Chickens lay eggs every day. But in springtime — as earthly signs of new life or symbols of spiritual rebirth — eggs get their season in the sun. They are hard-boiled, dyed, blown out, gilded and even baked whole into festive breads. But for many eaters hooked on farm-fresh eggs laid by pastured chickens, it's what's on the inside of the eggshell that really counts.
Dru Peters can taste grass in the springtime eggs laid by the Plymouth Baard, Araucana, Rhode Island Red and Sicilian Buttercup chickens she and her husband, Homer Walden, pasture on their 13-acre Sunnyside Farm in Dover. The couple tends to 150 laying hens as part of a rotational grazing scheme encompassing beef cattle, broiler chickens, an occasional hog, and ducks, geese and turkeys.
Pastured eggs differ from their commercial counterparts because a significant portion of the hens' diet (35 percent for the Sunnyside birds) comes in the form of pasture grasses and the bugs that inhabit them. This outdoorsy cocktail colors their yolks a vibrant, almost neon orange.
Pastured hens are not kept in cages designed for cost-effective egg production, so they are by definition cage-free. They are also herded about in rolling pens that get moved to fresh patches of ground daily.
Walden, an engineer by training, has spent years tweaking the design of his rolling pens. They comprise a sturdy frame made of brightly painted two-by-fours, a slightly pitched roof and chicken-wire walls. Inside, Homer has affixed branches culled from felled trees that sit 18 inches off the ground so his girls can roost in comfort. There are boxes on the back, and the chickens retire there to lay their eggs.
The chickens serve as pest control and fertilizer spreading units, too. Three days after the cattle finish grazing on a specific piece of pasture, Homer pulls one of his mobile hen pens to that spot, and the chickens hunt and peck for their next meal, spreading the manure evenly in the process. Walden has constructed long wire tunnels that shoot out from the pen so the hens have access to long stretches of pasture. "The girls cooperate with the moves because they know fresh bugs are coming," says Homer, who prefers his eggs fried.
Many pasture poultry farmers adhere to pesticide-free practices, give their hens nonhormone, non–genetically modified feed and refrain from widespread use of antibiotics, though not all are certified organic operations.
According to Gregory Martin, a Penn State Cooperative Extension poultry educator in Lancaster County, eggs from pastured chickens account for only 1% of eggs sold in Pennsylvania. He says hurdles for farmers include protecting roaming hens from natural predators (hawks, foxes and owls) and from diseases carried by other birds in the wild, as well as increased labor costs associated with moving the birds regularly.
For consumers, the issues are price and availability. USDA records show that the average cost of one dozen commercially produced eggs sold in this area in January was $1.50, while cage-free eggs cost $2.99 a dozen and certified organic eggs cost $3.43. The farmers interviewed for this article charge $3.75 to $4 per dozen.
Anna Santini says she has no problem selling eggs laid by her own Rhode Island Reds, Black Hybrids and Ameraucanas as part of the Perry County–based North Mountain Pastures community supported agriculture (CSA) program. "Demand far outpaces the supply for these eggs," says Santini.
To keep her family supplied with fresh eggs, Kathy Hoffman keeps about 25 chickens on the property she and husband, Duane, own in Gardners. The Hoffmans' chickens roost in a protected henhouse custom-built by Duane with eight-foot windows that provide a view of the mountain and a flap door that lets them wander about in a spacious fenced-in portion of yard. The birds get to venture farther afield if Kathy is home and watching them.
Kathy keeps hard-boiled eggs on hand for snacks and uses them in a variety of baked goods. She's particularly fond of a lemon poppy seed cake, aptly called "Sunshine Cake," which almost glows bright yellow from the yolks.
But these freshest of the fresh eggs are not equally useful across culinary applications. For example, hard-boiling a fresh egg cleanly is a near impossibility. In his book On Food and Cooking, food scientist Harold McGee explains that fresh eggs' pH level of 8 makes the inner membrane of the egg adhere to the egg white. When three days old, the egg has a pH level of 9.2 and the problem no longer exists.
