On a frosty morning in mid-January, Kyrstin Arellano worked in her kitchen on the outskirts of Dillingham. About three dozen perfectly round bright blue blobs rested patiently on a baking sheet.
“I’ve got some vegan macaron shells here,” she said. “They look good so far, and when I was mixing, they felt regular. So I’m really hopeful.”
The national egg shortage has forced everyone to use less eggs, and bakers like Arellano are rising to the challenge — just in time for Valentine’s Day.
Arellano is a home baker. That is, she bakes from her house for Bristol Bayking, a business she started last year. Along with signature and custom cakes, Arellano experiments with local ingredients like cranberries, salmonberries and fireweed.
“I mostly make macarons,” she said. Macarons are small French desserts made of two delicate meringue shells that sandwich a filling of jam, curd, ganache or cream. “They’re for sure my most popular, and my favorite thing to make. I also make cakes and cupcakes to order, for birthdays and stuff. But I really enjoy making the macarons.”
Egg-based desserts in an egg shortage
Macaron shells are normally made by whipping together egg whites, almond flour, and powdered and granulated sugar and piping the batter in rounds onto a tray. But how do you make an egg-based dessert without using eggs?
Arellano uses aquafaba — chickpea water she gets from a can of grocery-store chickpeas, whipping it up into soft peaks just like egg whites.
“Macaron shells don’t actually have a lot in them,” she said.
Arellano is no stranger to staples being out of stock.
“We go through this all the time,” she said. “Last year, powdered sugar and butter were hard to find. Sometimes milk is hard to find.”
Baking in the bush
Like many others, Arellano began baking after the COVID-19 pandemic started three years ago. In rural Alaska, that takes a certain innovative flair. Arellano has honed her ability to find substitute ingredients, like using vinegar and baking soda as a raising agent. And when she can’t find buttermilk at the store, she makes it herself, combining a cup of milk with a tablespoon of vinegar.
“You mix it together and let it curdle a bit, ‘cause that’s all buttermilk is: acidic milk,” she said.
Arellano has three fridges at home, so she’s been able to stock up some eggs. But she’s had to cut back, which means trying new recipes and better understanding why eggs are used in baking. They can provide structure, leavening and flavor.
“Depending on your recipe, the egg might provide moisture, in which case you can substitute with something like yogurt or applesauce to get that moisture,” she said. “You get to be a little more resourceful baking in the bush, because what can you do?”
When Arellano first started her business, she shipped most of her cakes out to villages like Togiak, New Stuyahok and Manokotak.
“I really appreciate them,” she said of customers in other communities. “I’m also getting a feel for the big birthday months in Dillingham.”
Arellano has also sent birthday cakes out on fishing boats in the summer. She said her client base is loyal; she does monthly pre-sales, and her flash sale batches regularly sell out.
Rest, then bake
The first batch of macarons went into the oven for a total of 18 minutes while the second batch rested on the baking sheet. They need anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour before baking to develop a skin, which protects them from the heat.
“If I put them in before they’ve developed the skin, they’re going to – it’s called ‘volcano’ – they literally pop up like a volcano in the middle and crater and are just horrible,” she said. “So, really important to let them sit and develop that skin.”
Arellano opened the oven door and turned the tray around, ensuring that the shells are evenly baked.
“When they first come out of the oven, before they have any filling, they’re hollow,” she said, tapping on a finished shell, which emits a delicate, hollow sound. “And so when you fill them, the moisture allows the shell to expand inside and get soft.”
When the shells came out, they had swelled slightly and developed small ruffled edges, called “feet.” But none erupted — each was still perfectly round, like rows of blueberry emojis.
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