I’ve been reminiscing about a part of my childhood in New York’s Chinatown where I attended Chinese school every weekend. After class, mom or dad would walk me over to Mosco Street where in a tiny red corner stall, labored Cecilia Tam (aka the Egg Cake Lady) to buy a bag or two of her legendary egg puffs (aka eggettes) or 鷄蛋仔 – “gai daan jai” in Catonese.
Her stall became so popular over the years that more often than not there were more tourists waiting in line, clutching their cameras and tour books, than regulars. On weekends, the line would snake around the corner and the wait could be 10-20 minutes or longer.
If only iPhones and YouTube existed back then because all I have left of my memories are scattered images of Cecilia’s little stall that barely fit one person but somehow she managed to fit in a helper on busy weekends.
I recall the large jugs of pale golden batter that she kept at her feet. I remember her brushing oil on each mold before each pour of batter. I can see her flipping the molds but I can’t remember how many times or for how long. I remember her easing the cakes out of the mold with a fork onto a scratched up stainless steel pan and how she would jab at the eggettes with tongs to separate them and place the required amount into wax-paper bags. She had everything down to timing and order.
Weekends she was always slammed. Weekdays the wait would be nil or only 1-2 people. But on those slow days, she would have a few waxy bags of eggettes already filled. They are best eaten hot off the stove so I always asked, and patiently waited, for fresh ones and she always obliged.
With her increase in popularity, and inflation, the price of her egg cakes kept going up throughout the years. So we enjoyed them in less quantities, but we still enjoyed them as often.
At first they were $1 for 20 egg puffs, then $1 for 18, then $1 for 15. Even when imitators popped up around Chinatown selling them at $1 for 20 when Cecilia had further reduced her offerings to $1 for 12, the imposters were not worth the extra portions.
Once, pressed for time, we bought some egg cakes off a street vendor on Canal Street. They were so bland, so disappointing, I vowed I would never buy them from anyone again but from Cecilia, the one and only Egg Cake Lady.
Closing my eyes as I type this, I could almost imagine and taste those little airy puffs of heaven in my mouth. These were one of the very few sweets I enjoyed as a kid and I had a special way of eating them. I would first bite off the crunchy perimeter of each puff and then pop the soft rounds into my mouth. They were perfect in every way – not too sweet, so light, so fluffy, and so worth every penny. Cecilia could have asked for my first-born back then and I would have obliged.
She closed up shop probably a decade ago but I have never stopped thinking about her egg cakes. Especially when I walk down Mott where it meets Mosco Street. They bring back so many memories of my childhood in New York City.
For the last few years, I have considered sourcing one of those egg cake molds to attempt a recipe at home. Then, as if my prayers were answered, Williams-Sonoma (my second favorite kitchenware store only after Crate and Barrel) came out with their own version – the Nordic Ware Egg Waffle Pan – and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one.
So when I was back home in the States this past summer, I headed over to a Williams-Sonoma and picked up one of their Egg Waffle Pans. And just this week, I finally got around to experimenting with the batter.
I’ve seen some recipes online that call for custard powder but honestly, I was too lazy to walk or drive to Waitrose, so I decided to make real custard with milk and eggs.
During my first attempt at the batter, I don’t why, but I used heavy cream instead of milk and the batter came out too thick. And even though I tempered the eggs, they still became clumpy and I had to throw out the whole gooey mess.
For my second attempt, I used full fat milk and the resultant batter was much better. I included baking soda hoping that it would make the cakes fluffy. I don’t know if it did.
Maybe I’ll add more baking soda next time to see what happens. Or maybe I should be using baking powder? I never know which one I’m supposed to use.
I really enjoyed the flavor of this second batch – eggy and just the perfect touch of sweetness for me – but the spongy texture wasn’t quite right – not fluffy enough like Cecilia’s and not crispy enough around the edges.
(Dec 12, 2001 – Edited to Note: I have been experimenting the last two weeks and have come up with a recipe that resemble’s Cecilia’s in taste AND texture. Will be posting it shortly.)
I am sending this post over to Sally at My Custard Pie to join in on her Custard themed “Monthly Mingle.” Thanks Sally for hosting this month and for spurring me on to finally make this eggette snack from my childhood days.
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[Edited Jan 22, 2012: I’ve since posted a simpler and more authentic tasting recipe on these Hong Kong egg cakes here.]