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"This is how my father ordered egg creams as a kid," a friend once told me. "He'd take a sip at the counter and say, 'I'm sorry, but this doesn't have enough milk. Could you add some more?' The soda jerk would add some, dad would take another sip, and say, 'Sorry, but now it needs more chocolate.' He'd go on like this, getting constant top-offs, until the soda jerk had basically given him a free extra egg cream trying to get it 'right.'"
Diehard fans of the egg cream, that Brooklyn soda fountain concoction of milk, seltzer water, and chocolate syrup* (it famously has no eggs or cream), know that beneath this scam lies a kernel of honesty: an egg cream tastes either perfect ("right") or tragically wrong. There is no middle ground. Perhaps that's why today's New Yorkers treat this once iconic beverage like a museum piece from some discredited art movement.
* Egg creams do come in vanilla and occasionally other flavors, but chocolate is by far the most famous.
I don't think I've ever ordered one before.
I...just...don't get it. Why would you want carbonated chocolate milk?
They're invariably disappointing.
And those are only comments from lifelong New Yorkers in the Serious Eats office!
Valid criticisms all for those less-than-perfect egg creams. But if by some chance you come across one that's well made, you know there's nothing else like it. The perfect egg cream is a simple drink with a touch of class. It's rich with chocolate and gently creamy yet totally refreshing, with a subtle mineral flavor unique to the U-Bet brand chocolate syrup required for its manufacture. And no bubbly drink quite matches its frothiness—the thick head of a stout and all the lively bubbles of Champagne.
As an ever-hopeful rube, I order an egg cream every time I see one on a menu. These days, that's almost at exclusively diners, which in New York don't have a sterling reputation for carefully made food. So sure enough, I'm suckered into drinking a lot of sub-par egg creams, and it's easy to see why most New Yorkers these days give egg creams a pass—and why some have never even heard of them.
It wasn't always so. There are competing theories about the drink's origin, but most historians agree it began popping up in Brooklyn soda fountains in the late 19th or early 20th century. One poetic theory uses Yiddish etymology to explain the drink's paradoxical name: echt keem is Yiddish for "pure sweetness," just an Anglicization away from "egg cream," two ingredients that have never been part of the recipe.
Tracing the drink's decline is an easier task. For one, the meteoric rise of mass-produced soft drinks in the late 20th century largely put independent soda fountains out of business, and with them popular specialty drinks like phosphates, rickeys, and egg creams.
There was little reason for restaurants to pick up the slack. Unlike Coke or root beer, which can be shot out of a bar's soda gun, egg creams need to be made to order, ideally with seltzer from a siphon that's then frothed into the drink by hand. They're time consuming and messy to make with shrinking demand—not exactly a high incentive to offer them on menus.
That said, tales of the egg cream's demise have been exaggerated. You can find them at plenty of old school New York diners, and some, like Tom's in Prospect Heights and Annapoli in Bay Ridge, even consider them selling points.
What makes a good egg cream? It's all about balance: chocolate syrup adds flavor and richness, but too much becomes cloying; whole milk brings creaminess and fat, but too much robs the drink of its refreshing quality; and seltzer adds lightness through bubbles, but even a little extra renders the egg cream bland.
Ingredients matter too, starting with the syrup. A classic egg cream must be made with Fox's U-Bet syrup. Part of that is tradition—Fox's has been made in Brooklyn since the early 1900s—but also flavor chemistry. U-Bet is a little less sweet than other syrups like Hershey's, and its recipe includes an extra ingredient: milk powder, which enriches the syrup and lends it a distinct lactic mineral twang. Using another syrup for egg creams is like topping pancakes with powdered sugar instead of maple syrup—you miss out on a certain depth.
Many egg cream enthusiasts argue that the choice of seltzer matters just as much as the syrup, namely that it has to come from a siphon, not a can or bottle. While I've had some good egg creams made from canned seltzer, the vast majority are indeed made with a siphon. But there's more to seltzer than its source. The way it's frothed into the drink also makes a difference.
Traditional recipes (like our own) call for dissolving the syrup into milk first, then adding seltzer while rapidly stirring with a spoon to form the frothy head that crowns the egg cream. Stirring both integrates the seltzer and aerates the egg cream by creating more bubbles. Some of those bubbles remain trapped in the creamy head, but others flutter away, taking their carbonation with them and turning the drink flat. So an egg cream-maker must froth well enough to emulsify the drink and develop its head but no so hard as to rob it of its bubbly punch. Spritzing in seltzer from a soda siphon may help with this—the force of the siphon blends the drink with less added stirring required.
A small but dedicated crop of egg cream revivalists are working hard to bring the egg cream—and its deceptively complex recipe—back into fashion. In Carroll Gardens, ice cream and soda shop Brooklyn Farmacy was built to celebrate classics like the egg cream. The meticulously retro-restored shop scoops up gargantuan ice cream sundaes and makes their own soda fountain syrups, but their egg cream recipe is all classic: milk, Fox's U-Bet chocolate syrup, and seltzer from the siphon.
Pastry chef Anna Markow toyed with a more deluxe version during her time at Brooklyn's Milk River. She made her own syrups: one with vanilla bean for the vanilla and a chocolate version "even less sweet than U-Bet" but with a dose of powdered milk to mimic its unique flavor. She also added a touch of heresy: some heavy cream to go along with the milk, which made the drink more creamy and "created a more stable head of foam on top that would survive any long walk to a table."
But Markow notes that the fancified egg creams didn't sell well, a sign of the uphill battle egg cream lovers face in getting new forces for the cause. Perhaps the new Russ & Daughters Cafe, where you can buy a house-made egg cream for $7, will have better luck.
Where to Get a Great Egg Cream
Though bad egg creams vastly outnumber good ones, you can still find a winner if you know where to look. Ignore those "famous" egg cream spots (I'm looking at you, Gem Spa) in favor of one of these five.
The best egg cream I've had in recent memory comes from Shopsins in the Essex Street Market (currently closed until August 6th). Though it comes in a plastic cup rather than the traditional glass, it's perfectly rich yet refreshing with a thick head full of tiny stable bubbles. If you're trying to win over an egg cream novice, this is where you take them.
Greenpoint doughnut shop Peter Pan also makes an excellent egg cream, and unlike at Shopsins, here it's made with seltzer from a can. The drink is a hair less refreshing than the Shopsins version, perhaps lending credence to the argument for siphon superiority.
Gramercy diner Joe Junior makes an impeccable burger, but also a very good egg cream, more creamy than at Shopsins and Peter Pan. Chinatown's Classic Coffee Shop may make the borough's best tuna melt, and their egg cream, which has a more delicate head than others, is the perfect rejoinder. Brooklyn Farmacy's drier egg cream stays true to tradition and is also well worth drinking.
Then there's Eddie's Sweet Shop in Forest Hills, the only one on this list to eschew Fox's U-Bet syrup for their own homemade recipe. Their egg cream lacks that telltale U-Bet milk powder, but the chocolate has enough richness and complexity to make up for it. A different kind of egg cream to be sure, but certainly a good one.
And if these egg creams are all out of your reach? You can always make your own.