata. In these small tarts, the egg custard centers puff like miniature soufflés in the oven before collapsing into their flaky, buttery crusts.
In springtime, the judicious use of eggs can lighten and transform even those same flavors we have grown weary of during the frigid months.
For example, in winter, chocolate typically gets melted into dense and molten cakes, tortes and truffled bonbons.
But for springtime, folding a little cocoa into a billowing meringue for a chocolate pavlova gives you a sense of buoyancy, but with a decided bittersweet punch.
Or you could throw yourself headlong into spring by whipping eggs into froth in a double boiler, as you do when you make sabayon (or zabaglione in Italian). The sweetened eggs turn into a warm, foamy mousse.
Chocolate Pavlova With Chocolate Mousse
Yield: 8 servings
Total time: 4 hours
6 egg whites, at room temperature (save the yolks for the mousse)
1 1/2 cups/300 grams granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
Pinch of fine sea salt
1/4 cup/28 grams cocoa powder, sifted
3 cups/710 milliliters heavy cream
6 egg yolks
6 tablespoons/70 grams granulated sugar
Pinch of fine sea salt
12 ounces/340 grams bittersweet chocolate, chopped, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon rum
1 cup crème fraîche, lightly whipped
Fresh berries or chocolate shavings (optional)
1. Make the pavlova: Heat oven to 250 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw an 8-inch circle in the middle, then flip the paper upside down. You should still be able to see the outline.
2. Mix egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar and salt in a mixing bowl set over a pan of simmering water. Whisk constantly until sugar dissolves and mixture is warm, 3 to 5 minutes.
3. Remove from heat and, using an electric mixer, beat with the whisk attachment on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form, about 5 to 7 minutes.
4. Gently sift cocoa powder over the egg whites, then use a rubber spatula to fold the cocoa into the whites until just combined. A few cocoa streaks are OK and in fact better than overmixing, which can deflate the meringue.
5. Spoon half the meringue mixture onto the circle on the parchment paper to form a round, spreading it all the way to the edges. Dollop remaining meringue around the outer edges on top of the circle, creating a nest to hold the filling.
6. Bake for 2 hours, or until dry and firm to the touch. Turn off the oven and allow the pavlova to cool in the oven 1 hour. Remove from oven and, if necessary, continue to cool to room temperature.
7. Make the mousse: In a medium saucepan, whisk together half of the cream, the yolks, half of the sugar and the salt. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until mixture coats the back of a spoon, 3 to 4 minutes. Remove from heat and pass through a fine-mesh strainer into a large bowl. Whisk in melted chocolate, vanilla and rum. Chill until cold, at least 2 hours.
8. Using an electric mixer, whisk together the remaining cream with remaining sugar until firm peaks form. Stir 1/3 of the whipped cream into the chocolate mixture to lighten it, then gently fold in the remaining cream. Refrigerate, covered, at least 30 minutes or up to 3 days.
9. Just before serving, spoon mousse into the center of the cooled pavlova, then top with crème fraîche. Top with fresh berries or chocolate shavings if desired.
Portuguese Egg Custard Tarts
Yield: 48 tarts
Total time: 1 hour
14 ounces all-butter puff pastry, thawed if frozen
1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar
1 cinnamon stick
1 cup plus 6 tablespoons/330 milliliters whole milk
1/2 cup/65 grams all-purpose flour
6 large egg yolks
Ground cinnamon, for serving
1. On a lightly floured surface, roll puff pastry into an 18-inch/46-centimeter square. Starting with the edge closest to you, tightly roll the dough into a log. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate until very firm, at least 30 minutes and preferably overnight.
2. Heat the oven to 500 degrees and arrange the oven racks in the top third and lower third of the oven. Place 2 cookie sheets on the oven racks while the oven heats.
3. In a medium saucepan, combine sugar, cinnamon stick and 2/3 cup/165 milliliters water. Bring to a boil and cook 1 minute. Turn off heat and let stand until you’re ready to use it.
4. Roll the firm log of pastry on a lightly floured surface until 1 inch/2 1/2 centimeters in diameter. Trim the ends, then cut the log into 1/2-inch/12-millimeter slices. (You should have 48.)