There is much debate about whether fresh or old egg whites are better for whipped-egg products like meringue, soufflé or angel food cake. On the one hand, a fresh egg white separates from its yolk more cleanly. Even a tiny bit of fatty yolk can prohibit the whites from frothing appropriately. But on the other hand, the proteins in older, more relaxed eggs tend to hold onto the air beaten into them better. Perhaps with this particular egg debate, it's six of one and a half dozen of the other.
To find fresh pastured eggs near you, use the search engine at localharvest.org.
recipes to go!
Sunny Side Egg in the Hole
The best way to show off the glories of a farm-fresh egg given up by a pastured chicken is to fry it sunny side up. This recipe revs up the presentation of that dish. As a bonus, the cut-out piece of toast is perfect for dipping into the brilliant, runny yolk.
2 slices thick bacon
1 piece of interesting bread (I like to use a 7-grain variety)
1 farm-fresh egg
1 Tablespoon grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a 12-inch nonstick frying pan, fry the bacon until it is crisp and has rendered its fat. Pour off all but about 2 Tablespoons of the fat. Set aside bacon separately from pan. Toast the bread. Using a circular cookie cutter, cut out a hole in the toast. Put the pan back on medium-high heat and place the holey bread into the pan. Crack the egg into the hole and fry it in there. You might have to take a paring knife and poke through the white a couple of times (remembering that farm fresh eggs have a thicker white than store-bought ones) so that more of it hits the heat of the pan underneath. You can also spoon some of the hot bacon fat onto of the egg white to help fully cook it on top. Place the circular cutout of toast into the pan and sprinkle cheddar cheese on top. Keep cutout in pan to warm bread and melt cheese. Once the egg is cooked, remove it and the toast round from the pan, season with salt and pepper to taste and serve hot with the cooked bacon. Serves 1.
Lemon Angel Food Layer Cake
This cake both shows off the color of the vitamin-rich yolks of pastured eggs in the lemon curd filling and the holding power of the whites exhibited in the height of the angel food cake.
This recipe easily doubles should you want leftovers to eat with a spoon.
2 Tablespoons lemon zest
¾ cup fresh lemon juice
4 egg yolks
4 whole eggs
½ cup white sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
12 Tablespoons (6 oz.) unsalted butter, cut into ½-inch chunks
Put about 1 inch of water in a medium-size saucepan and set it over medium heat so that it simmers. In a glass or metal bowl that will fit over the saucepan but not touch the water in it, combine lemon zest, lemon juice, egg yolks, whole eggs, sugar and salt. Whisk these ingredients together very well and set the bowl over the simmering water. Stirring all the while, heat up the egg mixture until an instant-read thermometer hits 172°F. Don't go higher than that temperature, as the eggs will curdle. (Less than that could leave your curd tasting like raw eggs, though.) Remove the curd from the heat and stir in the butter chunks one at a time as they melt into the mixture. Press the hot curd through a fine-weave sieve into a glass bowl. Cover the curd with plastic (make sure the wrap touches the top of the curd to avoid a skin) and cool overnight. Makes 2 cups, enough to provide filling for three layers of cake.
Angel Food Cake
You could certainly use a store-bought or boxed angel food cake to pull off this recipe, but then what would you do with all of the egg yolks left over from making the lovely, lemon curd described above?
1¼ cups white sugar
12 egg whites, kept at room temperature for 24 hours
¼ teaspoon salt
1½ teaspoons cream of tartar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 cup cake flour, sifted
1½ cups heavy cream
3 Tablespoons confectioner's sugar
A handful of candied lemon rind for garnish
Set a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 325°F. Place white sugar in the bowl of a food processor and process it with the metal blade for about 60 seconds to achieve what is called a "superfine" consistency. Set aside. Put the egg whites into a large bowl and beat with an electric mixture until foamy. Add the salt and cream of tartar and whip them to the soft peak stage. Gradually beat the sugar, 1 to 2 Tablespoons at a time, into the egg yolks and whip until stiff peaks form. Stir in the extracts. Sift the cake flour onto the batter and gently fold it in until no streaks or visible flour remain. Transfer to an ungreased angel food cake pan and bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until brown and a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Invert the pan onto its legs or over a bottleneck and let cool completely before removing from the pan. When it is cooled completely, use a serrated knife to cut the cake cross-wise into three layers. Put 1 layer on a cake plate, and spread ⅓ of the lemon curd all around it. Place the second layer on top of the curd and spread another ⅓ of the curd all around it. Place the third layer on top of it and spread the last ⅓ of the curd on the top of the cake. Whip the heavy cream until stiff and stir in the confectioner's sugar. Spread the whipped cream on the top and around the side of the cake. Chill the cake for at least 2 hours before slicing and serving. Makes 12-14 slices.
