Thursday, July 19, 2012

William Verrall and Mirrored Eggs

I found a recipe called “Mirrored Eggs” in the Alice B Toklas Cookbook and couldn’t get it out of my head. Mirrored eggs? I couldn’t quite apprehend the mirror reference when I read through the recipe so it kept niggling at me to dig into the subject.  Was it the surface of the eggs that was mirror-like or that it was a side-by-side mirror image of its ingredients? The diabolically eccentric Clarissa Dickson Wright (one of the 2 Fat Ladies on British telly) had the only recipe for Mirrored Eggs that I found online  ––a spinach and lemon-orange cream version. That was quite different from Toklas’ version of mirrored eggs with mushrooms and chicken croquettes.  Neither seemed remotely mirror related –– hmmm.

Egg Shirrer

Turns out it’s a translation of a French dish. Oeufs au miroir are much like shirred eggs in English (originally baked in a dish called a shirrer).  The phrase “mirrored eggs” fell out of fashion in England and America long ago.

Clarissa said her recipe came from William Verrall’s 1759 cookbook, A Complete System of Cookery .

I had to travel 200 years back in time but I was glad of the trip because William Verrall (1715-1761) was an interesting bloke during an interesting period in food history. Noodling around in the 18th century also gives me an excuse to share some 18th century style from the V&A  to give you an idea of the divine upper-crust tableware of the period.

1755 Chelsea Porcelain Factory Partridge Tureen used for desserts

Thing is, poor Mr. Verral’s star has waned considerably, why, I cannot fathom.  He has no Wikipedia entry. He is but a footnote in the long history of the White Hart Hotel in Lewes that was the steppingstone to his brief celebrity.  He ran the family business at the White Hart very successfully from 1737 till shortly before his death in 1761 when some mysterious financial disaster ruined him causing the sale of the business.  I don’t think I would have known any of this if it weren’t for author Colin Salter’s blog, Tall Tales from the Trees.

Paul de Lamerie, London, 1743 sterling centerpiece

Mr. Salter is related to Mr. Verrall and writes about his rich family history in a charming way.  It was here I discovered that the White Hart began as a dwelling of the Duke of Newcastle in the 16th century.  It became a hotel in 1720 run by William’s father Dick Verrall, who had some sort of relationship with the Duke’s family (the Duke may have even bankrolled the renovations).  This worked out well for little William and his historical timing was perfect for an ambitious chef.

Kathryn Hughes, writing about Gilly Lehmann’s book, The British Housewife, found that: “Fine dining was a competitive sport in Georgian England, at least among those who could afford it.  The Whigs – aristocratic, vaguely internationalist – were particularly keen on buying up the best French chefs.”  Verrall was apprenticed to the Duke’s chef, Pierre de St. Clouet.  Although de St. Clouet was paid a princely £105 salary, he left the duke to return to France to serve Marechal Richlieu, leaving the Duke devastated and as Hughes noted: “positively lovelorn, writing melancholy letters about the thick and sticky sauces that the new man insisted on sending to the table.”

Styles were changing in the mid-18th century and it was a good time to be making fine French food. Imported French chefs were celebrated and respected and treated as craftsmen and not servants (super-chef Carême was still 50 years in the future). Verrall, using St. Clouet's style,  did French fusion with an English twist.

18th century Chelsea Porcelain dish

William Verrall idolized his mentor Clouet. From the title page of his book, A Complete System of Cookery he acknowledges his debt to his master for "a variety of genuine RECEIPTS collected under the celebrated Mr. de St Clouet, sometime since Cook to his Grace the Duke of Newcastle". The book endeavored to teach techniques for cooking as well as share recipes but he tipped his hat to his master in the preface as well: “I promised at the beginning to fix one never-erring chart to steer by, so that the weakest capacity shall never do amiss, though he mayn’t arrive at once to that pitch of perfection equal to that of the celebrated Mons. Clouet.”

Not a bad guarantee to promise though you may not cook as well as the best chef around, you will not embarrass yourself in the kitchen if you read the book. The introduction addresses arranging tasks to make work flow smoothly and even writes about which equipment to have in the kitchen and how to organize it to make the job go more efficiently.  That’s pretty modern stuff for the middle of the 18th century.

Jean-Etienne Liotard, Still Life: Tea Set, 1781-3 Don’t you love the handle-less cups?

His instructions to the cook are spot-on as well:  “I have known the time more than once or twice, that a cook has loitered away his time in the morning, and began his work perhaps at ten o’clock, and then at the wrong end too; so that time has so elapsed upon his hands that it was impossible for him to be ready at the hour set for sending to table; so that instead of winning the praises of his master or lady, and the rest of the good company, he gets into disgrace, and loses his character. This is what is meant by saying the cook can never do well, for they must fail of it if they are regardless of time; so take it by the forelocks, my friends, and follow the instructions in the treatise before ye, and you’ll be sure to be right, and soon procure to yourself a vast deal of fame.”  Take it by the forelocks, indeed!!!

1759-69 Chelsea Porcelain Factory

His recipes are quite easy to make and his instructions thorough for the time.  Clarissa’s version of mirrored eggs differs slightly from the original in that she adds spinach (which Verrall does in a another similar recipe, “Spinage with cream and eggs” but not in the mirrored eggs recipe).  She also adds orange AND lemon juice instead of one OR the other as Verrall recommends. 

