Whether you favor the fried egg sandwich with cheddar and double-smoked bacon or the spinach, feta, and egg white wrap, the modern American breakfast features countless variations on the classic pairing of eggs and bread.
When we think of eggs in breakfast or brunch dishes, the flavor sensations that spring to mind are overwhelmingly savory: the salty goodness of eggs and bacon, or the chili heat of huevos rancheros. But what about sweet eggs?
Even though the combination of eggs and sugar along with butter and flour forms the cornerstone of baking, the idea of poaching eggs in sweet wine, or adding sugar to your scrambled eggs, might seem heretical to many. But this is exactly how egg dishes were often prepared in the upper-class households of early modern England. In a time when sugar was still a luxury commodity, enmeshed in colonial trade networks, and purchased at the cost of countless human lives, its inclusion in practically every dish became a marker of wealth and status among elite households across Europe.
The two recipes presented here will strike many modern readers as unusual. The first, “Eggs in Moonshine,” consists of eggs poached in sweet wine and/or rosewater, and was often sweetened with some combination of sugar, dried fruit, and candied citrus peel. Today, the word ‘moonshine’ is used to describe strong distilled spirits, but in the sixteenth century it usually referred to a sweet, aromatic liquor which was only mildly alcoholic. In King Lear, when Kent tells Oswald that he will “make a sop o’ th’ moonshine” of him, he is likely referring to the small pieces of bread that were often used to soak up the excess liquor from sweet broths and alcoholic beverages.
The recipe for “spinach toasts” dates from the early eighteenth century, and was probably written down by Dorothy Pennyman of Yorkshire, a daughter of the Archbishop of Canterbury. This recipe, credited to a ‘Mrs. Kelsal,’ is much rarer than the former, and may even be unique. The flavor of the dish is similar to a Portuguese egg custard tart, but the addition of spinach juice gives the egg mixture a vivid green color that would no doubt satisfy Sam-I-Am (ham optional, and not recommended).
Besides sugar, both of these dishes call for other ingredients that would have been expensive in their time, some of which are practically unknown today. For the “Naples biscuits” – a sweet, dry cookie which is grated into the spinach-egg mixture before scrambling – I substituted store-bought ladyfinger cookies (but if you want to have a stab at making your own, check out this recipe by Alyssa Connell and Marissa Nicosia).
The second recipe also calls for pan-fried “toasts of French bread.” While I claim no expertise on the history of bread, a little digging told me that baguettes didn’t become popular until the second half of the eighteenth century – ‘French bread’ probably referred to a white bread made from refined flour. In something of a cop-out (my apartment is not well-equipped for baking), I opted for an artisan “Tuscan pane” loaf from my local grocery store which claimed to have been “baked with the traditional slow rise process of old world breads.”
These recipes remind us that taste varies widely across cultures past and present, and that combinations we may think of as ‘natural’ are often simply the product of a specific historical moment. Try them out for yourself, and let me know what you think in the comments!
Poached Eggs in Moonshine
- ¼ lb currants or raisins
- 1-2 cups sweet white wine (you can also use rosewater and/or sack)
- A pinch of ground nutmeg
- Zest of ½ an orange
- ¼ stick of butter
- 2-4 eggs
- 2-4 slices of bread (for ‘sippets’)
- Combine currants, white wine, nutmeg, and orange zest.
- Bring mixture to a boil over a medium-high heat. Boil until the currants are very plump, adding more liquid if needed.
- After you take it off the heat, add butter and stir it until melted.
- Return the mixture to the heat, and poach eggs one by one.
- Toast slices of bread (or, for more authentic ‘sippets,’ warm them in an oven under a low heat of about 325 degrees for 10-15 minutes, or until dry and crisp).
- (Optional) Dip slices of toast in sweet white wine.
- Place sweet poached eggs on slices of toast and serve.
Mrs Kelsal’s Spinach Toasts
- ½ pint spinach juice
- 5 large eggs
- Sugar (to taste)
- Juice and zest of 1 lemon (or juice and candied peel of ½ orange, finely chopped)
- A pinch of nutmeg
- ½ stick of butter (Pennyman says “about the size of a small egg”)
- 2 Naples biscuits (substitute ladyfinger cookies), grated
- 2-4 slices white bread
- Powdered sugar (to taste)
- Slices of lemon and orange for garnish
- Stir together spinach juice, eggs, lemon zest (or orange candied peel), nutmeg, and grated ladyfingers. Add sugar to taste.
- Place the mixture into a pan and set it over medium-low heat, and continue stirring until it thickens to about the consistency of scrambled eggs. Add half the butter, stirring until it has melted into the mixture.
- Take the mixture off the heat, and squeeze in the juice of a lemon (or orange).
- Melt the rest of the butter into a frying pan, and fry slices of bread over medium heat until golden brown on each side.
- Spread the egg mixture thickly over each slice of toast.
- Sift some powdered sugar over them.
- Set them on a dish in the oven under medium-low heat (about 325 degrees). Remove when top of egg mixture begins to crisp and change color, about 5 minutes.
- Decorate the dish with slices of lemon and orange.