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.
Soon after, I started experimenting with the batter. Initially, I made a batch of eggettes using fresh custard (made from milk and eggs). But the taste and consistency wasn’t right.
Now I use custard powder and just throw everything into my Kitchen Aid stand mixer, turn it on and voila! Batter done. No need to heat up milk nor temper eggs to make custard, etc., etc.
I’m sure time erodes taste memories, but I really do feel that this recipe resembles what I remember from my childhood days.
The texture is perfect – crunchy around the edges and I love nibbling all the crispy bits that surround each puff before moving on to the soft middle – and with each bite, I am transported back in time, smiling at nostalgic memories.
A few weeks back, I whipped up a couple batches to experiment with altering the ingredients and found that using either tapioca starch, potato starch, corn starch or custard powder worked just fine. However, using custard powder did give the eggettes a richer vanilla taste since custard powder is essentially vanilla-flavored corn starch.
For those experiments that didn’t use custard powder, I doubled the amount of vanilla extract (or essence) from one teaspoon to two teaspoons.
I think the most essential ingredient for the batter to taste right is evaporated milk. I had never used evaporated milk before and I was curious as to the different brands. I decided to try a few of them…just for fun. And was glad that I did.
The best tasting batch I found was made using Rainbow “Gold.” I think it gave the eggettes a richer, fuller flavor. Even the label reads: “Richer and Creamier.”
I tried omitting vegetable oil from the batter but that wasn’t a huge success as the final product came out a bit dry.
I also made batches pitting vanilla extract versus vanilla essence. Perhaps it was all in my mind or I’m just biased in thinking that anything with alcohol tastes better because I thought the batch with vanilla extract tasted better than the one with vanilla essence.
However, vanilla extract is not available in the UAE as it contains alcohol. I have a precious stash of two bottles that I hope will last me until the next out-of-town visitor arrives to replenish it.
Just before I pour the batter into the Nordic Ware egg waffle pan, I apply a thin layer of vegetable oil with a pastry brush. If you own one of these pans, be sure to wash it when it’s submerged under water so that you don’t end up a soaking mess like I did and a soft-bristle brush like this IKEA one works great for getting out all the dried-up batter from the crevices.
Using the pan, it took some practice to get consistently crispy edges and for my electric stovetop, here’s what worked: pre-heating the pans for 5 minutes using heat level 4 (my stovetop has heat settings 0 to 6), then reducing it to heat level 3 just as I poured in the batter. Two minutes on one side – Flip – two minutes on the other.
So it would seem that for my oven, heating it at a higher temperature helped create the crispy crunchy edges that I love and then reducing the temperature down a notch prevented burning. You’ll have to experiment with your gas or electric oven to find the equivalent settings.
Finally, I’d like to share with you my secret for successful food photography.
And that would be a napping baby ;).
Halfway through taking photos for this post, Wee Scotch woke up (early, I might add) from his nap and since he was crying, I didn’t want to leave him alone in his crib.
Although I firmly told him not to touch any of “Mama’s” camera equipment nor food, the little rounds of eggettes were just too tempting for a two-year old. Especially since he knew exactly what they were, having been my special taste tester for all the experimental batches.
After he devoured half my set-up, I turned my attention to photographing the inside of an egg puff. Wee Scotch had a whole bag of eggettes in his hand but somehow he just couldn’t resist snatching the one that was in my fingers.
It happened so fast that I didn’t even know it was happening. Wee tyke.
- 1 cup (4 oz or 120 g) all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon tapioca starch or corn starch
- 1 tablespoon custard powder, optional
- 2 large eggs
- ⅔ cup (4 oz or 120 g) sugar, more if you have a sweeter tooth, or less if you don't
- 2 tablespoons evaporated milk
- 5 oz (150 mL) water
- 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract or vanilla essence
- more vegetable oil for brushing/spraying on the egg waffle pan
- In a large bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, tapioca or corn starch, and optional custard powder with a spoon or fork. You can also sieve these dry ingredients but I didn't bother.
- Add the eggs, sugar, vegetable oil, and vanilla extract/essence. Give it a whirl with an electric mixer (start at low speed so the flour doesn't erupt out of the bowl and increase to medium speed) or spatula.
- Pour in the evaporated milk and water. Mix thoroughly.
- It may be slightly lumpy and this point and I found that letting it stand for an hour (whether in room temperature or fridge) helped dissolve the lumps.
- Set a wire rack on a baking sheet or large plate.
- Pre-heat each half of the waffle pans on separate burners over medium-high heat until hot. I pre-heated mine for 5 minutes.
- Lightly brush or spritz each pan with vegetable oil. Lower heat to medium.
- Pour ¾ cup of the batter into the middle of the egg waffle pan (if you pour too much, it will either leak out the side or prevent the waffle pan from closing tightly) and give the pan a quick swirl to distribute some of the batter to the outer holes.
- Immediately place the other side of the pan on top, flip the pan over and cook for 2 to 2.5 minutes.
- Flip again and cook for a further 2 to 2.5 minutes. Exact timing will depend on your stove and heat output.
- Open the pan and invert the eggettes onto the wire rack and let cool for a minute or so. I used a plastic fork to help loosen the egg cakes from the mold.
- Repeat with the remaining batter. Enjoy!
-I tried to provide measurements for both American and metric measurements by weighing the ingredients and then pouring them into cups to determine their volume (ie. grams to cups)