Whip It

All this talk about air bubbles and leavening has me wondering about egg foams. Specifically, how and when cooks started whipping up eggs (especially whites) and using them to raise baked goods. There’s surprisingly little published on this (ehem) critically important topic. But dammit I want to know! Somebody needs to lie awake at night thinking about these things. Be glad it’s not you.

So. We know that the idea of a whisk, if not the modern implement itself, has been around since at least the late 1500’s. There are records of a dish called snow being served around that time, which was basically just a heap of slightly sweetened egg white foam that had been whipped up with a birch twig (this idea would eventually lead to the first true meringues in the late 1700’s).

But to find an instance where an egg foam was actually used to leaven something, we’d probably need to look to the soufflé. There’s spotty evidence that the soufflé was around as early as the 1740’s. The first real proof of its existence, however, doesn’t pop up until 1782 when the world’s first restauranteur, a semi-evil, entirely egomaniacal food genius named Antoine Beauvilliers, opened Paris’ first true restaurant (which was not at all surprisingly called Beauvilliers). Beauvilliers is said to have served soufflés from opening day. The first printed soufflé recipe (his) was published in 1814.

But a soufflé isn’t really a baked good, properly speaking. It’s an egg dish, and a delicate, sorta-hard-to-make one at that. To find a true baked good leavened with egg foam we have to jump all the way to 1870’s America and the angel food cake.

Why the big gap in between? There’s not much definitive to go on, except to say that it’s one thing to serve a dish based on a time and energy-intensive egg white whipping technique at an expensive restaurant in Paris, and quite another to have that technique adopted by home cooks, especially back in the days when there was no Rachel Ray around to guide us. My thought: there were probably very few people who either knew to do it, or would have been willing to before the invention of the egg beater in the 1860’s. That’s about the time that mass-marketed baking pans, implements, and other labor-saving devices for the kitchen started to show up.

Thus ends our investigation…however incompletely. And if the question is whether I’ve got too much time on my hands today the answer is yes. But look at it this way, I could be drinking.

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