These eggs are buttercream of the crop

Arundel church keeps up tradition with handmade eggs that always sell out

March 30, 2003|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

The secrets are technique and tradition, they tell you in Shady Side - along with rich, fresh buttercream slathered in thick chocolate, which melts on your tongue.

That's why all 3,752 of the quarter-pound Easter eggs handmade by church volunteers in this small Anne Arundel County community will be spoken for, at $1.50 each, before the buttercream sets.

"It's about the companionship and the fellowship," says Nancy Kitchen Bryant, 66, who guards the recipe given to her mother decades ago, and who worships at Centenary United Methodist Church, the beneficiary of Shady Side's eggmaking extravaganza.

Done by a succession of service groups for more than a generation, the eggmaking operation was picked up last year by church members hoping to make a dent in a $500,000 mortgage on the replacement for their church, which was destroyed by fire three years ago.

Until the blaze, Centenary - with a section dating back to 1886 - was a fixture on this flat peninsula a half-hour from Annapolis. For miles around, its illuminated 55-foot-tall steeple served as a beacon.

The 300-member congregation expects to open the new church, with an identical steeple, on Pentecost Sunday, the second Sunday in June.

And the handmade Easter eggs will help to pay for it.

Over three weeks in March, at the nearby Kiwanis Club, church members gathered to churn out four flavors of chocolate-covered eggs - chocolate, coconut, peanut butter and plain buttercream.

They whipped and dipped, chatted and patted in a small-town ritual that could have come out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Each 1,000-egg batch took 12 hours over several days to make.

The secret recipe starts with Camille Vogts, 66, buying mammoth quantities of ingredients: 480 pounds of confectioner's sugar, 160 pounds of butter and 140 pounds of chocolate.

Only the blending of the buttercream is done by machine, an industrial mixer with a bucket-sized bowl.

The rest is done by hand, by volunteers such as Virginia DeMoreland, 87, who began making the eggs with an Order of the Eastern Star chapter 40 years ago.

Back then, eggmaking overran the home of member Marietta Kitchen. Women hand-beat hundreds of pounds of buttercream on the back porch, melted vats of chocolate in the kitchen and chilled up to 8,000 eggs on the front porch.

"My mother used to make me get out of bed to weigh sugar for this so that when the girls came down to start their eggs, they'd be ready to roll," David Kitchen, 54, recalled.

Originally, the seven-flavor variety ranged from "dabs" the size of robin's eggs to mini-footballs of a full pound and more, some special-ordered by senators on Capitol Hill.

The eggworks relocated when the Eastern Star bought a building. But the group faded and, about a decade ago, passed the spatula to the Kiwanis, which made the eggs until 1999.

Then Shady Side went into buttercream withdrawal.

Last year, Centenary - the congregation intact but worshiping at another church - stepped in. The Kiwanis Club, some of whose members attend Centenary, opened their facilities for eggmaking. Word of mouth sold out all 2,600 quarter-pounders three weeks before Easter.

These days, the springtime production line continues as smoothly as ever. As usual, no one mentions calories, but everyone talks about cross-country and global shipping of eggs to friends, soldiers, relatives.

So well-practiced is David Kitchen that when he plops a blob of buttercream on a commercial scale, .22 pounds - the exact amount - usually appears on the digital display.

Everyone grabs a gob, and here's where technique comes in.

"I just roll it around in my hand, and you just give it a little flat butt," says Bryant, spinning the buttercream blob so deftly that it's airborne.

"I knead mine first. I think it makes it smoother," says Bettsy Wermine, 52.

"I am going to form it," explains Elaine Catterton, 59, giving the putty a gentle squeeze before tapping it all around.

The result? Assorted blimp shapes lined up on trays to chill overnight in an unheated adjacent room. If the temperature tops 55 degrees, the air conditioners must be turned on.

"You see? Some are potatoes. Some are torpedoes. Here's a Volkswagen. Everybody's got their own way," says Dennis Kitchen, 58. "Once they are dipped and decorated they look like eggs. They all taste good, no matter how they are shaped."

Dipping, too, is a matter of technique.

"Some people go `dip ,dip, dip' - and they are fast. When I do it, I've got it running down my elbow," Camille Vogts says.

Warming trays ensure that the semisweet chocolate soup, which began as 10-pound bricks, maintains a consistency that results in an even glaze. Too hot translates into eggs jumping from dippers' hands, but too cool means a gloppy, sloppy coating.

"I'm the messy one. I sort of go in circles," says Cathy Boardman, 39. Her yellow gloves are coated brown, and she's got chocolate splotches halfway up her arms.

David Kitchen, armed with a butter knife and a cup of molten chocolate, sits in the cold room, covering the missed spots on the eggs and inhaling the intoxicating aroma of hundreds of pounds of buttercream eggs.

Stacks of used colorful cartons and clear plastic containers waiting to be filled with individually wrapped eggs.

Each Shady Side quarter-pounder sports a flower with north and south leaves. Some flowers are buttonlike, others swirly. Some leaves have wispy ends, others are squat.

Frosting solidifies faster than plaster patch, so the men mix small batches for decorators, known as leafers and bloomers.

Chocolate eggs line tables.

Ray Vogts comes by. Five squeezes make a green leaf.

Amy Gentile, 26, pushes out yellow twirls. A flower.

Mary Young, 35, loads cartons, then runs them to the cold room, where they chill for wrapping.

Leanna Brown, 11, grabs a flower gun. Her flowers are smaller and taller than the others.

"We have the next generation in training," says Bryant.

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