When Jody said, “Hey let’s do Shirred Eggs with Spinach, Mushrooms and Toast Soldiers,”* I responded with an enthusiastic, “Huh?” Something stirred in the part of my brain where meal descriptions from Dickens and Wilkie Collins rattle around with episodes of Jewel in the Crown and Downton Abbey, reasonably accurate associations because Googling shirred eggs brings up the original 1896 edition of Fanny Farmer. She explains that “shirred eggs” derives from the dish used in the preparation, an egg-shirrer, a shallow gratin dish for baking the eggs. Did you catch that? …for baking the eggs.
That’s it, the whole circus? I mean, shirred means baked?
[WARNING: Language geek paragraph coming up.]
The Victorians were obsessively specific about nomenclature. If you don’t believe me, scroll through your vocabulary and gather all the unusual and strange words. Cross out the foreign imports like weltschmerz and cri de coeur, Shakespearean bonbons like bodkin (dagger), dispatch (kill) and methinks (methinks) and I’ll give you the first rubber of whist that everything left on the list is something you picked from reading a Victorian novel. Where else will you find eleemosynary (having to do with charity or charitable institutions), and reticule (a woman’s small net handbag); characters who remonstrate (argue) with each other, seek redress (compensation for having been wronged), and cast aspersions (maligning someone’s reputation) on one another, probably over who first gave the ague (fever), or worse, to whom. These words are in their dotage today, but they were once young and commonplace. Would you remonstrate with the waiter over your shirred eggs simply being called baked, or would you immediately call for the manager (excuse me, maître d’hôtel or other restaurant factotum) and demand redress?
Shirred egg recipes often include bread crumbs, as in Fanny Farmer’s recipe, which instructs the reader to line the shirrer with toasted and buttered breadcrumbs, add the eggs, top with more breadcrumbs, and then bake. Shirred is now promiscuously applied to eggs baked or broiled in any shallow dish. Depending on whom you consult, this may or may not include the French oefs en cocotte, eggs baked in shallow ramekins while sitting in a water bath. Purists pooh-pooh such Gallic fripperies. Shirred eggs just bake or broil, as the case may be.
We used little cast-iron boats for this recipe, but any shallow individual baking dish will do. Since the eggs are broiled, the emphasis here is on shallow (and, er, heatproof). In the interests of restraint, we used one egg per serving, but you can easily add another, if you have a leviathan (whale, thank you, Moby Dick) of an appetite. Enjoy. Ken
*She really talks like that. It comes from years of writing menus.
Shirred Eggs with Spinach, Mushrooms
and Toast Soldiers
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ¼ pound mushrooms, cleaned and sliced as thin as possible
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 2 shallots, minced
- 4 ounces flat-leaf spinach, trimmed of thick stems, washed and dried, chopped
- ¼ teaspoon chopped tarragon
- ¼ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
- 4 large farm eggs, at room temperature
- 4 teaspoons crème fraîche
- Truffle salt if you can get it
- Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. As soon as the butter stops foaming, add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper and cook until they have released their juices and start to brown, about 3 minutes. They will shrink down to a quarter of the volume. Transfer to a bowl.
- Lower the heat to medium, then add the remaining tablespoon of butter and the shallots to the pan. Cook until they soften, about a minute. Add the spinach, stir until it wilts, about 1 minute. Return the mushrooms to the pan and cook until most of the moisture has evaporated and the spinach is meltingly tender. Stir in the tarragon and lemon zest.
- Distribute the mixture evenly in a smooth flat layer among 4 small shallow gratin dishes. Make a well in the center to hold the yolk.
- Set the rack on the second rung of the oven so it sits about 4 inches from the top. Turn on the broiler.
- Crack 1 egg into each dish. Wiggle it around a bit so the yolk fits in the well and the white is spread evenly over the mushroom mixture. If you don’t make the well, the yolk will sit up too high and get overcooked before the whites are done.
- Cook under the broiler for 30 seconds or until the whites just begin to set.
- Season the tops of the eggs with salt and pepper. Top each egg with a teaspoon of crème fraîche and run under the broiler for another minute or so, basting the yolk half way through with the crème fraîche. This happens quickly so take care not to overcook the eggs.
- Let sit 2 minutes to allow the egg to finish cooking. Serve with toast soldiers.
- 4 slices brioche or other breakfast bread, sliced 3/4-inch thick
- Toast the bread. Spread with soft butter. We like to use goat butter. Cut off the crusts and then cut each slice into 4 soldiers. Stack the soldiers like Lincoln Logs and keep warm at the back of the stove while you cook the eggs.
- Encourage people to dip the soldiers into the yolks, making a gooey mess.
These are so easy to make it feels like cheating. The simplest variation: rub a small gratin dish with a teaspoon of butter. Break an egg into the dish. Run under the broiler for a minute or so. Baste with more butter. Season with salt and pepper. Serve.
I’m not a purist, but I do feel a little guilty about adding the spinach and mushrooms to this perfect dish. However, it does demonstrate how versatile shirred eggs are. They can be served for breakfast, lunch or a light supper, and you can combine them with different ingredients, as long as you pick things with a relatively delicate flavor and texture. That’s why I say to slice the mushrooms as thinly as possible; to chop the spinach and to cook until meltingly tender. Many years ago, in the South of France, we were served a lunch of shirred eggs in tomato sauce, along with a green salad. Because the tomato sauce was light, the dish worked.
This technique is perfect for holiday entertaining. Fill the gratin dishes with the mushroom mixture and have them at room temperature. Just before serving, preheat the broiler, make the toasts and then crack the eggs into the dishes and broil. Serve the hot dishes on an underliner.
ALTERNATIVE: If broiling makes you afraid that you’re going to get tough egg whites or overcook the yolks, an alternative technique is to bake them for 5 minutes on the center rack of a preheated 500°F oven, adding the crème fraîche halfway through.
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