Key Ingredient: Meg Galus conquers century eggs | Key Ingredient | Chicago Reader

Key Ingredient: Meg Galus conquers century eggs 

The green-and-brown preserved eggs don't look remotely edible—but the NoMi Kitchen pastry chef put them in a cookie.

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A halved century egg, aka "horse urine egg."

A halved century egg, aka "horse urine egg."

yumehana/Getty Images/iStockphoto

click to enlarge Sable made with century-egg yolk. - JULIA THIEL
  • Sable made with century-egg yolk.
  • Julia Thiel

The Chef: Meg Galus (NoMi Kitchen)
The Challenger: Leigh Omilinsky (Cafe des Architectes)
The Ingredient: Century egg

"The only way I would eat this is if I was on The Amazing Race and they were offering me a million dollars," Meg Galus said, gazing at a halved century egg on the counter at NoMi Kitchen, where she's the pastry chef. Challenged by Leigh Omilinsky to create a dish with the Chinese delicacy, she was confronting one of the world's least visually appealing foods. Ryan LaRoche, NoMi's executive chef, stopped in to say hello, and Galus offered him a taste. "I can't imagine anything I want less," he responded.

The green-and-brown century egg is also known as preserved egg, hundred-year egg, thousand-year egg, and, in Chinese, pidan. Its name in Thai translates as "horse urine egg"—possibly because of the egg's odor of ammonia, or the myth that it's preserved in horse urine. Galus compared the smell to not only ammonia but "stinky cheese that's been sitting out for a while and rubbed with some stuff and buried in dirt."

And that, essentially, is how the eggs are made. Traditionally they were coated in alkaline clay, which preserved them; in modern-day production they're usually soaked in a brine of salt, quicklime, and soda ash, then aged for several weeks. The process solidifies and darkens the egg white—it's "like brown Jell-O," Galus said. "It's clear and brown and gelatinous. And then the yolk—you know how if you overcook egg yolks, they turn that really nasty army green? That's the color . . . and it turns out they're liquid inside."

Galus found century eggs in a Chinatown shop with a dozen-odd brands. Not having any idea which to buy, she narrowed it down to the ones labeled lead-free and then picked the prettiest package. On the way back, she said, her car started to smell so bad she had to roll down the windows, never mind that it was snowing out.

On top of the liquid yolk, the century egg was challenging to work with for a couple of additional reasons, Galus said. "First of all, it's horrid. It smells bad, it looks bad . . .  The other thing is, it's a finished product. We don't usually put finished ingredients in pastries."

But because the ingredient was so unappealing, she said, the bar was set pretty low: "If I just make something edible, I'm golden."

Galus decided to use the yolks of century eggs in her recipe for sables, a type of shortbread for which cooked egg yolks are sometimes used to create a crumbly texture. Traditionally, the egg yolk is pressed through a tammis to create tiny crumbs, but when Galus tried this with the century egg, she ended up with what looked like a dark green goo. Unfazed, she mixed it into the other ingredients, yielding a green-flecked dough. It "looks like there are pistachios stirred into it—it's kind of green and speckled," she said. "I actually thought about putting pistachio flour in to kind of mask that, but I'm like, hey, let it be what it is."

Compared to traditional sables, the finished product was "definitely a little bit more savory," Galus said. "It's not as light and buttery and sugary. There's sort of a—I wouldn't quite say umami, but there's a different flavor going on there."

Nevertheless, it passed her test. "I succeeded in making something not tragic," she concluded. "I would rather have chocolate chip."

As for the remaining century-egg cookies, Galus said she was planning to "feed them to unsuspecting people. We always have a problem with people coming by and thinking that the pastry station is the snack station. So maybe today it will be the snack station."

Meg Galus - JULIA THIEL
  • Meg Galus
  • Julia Thiel

Who's next:

Courtney Joseph of Takashi, challenged by Galus to make a dish with rose water. "Apparently she hates it. I didn't even know that," Galus said. "I wanted to get off of this just-using-a-gross-ingredient track and use something that we might come across—usually do come across—in the pastry world, but that none of us like."

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