This potato omelet is widely available at almost any time in Spain. I like it best for dinner served with spicy grilled sausage, garlic aioli (recipe below) and a lightly dressed salad of delicate spring greens. The yolks of fresh eggs from pasture chickens combine with the yellow flesh of the Yukon Gold potatoes, which work best for this dish because of their lower starch content, to give the finished product a sunny glow.
¾ cup olive oil
7-8 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and sliced uniformly to about a ⅛-inch thickness
1 medium-size sweet onion, peeled, halved and sliced uniformly to about a ⅛-inch thickness
6 large, fresh pastured eggs
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon fresh ground pepper
Preheat oven to 350°F. Place olive oil in a good 12-inch nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot but not smoking, drop 1 potato slice into it. If it sizzles rapidly, it is ready to use. Working in batches, put about 1½ cups of sliced potatoes into the hot oil. Cook them for 2-3 minutes until they are somewhat soft, but not at all crispy. Remove the potatoes from the hot oil with a slotted spoon and place them in a large bowl. Repeat until all of the potatoes have been par-cooked in the oil. Set them aside to cool slightly. Remove all but 2 Tablespoons of the olive oil from the frying pan and sauté the onions until they are soft and slightly caramelized. While the onions are cooking, beat six eggs until they are well-combined. Add salt and pepper. Add the egg mixture to the par-cooked potatoes. Using a rubber spatula, fully coat the potatoes with the egg mixture, being very careful to keep the potato slices intact. Turn the heat under the pan of sautéing onions to medium high. Add the egg and potato mixture to the pan, taking care to spread it evenly. In a couple of places toward the middle of the pan, use a spatula to move some of the potatoes around so that more of the egg mixture hits the heat. This will ensure the eggs are fully cooked in the end. Once the bottom of the tortilla has set and has achieved a nice golden brown color, remove the pan from the heat. Carefully take a serving platter or baking sheet that will cover the entirety of the pan, and place it over the pan. Flip the pan over so the tortilla lands on the plate with the cooked side facing up. Then gently slide the tortilla back into the pan. Again, the cooked side is facing up and the uncooked side down on the hot pan at this point. Place the pan into the oven and cook it for about 10-12 minutes until the eggs have set completely. Remove the tortilla from the oven and transfer it to a clean serving platter. You can serve this dish hot, at room temperature or cold. But it is best to let it sit for 3-4 minutes before slicing it like a pie. Yields 8-10 slices.
Raw egg yolks — which are the centerpiece of this basic garlic mayonnaise — can raise food safety concerns for some. But knowing — and trusting — the source of my eggs allows me to dip into this flavorful condiment at will. For a truly springtime treat, swap out the garlic cloves for some finely minced garlic scapes, the shoots that grow up from young garlic bulbs nestled underground.
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
½ teaspoon kosher salt
2 egg yolks, room temperature
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 teaspoons lemon juice
¼ cup good-quality olive oil
½ cup vegetable oil
1 teaspoon warm water
Mash garlic and salt together in a mortar and pestle to achieve paste. Transfer the paste to the bowl of a food processor. Add egg yolks, mustard and lemon juice. Turn the processor on and combine these ingredients thoroughly. While the blade is still running, use a teaspoon to add the olive oil into the whizzing machine, drip by drip. After you've dripped the olive oil into the processor, you should see the mixture starting to emulsify. At this point you can start to add the vegetable oil in at a slightly faster pace — but never more quickly than a slow, steady stream, or the emulsification may break — until it's all mixed in. The mixture should be slightly thinner than store-bought mayonnaise. If you need to thin it, add teaspoons of warm water one at a time. Remove the aioli from the processor and refrigerate it until you are ready to use it. Aioli will keep refrigerated for about one week. Makes 1 cup.
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