FOR YEARS, I thought I wanted backyard chickens. I envied friends with henhouses by the garden, amiable Araucanas and elegant Australorps clucking and foraging bugs.
I know better now. I didn’t really want chickens; I wanted something simpler: eggs. Chickens would mean vet bills, constant vigilance against predators, daily chores, surrendering the garden greens that would be devoured right along with the aphids.
Since deciding that the egg comes before the chicken, I’ve bought them four dozen at a time, as many as if I had a generous flock of my own. The eggs come from friends whose chickens roam an idyllic yard, feasting on well-balanced grains and organic scraps. Similar arrangements pop up regularly in my online neighborhood groups.
It’s a relatively new phenomenon for Seattle, where city codes once barred owning enough chickens to generate a realistic surplus. Seattle allowed no more than three chickens in a residential yard until 2010, when the number was upped to eight chickens for lots up to 10,000 square feet (no roosters, though!). The switch was meant to encourage urban agriculture, the city Department of Constructions and Inspections wrote the following year, noting a rise in “chicken-related complaints.”
While the neighborhood egg transactions have a clandestine feel, such sales actually are legal and require no permits here, according to the state Department of Agriculture. Sellers technically must use clean cartons and chill the eggs to 45 degrees or less. (There are plenty of debates on whether backyard eggs really need to be refrigerated if unwashed, on the theory that unwashed eggs retain a protective outer coating. In the European Union, even store-bought eggs are unwashed and sold unrefrigerated, though the EU takes other measures to control salmonella.) Chicken expert Lisa Steele, who writes the popular “Fresh Eggs Daily” blog and a new cookbook of the same name, likes to keep a decorative bowl of eggs on the counter, but she notes that even unwashed eggs will last longer if stored in the fridge.
At first I thought I might have trouble using all the eggs I’d agreed to buy, but the abundance has become a feature of the arrangement rather than a … bug. I’ve never had access to such quantities of fresh, pastel-shelled, golden-yolked beauties. That said, oodles of eggs are not just a small-scale luxury for those with lucky friendships or neighborhood sales. Costco eggs come in 48-packs or even 60-packs at a much cheaper price, which I’ve also taken advantage of, albeit without the pretty colors and the comforting knowledge of the chickens’ names, personalities and cosseted lives.
Especially with vegetarians in the house, a family of five goes through four dozen eggs surprisingly fast, without even exceeding recommendations for dietary limits. A meal of omelets easily uses up a dozen. Our favorite tea eggs could use another dozen or two. And we still love eggy breakfast sandwiches, with the big kids going for two eggs instead of one. When I don’t know what to cook for dinner, I can throw together a frittata with the eggs and whatever vegetables and cheeses are handy, and when I don’t know what’s for breakfast, I can microwave a frozen burrito stuffed with scrambled eggs and sautéed vegetables. (I make a full tray and toss them in the freezer when I have weekend time and 24 eggs to spare, usually with the former as the limiting factor.)
I was hardly hurting for options when I paged through Steele’s enticing book, but I was egged on by pages of new options, including Pannukakku, a Finnish oven pancake much like a Dutch Baby, calling for six eggs. I made it once to great family acclaim, then tried a few variations over the weeks: switching out cinnamon and nutmeg for the cardamom (also good!); combining ingredients in the blender instead of stirring (pancake too dense; won’t repeat that); cutting back on the butter, since the full allotment left some pooled on the top (works just fine).
I’m glad my repertoire now includes the puffy, golden-edged treat, which is as impressive as a soufflé. It’ll be my new centerpiece for a fancy brunch. Most of the time, I’ll have enough eggs around that I could make enough for a crowd.
Pannukakku (Finnish Oven Pancake)
A cross between a popover and a Yorkshire pudding, Pannukakku is the Finnish version of a Dutch Baby. Both my mother and grandmother used to bake this dish, so it’s a childhood treat I remember fondly. The custardy batter, scented with hints of cardamom, is baked in the oven until it puffs up, and it can be savory or sweet, depending on the topping. It’s slightly sweet on its own but pairs well with bacon, sausage links or herbs such as tarragon or dill. Pannukakku is often baked in a square pan, but I use a cast-iron skillet. Leftovers can be refrigerated and reheated or eaten at room temperature.
1½ cups milk
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
⅛ teaspoon ground cardamom
½ teaspoon salt
¼ cup (½ stick) butter
1. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs, milk, sugar and vanilla bean paste.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, cardamom and salt. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture, and whisk until smooth and no lumps remain. The batter will be thin and look like pancake batter. Let the batter rest for 10 to 15 minutes while you preheat the oven to 425 degrees F.
3. Add butter to a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, and put it in the oven for a few minutes or until the butter melts. Swirl the pan to evenly cover the bottom with butter.
4. Once the batter has rested, pour it into the hot skillet, and bake until your Pannukakku is puffy and golden brown, about 12 to 15 minutes.
5. Remove the pan from the oven, and let it cool for a few minutes, then cut the Pannukakku into slices or wedges, and serve topped with confectioners’ sugar, jam or fresh fruit.
— “The Fresh Eggs Daily Cookbook” by Lisa Steele (Harper Horizon, $27.99)