5. Using a rolling pin, roll one of the pastry rounds into a 2 1/2-inch/63-millimeter circle. Place pastry into the cavity of a mini-muffin tin, and press to evenly flatten the dough against the bottom and sides of the cavity, extending about 1/16 inch/3 millimeters above the rim of the pan. The dough should be about 1/16 inch/3 millimeters thick, with the bottom a bit thicker than the sides. Repeat with the remaining dough, chilling the cut rounds if dough becomes difficult to roll. Refrigerate crusts until firm, at least 10 minutes.
6. While the dough chills, finish the filling: In a small saucepan, heat 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon/255 milliliters milk over medium-low heat until bubbles begin to form around the edges.
7. In a large bowl, whisk flour with the remaining 5 tablespoons/75 milliliters milk. Continue whisking while adding the hot milk in a slow, steady stream. Discard the cinnamon stick from the sugar syrup and whisk the syrup into the milk mixture in a steady stream. Return to the saucepan and cook over medium-low heat, whisking constantly, until thickened, 5 to 10 minutes.
8. Place the yolks in a large bowl. Whisking constantly, add hot milk mixture to eggs in a slow stream until fully incorporated. Strain through a fine-mesh sieve. Pour warm filling into pastry shells until they’re three-quarters full.
9. Transfer tarts to the cookie sheets in oven and bake until the shells are golden brown and crisp, and the custards are golden brown and darkened in spots, 15 to 19 minutes.
10. Let cool in the pans on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then pop out tarts to continue cooling on the racks for another 5 minutes. Sprinkle with cinnamon and serve warm.
Lemon Angel Food Cake With Preserved Lemon Curd
Yield: 12 servings; total time: 1 hour, plus 2 hours’ chilling and cooling
1 cup/110 grams cake flour
1 1/3 cups/265 grams granulated sugar
12 large egg whites
Pinch kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/2 cup/62 grams confectioners’ sugar
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon lemon extract
1/2 cup/118 milliliters lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons powdered gelatin
6 large eggs
1 1/4 cups/250 grams granulated sugar
1/2 cup/113 grams unsalted butter (1 stick), melted
1/4 cup/60 milliliters preserved lemon juice (strained off from a batch of salt preserved lemons, either store-bought or homemade)
Finely grated zest of two lemons
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup/236 milliliters heavy cream
Make the cake: Heat the oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center.
Sift flour and 1/3 cup/65 grams granulated sugar into a large bowl.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine egg whites, salt and cream of tartar and beat with the whisk attachment on medium-high speed until medium peaks form, about 3 minutes.
Gradually add in remaining 1 cup/200 grams granulated sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and beat until firm, glossy peaks form. Beat in confectioners’ sugar, lemon zest, vanilla and lemon extract.
Sift a quarter of the flour mixture over egg whites and use a rubber spatula to fold until barely combined. Repeat with remaining flour in 3 more additions.
Scrape into an ungreased 10-inch tube pan, smooth top, and bake until cake is springy and pulls away from the pan, 35 to 40 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Make the curd: In a small bowl, combine 1/4 cup/59 milliliters lemon juice and gelatin; set aside to bloom. In a large bowl, lightly beat eggs.
In a medium bowl, combine granulated sugar, butter, remaining 1/4 cup/59 milliliters fresh lemon juice, the preserved lemon juice, the zest and the salt. Place bowl over a pot of simmering water until warm. Remove from the heat, then pour over the eggs in a thin stream, constantly whisking. Place bowl with the egg and lemon mixture over the simmering water pot and cook, stirring constantly, to 175 degrees, about 5 minutes.
Remove from heat, stir in gelatin mixture and immediately pour through a fine strainer into a wide bowl set over ice bath, stirring until mixture is cool. Chill for 1 hour.
Whip the cream until soft peaks form. Fold into the lemon curd and chill for another hour, until cold.
To serve, unmold the cake. Using a serrated knife, halve the cake crosswise to create 2 layers. Dollop on some of the lemon cream to cover. Top with the cake and dollop on more lemon cream. (Remaining lemon curd will last up to a week in the refrigerator.)