18th Century Sheffield silver-plate dishes with warming covers (perfect for the eggs)

In a recipe that’s 20 years younger than Verralls’, a B. Clermont in his  1776 book The Professed Cook had a mirrored eggs recipe that was slightly different.  There’s no cream involved, just eggs basted with a brown butter vinegar glaze… sounds delicious and he describes the dish as “clear as a Looking-glass...” 

Clermont, The Professed Cook, 1776

100 years later in America, Delmonico’s chef Charles Ranhoffer wrote:Cook six eggs au mirior on a large buttered dish, that is, baste the egg yolk with boiling butter several times while cooking in the oven; this will make them very glossy”.  So to re-cap, the glossy surface is created by basting the eggs –– that’s where the mirror comes from.

I do know Verral’s dish is as delicious today as it was in 1759.  Originally it would have been cooked in a ceramic dish (with the exhortation to use a “dish that will bear the fire) over the soft heat of a charcoal-heated chafing dish, not directly on a flame or in the oven. I think it is easier to do stovetop as it involves less opening of the oven to baste.  Just cook low and slow.  You can use a ceramic dish like a cazuela that can take a flame or a less hardy ceramic dish placed in a water-filled pan or you can use a small heavy skillet (individual size or larger). I think these would be great done individually as well in little souffle dishes.

From the Epicurean

Mirrored Eggs for 2

1 t butter
2 T chopped parsley (plus more for garnish)
2 T  minced green onion
pinch of salt, pepper and nutmeg
4 eggs
1/3 c heavy cream
2 T lemon Juice (or orange if you prefer)
1 t lemon zest for garnish (or orange if you prefer)

Butter a shallow ceramic dish.  Sprinkle with parsley and onion and crack 4 eggs in the dish.  Pour the cream over the eggs gently.  Set in a skillet and pour boiling water about halfway up the sides of the dish.  Set to a low boil (if it boils too strenuously it will slop over into the eggs).

Ladle the cream over the egg yolks gently a few times a minute, taking care you don't break the yolks and avoid going into the whites. Try to just work with the cream.  Pour the lemon juice over the top after 5 minutes and gently blend with the cream as you ladle over the yolks.   Put a lid on the pot and let it cook over a very low heat. Continue basting with the lemon cream every minute or so (lifting the lid of course). The eggs will be done in about 10 minutes. You can tell the yolks are done by pressing gently on the yolks.

PS  The new painting on my header is:

"The Banquet Given by the Corporation to the Prince Regent, the Emperor of Russia and the King of Prussia, 18 June 1814 (The Allied Sovereigns' Banquet)"  by Luke Clennell


La Table De Nana said...

very different from the ones we now make..How pretty served this way..Love all the dishes you have presented to us..
Always a nice spot to stop..relax and learn:)

ArchitectDesign™ said...

this sounds delicous (and I LOVE 2 fat ladies -my favorite cooking show). I'm going to make it for my breakfast on Sunday morning. I assume little t is teaspoon and big T is tablespoon. Always love your well researched and written postings!

Diane said...

That really sounds delicious. I had to of course try to see if I could find anything else about William Verrall but the best I came up with was his family tree and Colin Salter's blog also. Diane

Barbara said...

Really must confess: I have all the DVD's of The Two Fat Ladies. I loved them. (The photo that accompanied Clarissa's recipe online was terrible....perhaps you found a better one.)

I can see why you like Colin Salter's blog. Right up your alley. Thanks for introducing us to him.

I'm dying over that tea/breakfast set. How divine. Anyway... lovely recipe and the glossy finish is certainly the answer to the word mirrored. How fun I've been basting making eggs like this and never knew they were called mirrored. :) Clarissa loved oranges....wonder how that would taste in place of lemons. Of course, we always think of lemons with eggs...a la hollandaise.
Marvelous, informative post as always, Deana.

angela@spinachtiger said...

That's an amazing story about the mirrored egg. I've made shirred eggs before in the oven, and I love any kind of poached egg. I got intrigued with the recipes in that the s looks like an f.

Sarah said...

I should keep this recipe for Christmas. It would be great.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

Mirrored eggs! What an interesting name for an egg dish and I would have felt compelled to delve in a bit further too! :D

Faith said...

The name of the dish alone is enough to have me longing to make you, I was so intrigued by the sound of it! Looks like a beautiful, delicious dish...eggs with butter or cream are always a divine combo.

By the way, the tableware you shared with us in this post is truly stunning!

T.W. Barritt at Culinary Types said...

I learned how to make shirred eggs in a cooking class and thought it was a wonderful dish. I have only heard recently that lemon is a nice, bright addition to eggs - time for a new egg adventure!

SavoringTime in the Kitchen said...

Interesting story behind the name mirrored eggs. As always, the photos and anecdotes you find always bring the recipes to life! Beautiful new header photo.

Marjie said...

Eggs that are pretty sounds just magnificent! I like the lemon cream idea especially.

Your new header is pretty, and I'm surely glad I don't have to feed that many people!

El said...

What an elegant dish. It looks beautiful!

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rumah dijual jogja said...

I must keep this recipe for Christmas. It would be great for december holidays.