For New Yorkers and nostalgists of a certain age, the term egg cream conjures a host of pleasant associations: hot summer afternoons, classic American drugstore soda fountains, and bygone youth.
For the uninitiated, let’s get the basics out of the way: The classic egg cream contains neither eggs nor cream, but is instead a satisfying, highly quaffable fusion of milk, chocolate syrup (often Fox’s u-bet), and seltzer water, which lends a bit of froth to the proceedings when shaken. Essentially, it’s fizzy chocolate milk, or a chocolate ice cream soda sans ice cream. There are numerous theories as to how the egg-less, cream-less concoction came to earn its curious appellation, but no single explanation is definitive. So we’ll refrain from speculation in this space. What I will say with considerable conviction is that egg creams are delicious, enormously refreshing, not too sweet when made properly, and thoroughly underexploited. So maybe it’s time quick serves rediscovered them.
Lest you think the egg cream is too obscure to be revived and celebrated, you might note that March 15 has been recognized in some circles as National Egg Cream Day, and that some pretty good bars and restaurants well outside New York—including Polite Provisions in San Diego’s trendy North Park neighborhood—offer their own versions. These seem like sure signs of the drink’s timeless, universal appeal.
The use of chocolate in beverages isn’t new; indeed, this is actually the oldest known culinary application of chocolate. Originally, in pre-modern Latin America, chocolate was not eaten, but was instead used in the preparation of a thin, fermented beverage made from cacao beans—a brew that would be distinctly unpleasant to most palates today. With its bitter and savory notes, the drink the Aztecs referred to as xocolatl just wouldn’t cut it in a 21st century soft-drink environment, where cloyingly sweet sodas, iced teas, and juice-based solutions reign. (I once mixed ground cocoa nibs with water just to get a sense of what the original creation might have tasted like. Let’s just say once was enough.)
Nowadays, chocolate—despite its purported health benefits and enviable status as one of the world’s favorite flavors—is more or less absent from the beverage landscape. If we agree that milkshakes, Frappuccino-type drinks, and hot cocoa are really just desserts as opposed to thirst quenchers, then it follows that there may be room on today’s menuboards for a thinner, carbonated, chocolate-based beverage. So here are a few suggestions for reinventing the old-fashioned egg cream for more modern tastes.
Think like a mixologist. Great bartenders today often tinker with cocktails’ basic compositions to arrive at novel variations on already great themes. A Manhattan cocktail made with good rye or bourbon whiskey, sweet vermouth, and traditional bitters can be delicious. But at the Randolph Tavern in downtown Chicago, the bitters are chocolate, and the addition of Cherry Heering liqueur makes for a refreshing, soda fountain–like twist. Mixologists’ modus operandi is to take different flavors and either layer them to complement one another or combine them in proportions that create a kind of pleasant dissonance or counterpoint. What emerges, in the best cases, is a holistic product where each ingredient brings something unique and useful to the mix.
Consider floral designs. For our purposes, let’s think of an egg cream as a kind of G-rated Manhattan and consider what might result if we were to give it, say, a floral or herbaceous spin with the addition of rosewater, lavender, verbena, or elderflower. The perfume of these ingredients marries well with chocolate and would likely create a beverage with an intriguing and complex blend of sensory characteristics. And just as many consumers have grown accustomed to a little basil in their lemonade or a little cucumber or mint in their water, they may respond favorably to a cold, sweetened, carbonated dairy drink that boasts both chocolate and floral overtones.
Plunder the spice rack. Fifteen or 20 years ago, the idea of pairing chocolate with savory or spicy ingredients was still somewhat avant garde. Nowadays, few of us flinch when confronted with salted dark chocolate caramels, and bacon-infused chocolate bars are practically mainstream treats. So just as consumers have come to embrace chocolate confections that contain unusual and provocative spices, I’d suggest that a well-crafted egg cream–like drink spiked with chile powders (chipotle, jalapeño, and so on), cinnamon, green tea, curry, or Chinese five-spice might just earn the approval, admiration, and discretionary dollars of a Millennial cohort that’s always on the prowl for unique flavors and experiences.
Play the health card. It should be noted that, provided one uses low-fat or non-fat milk and takes a light hand with the chocolate syrup, an egg cream can actually be a relatively nutritious drink. And with some creative additions—goji berries, flax, nuts, or high-protein grains such as amaranth or quinoa—it could become a nutritional powerhouse, and a delicious one.
I don’t necessarily expect that an international egg-cream craze is in the offing, but I do think that a return to chocolate’s beverage roots is an idea with potentially lucrative implications for chains that approach the task creatively and put a little marketing muscle behind it. If you get a chance to play around with the concept, please let me know how it works for you by dropping a note to Marc@qsrmagazine.com.