Khen Tran is known around the Vineyard as the Egg Roll Lady because of the food she cooked and sold at the West Tisbury Farmers’ Market for 20 or so years. She was a Vietnamese immigrant who first worked as a nanny and a cook for a family on the Island and from there she became a chef and built up her own business.
She learned from another man named Giap, and he’s also Vietnamese but he’s trained in French cooking.
Anh Ho is one of Khen’s grandchildren. Anh grew up on the Vineyard and now he’s cooking in his grandmother’s commercial kitchen. That’s where we met up. He was making meringues. He loves making them.
Meringues were always on Khen’s table at the farmers’ market along with the blueberry tarts that she learned from Giap.
“Meringues is egg whites and sugar. The tricky part is keeping everything clean, keeping all the oil off of your equipment,” Anh said.
If you get any oil on the equipment or even a speck of egg yolk in the whites, you won’t get those soft peaks.
Anh’s grandmother passed away in the fall of 2017. She was 80 years old. Though Anh may have inherited her legacy in food and cooking, it didn’t always seem like it would go that way.
“She just doesn’t want any of her grandkid to cook. She always told me not to. She was a bit upset when I went to culinary school but after the first year when I come back she saw how much I liked it, it kind of ease up on her and she started to teach me how to cook,” Anh said.
Anh went to Johnson and Wales and that’s where he fell in love baking bread.
“I was instructed to get a couple of baguettes for one of the dishes and I walked in I heard the crackling of it, I saw the five scores on the loaf and that was it, I did not care about cooking anymore.”
All he wanted to do was bake. But about five or six years ago, when his grandmother Khen started slowing down, Anh left his job as a professional bread baker to come home and help out. Like any chef, Khen had never relied on recipes or measurements beyond what she already knew from her sense of touch, taste, sight and smell.
“Towards the end I started cooking with her I would take a certain vessel, the container whatever she’s trying to use, I put it on a scale and I zero it, so whatever she takes from it I knew exactly how much she used and then from there we’d dial it in, how much salt, how much pepper, this and that, over the course of two-three years, so you have to really be patient with her,” Anh said.
Anh warms up the sugar a little bit in the oven because when you make meringue, nothing should be too cold.
“You have to use the finest sugar you can find, like the coarseness? If it’s too course your meringue will have little bubbles on it.”
You can hear that Anh often talks about his grandmother Khen in the present tense, it’s like they’re in the kitchen still cooking together. So I’m guessing Khen wouldn’t approve of any meringue that didn’t look perfect either.
“It’s so weird that a lot of things that I thought I wasn’t going to be doing, I end up becoming my grandmother slowly.”
Anh sifts the sugar before mixing it slowly into the egg whites. And all those leftover egg yolks?
“So we’ll make ice cream with the yolks, I think that’s the upside to making it. You can put the ice cream and then you can put the meringues on the ice cream and that’s really good,” Anh said.
Scoops and piles of silky goopy meringue get spooned into a pastry bag and then Anh pipes out rosettes that’ll bake in a low oven.
I wondered and I asked Anh what it feels like for him to hold up his grandmother’s legacy when he goes to the farmers’ market.
“After a long a night of prepping and everything, I go to the market people tell all these stories about her and how much, all these people smiling because they enjoy the food we make. It puts you back in a good place.”
He added, "If I could keep doing this and bargain for more stories about my grandmother I’d be happy to, but in the back of my head I always dream of running away and working for a bakery somewhere."
Thi Khen Tran’s Meringue Recipe (Anh Ho’s grandmother)
Egg whites from one dozen eggs
One bag of Domino’s confectioner sugar
Warm oven to 250 degree F
Whip egg white until first sign of froth and sstart adding confectioner sugar.
Whip until a stiff peak.
Cook meringue at 250 degree F for one hour.
Anh Ho’s Basic Meringue Recipe
200 gram egg whites
400 grams sugar
Warm oven to 250 degree F
Warm up sugar in a low oven.
Add sugar slowly, allowing a more even mixing
After incorporating all the sugar to white, allow the mixture to whip until a stiff peak.
Cook shaped meringue at 250 degree F for 25-35 minutes. Maybe longer depending on how humid the day might be. Turn off your oven leave the meringue in the oven to dry overnight.
Tips: Use stainless steel equipment and ensure that they’re clean. Wipe down with white vinegar to ensure there’s no oil on the equipment.
Make sure there’s no eggshell or egg yolk in the egg whites. If there’s any oil and/or egg yolk in the mix, it won’t turn into stiff peaks.
Here's a video fo Anh's technique for piping meringues: