The History of Eggs Benedict

This is a rich breakfast dish, which brings to mind the relaxed dining in an expensive hotel restaurant (or ordered through room service).  It consists of two halves of a toasted English muffin, a slice of ham, a poached egg, smothered in Hollandaise sauce.  (Sadly, the closest many people have come to Eggs Benedict, is a MacDonald’s Egg McMuffin, which swaps out the Hollandaise for melted American Cheese.)

The dish is worth every bit the effort to make it. Too bad it’s history is so muddled with alternating stories all around the end of the 1800’s.

On December 19, 1942, in the column called “Talk of the Town” in The New Yorker Magazine one of the origin stories of eggs Benedict is offered.

5thAve_WaldorfAstoria_Interior_PalmGarden_1902

Waldorf Astoria Hotel, Interior Palm Garden 1902

The story, as published:

“Forty-eight years ago Lemuel Benedict came into the dining room of the old Waldorf for a late breakfast. He had a hangover & ordered buttered toast, crisp bacon, 2 poached eggs, & a hooker of hollandaise sauce, & then & there put together the dish that has, ever since, borne his name, Eggs Benedict.”  “ Oscar Tschirky, the famed maître d’hôtel, was so impressed with the dish that he put it on the breakfast and luncheon menus but substituted ham for the bacon and a toasted English muffin for the toast.”   

The year that Lemuel Benedict cited would have been around 1894.

In 1896 – Fannie Merritt Farmer’s (1857-1915) revised, edited, and reissued Mary J. Lincoln’s cookbook called The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book. In it is a recipe for Eggs à la Benedict. The recipe is as follows:

Eggs à la Benedict – Split and toast English muffins. Sauté circular pieces of cold boiled ham, place these over the halves of muffins, arrange on each a dropped egg, and pour around Hollandaise Sauce II , diluted with cream to make of such consistency to pour easily.”

In September, 1967, in an column in The New York Times Magazine, Craig Clairborne wrote about a letter he had received from an Edward P. Montgomery, regarding a recipe given to him by his mother, who had received it from her brother, a friend of the Commodore E.C. Benedict, a banker and yachtsman, who died in 1920, at the ripe age of 86 years old. Presuming that the Commodore was in his 30’s when the dish was created in his name, the year would have been around 1894.

Two months later, (November 1967)  in a letter to the editor published in the New York Times Magazine, Mable C. Butler of Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts corrected Mr. Clairborne’s accounting of the origins of Eggs Benedict.   She claimed to be a relative of Mrs. Le Grand Benedict.  Mr. and Mrs. Benedict dined every Saturday at Delmonico’s.  She asked the maitre d’hotel if there were anything new to suggest. He asked her what sounded to her.  She suggested poached eggs on toasted English muffins, with a thin slice of ham, hollandaise sauce and a truffle on top.

To back this version up, Delmonico’s Chef Ranhofer published a recipe called Eggs a’ la Benedick (Eufa a’ la Benedick) in his The Epicurean cookbook called The Epicurean published in 1894.  His Eggs à la Benedick recipe:

“A round of cooked ham an eighth of an inch thick and of the same diameter as the muffins one each half. Heat in a moderate oven and put a poached egg on each toast. Cover the whole with Hollandaise sauce.”

The problem is, as with all food history, and all invention history, for that matter, great ideas are often considered by different people, at the same time.  It is possible that multiple people came up with the same idea at the same. It is possible that some version of this recipe was published in one of the many magazines or newspapers of the day.  Or, it is possible that some of these people were related, ran in the same circles (as they dined in expensive restaurants) and one, or several heard of the dish, and was curious to try it.  . It is also possible that Mr. and Mrs. Benedict had heard of the dish suggested by Lemuel Benedict (or visa versa).  Perhaps they were related?  Perhaps the combination was obvious given the food trends of the era was an obvious one.  Sometimes food combinations invent themselves.  After all, who really invented peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?  Obvious pairings are meant to be together.

Eggs Benedict for Two

4 fresh English muffins

8 pieces of thin sliced lean ham cut into rounds the size of the muffins

8 eggs

¾ of a cup of Hollandaise sauce

Lightly toast the muffins then spread them with butter. Grill the ham and place one piece on each muffin.  Poach the egg by bringing 4 cups of water to a boil, then reducing the heat to simmer.  Crack an egg into a soup ladle and gently lower the eggs, individually into the hot water.  Roll the eggs over to keep the whites close to the eggs. Cook to desired doneness (although, ideally, the egg yolk should still be somewhat runny).    Place the Canadian Bacon on the muffing, add the poached egg on top, and smother the whole thing with several tablespoons of Hollandaise sauce.  Serve

Egg Soup (Eggs in Purgatory and Shakshuka)

I woke up to frost on the ground this morning, while I’m still wishing for Spring. Maybe that is why it felt colder than the deep winter of a few months ago.  This frost, and the cold wind and rain we’ve been having started me thinking about foods that warm you.

Soup!

Two Old Men Eating Soup, 1819–23, by Francisco de Goya, currently in the Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

Soup is a very old dish. It is as old as fire and a container to boil water in. The oldest written egg soup recipe I could find was from the early 16th century in England. The recipe is simple: For each person, take strong-flavored broth; one beaten egg; an egg-size chunk of cheese, cut into small bits; minced scallion or green onion; and minced spring greens. Take boiling stock, skim off any foam, beat egg and whisk it into the broth, and add cheese and greens before serving.

There are a great many recipes that add a few eggs to hot soup to be poached or stirred in to create a creamier, more nutritious soup. Other recipes call for an egg to be added to a small amount of broth and beaten before it is added to the rest of the soup (tempering the egg—diluting it with some of the liquid—makes it less likely to curdle when added to a full pot of broth). There are a few recipes for a custard-based soup, although the real problem with eggs in soups is that they “break” easily (and become granular) with heat that is prolonged or too high.

The most numerous egg-in-soup recipes—for egg drop soup—make the most of an egg cooking in hot liquid. They involve stirring an untempered beaten raw egg into hot soup to create ribbons of cooked egg. In other recipes, this would be called curdling, but it is a desirable attribute in this case. Egg drop soups include the famous Chinese egg drop soup as well as the Central American sopa de anjo (garlic soup) and Greek avgolemono (egg-and-lemon chicken soup).

Syllabub and German Biersuppe are not quite dessert and not savory. They’re more like soup than like egg drinks but are still borderline. Biersuppe and syllabub are both very old versions of liquid nutrition, or early instant breakfast. They share a history with eggnog and other alcohol-and-egg drinks. They are interesting in that the recipes have persisted to modern times, although often not as breakfast or quick lunch meals but, rather, as appetizers, palate cleansers, or offbeat desserts.

And, finally, there is a dessert type of egg soup. These sweet soups are often served for either breakfast or dessert. Some are warm; others are cold. Included are buttermilk soups (usually cold) and a dessert that was popular prior to World War II, Œufs à la neige (also known as floating islands, clouds, and snow eggs). My grandmother was especially fond of her floating islands, firm blobs of meringue poached in a custard and then served floating in a ladleful of the custard. (It is a dessert I had long forgotten about until I tried the recipe.)

Any soup can have a poached egg added to it, and many people do this routinely. The egg is usually poached in the soup, but some people poach the egg in simmering water and then slide it into the soup before serving. The situation in which to poach an egg separately is when your soup is opaque. (It is a little disconcerting when you drop a few eggs into the soup and cannot find them to serve. They drop to the bottom of the pot and are very elusive.) It is another reason some recipes say to put a raw egg in a bowl and then ladle soup over it. This is fine for those who like their poached eggs on the very runny side, as the temperature in the soup bowl quickly drops and the egg doesn’t cook very much. The egg adds extra nutrition to the soup and, with clear soups, visual interest. One very popular poached egg soup is “eggs in purgatory,” which sounds quite daring and slightly naughty. It is eggs poached in tomato soup. A similar recipe is Israel’s shakshuka, which is spicier.

Eggs in Purgatory Soup

  • 3 cups diced tomatoes
  • ¼ cup olive oil
  • ½ cup chopped onion
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 teaspoon cornstarch
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • ½ teaspoon honey
  • ½ teaspoon balsamic vinegar
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 egg per serving

In blender or food processor, blend tomatoes until liquid. Set aside. In large cooking pot, heat olive oil to very hot. Add onions, and sauté until lightly browned. Turn heat down, and add flour and cornstarch to make smooth roux. Add pureed tomatoes. Stir until blended, and heat until boiling. Add Worcestershire sauce, honey, balsamic vinegar, and salt and pepper. Reduce heat to simmer, and let soup simmer 20 minutes. Remove from heat, and, while stirring constantly, add cream. Then add milk. Continue to stir, and return pot to stove on low heat. Stir constantly 10 minutes, to let soup heat thoroughly. Remove from heat. Poach one egg for each serving. Crack eggs into measuring cup, and slowly pour into soup. With slotted spoon, move eggs apart and roll them occasionally while cooking (4 to 6 minutes). Ladle soup and poached egg into individual serving bowls.

Shakshuka (Israel)

  • ¼ cup olive oil
    3 jalapeño peppers, seeded and chopped
    1 cup chopped onion
  • 5 cloves garlic, crushed and minced
    1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon smoked paprika
  • 3 cups diced tomatoes
  • ½ cup red wine
    6 eggs
    ½ cup crumbled feta cheese for garnish
    chopped cilantro or Italian parsley for garnish
    warm pitas for serving

In deep-sided skillet, heat olive oil until very hot. Sauté chilies and onions together until limp. Add garlic, cumin, and paprika, and cook several more minutes until garlic is soft. Add diced tomatoes and red wine. Cook on medium heat, stirring occasionally, until flavors are blended and soup is boiling. Turn off heat, and slide whole eggs into soup, distributed across surface. Cover skillet 5 minutes to let eggs set. Remove poached eggs with slotted spoon, and put into individual serving dishes. Ladle hot soup over eggs, and garnish with feta and cilantro. Serve with pita bread.

Napoleon and the Omelette

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825)  Napoleon Crossing the Alps   Kunsthistorisches Museum

Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) Napoleon Crossing the Alps — Kunsthistorisches Museum

For the town of Bessières (Haute-Garonne), the omelet has a special significance.

Napoleon Bonaparte (and his army) traveled through the area. He stopped at a local inn and enjoyed an omelet so much that he demanded that the local villagers collect enough eggs so that his entire army could enjoy an omelet the next morning. What the town created was one giant omelet.

Since then, on Easter Monday, a several-thousand-egg omelet is made there. It is cooked in a giant pan over a giant fire. The omelet is several yards wide and serves a thousand or more people. (A bit extreme, perhaps.)

However, this giant omelet stuff has become an annual event not only in this village in France but also elsewhere in the world. The only Giant Omelette Celebration in the United States is in Abbeville, in the Vermilion Parish of Louisiana (outside Lafayette).

The other six “official” giant omelette cities are Bessières and Fréjus, France; Dumbea, New Caledonia; Granby, Quebec, Canada; Malmedy, Belgium; and Pigüé, Argentina.

The Basic Omelet

The basic omelet is a beaten egg cooked in butter in a frying pan. It is folded in half when it is nearly cooked. Various ingredients are added in the fold: cheese, vegetables, meat such as bacon or ham, herbs, or some combination. An omelet can be made with whole eggs, just yolks, or just whites. Usually some other liquid, such as water, milk, cream, or broth, is added. The idea behind the added liquid is that more air bubbles will be trapped in a thinned mixture. Some omelet recipes call for a few drops of lemon juice or a pinch of cream of tartar (tartaric acid), which can strengthen and elongate the protein fibers and create a fluffier final product.

Omelets are usually cooked on one side, without being disturbed, before being folded and cooked the rest of the way through.

 

Classic French Omelet #1

3 eggs

1 tablespoon milk (or water)

¼ cup shredded cheese

ample amounts of butter

Mix eggs and milk until blended. Melt butter in skillet on medium-high heat. When butter is hot and just beginning to brown, pour in eggs. Tilt pan in different directions to evenly distribute eggs. Cook for several minutes until eggs begin to set on bottom of pan. Gently lift edges with spatula to let some of the runny egg flow under cooked portion. When egg is still moist on top but fully set on bottom, sprinkle cheese over egg. Fold one side of omelet over cheese and the other half of egg. Let cook until cheese is melted and egg is cooked throughout. Serve at once.

Classic French Omelet #2

2 eggs

2 tablespoons water

1 tablespoon butter

Mix eggs and water. Melt butter in skillet on medium-high heat. Pour eggs in, and evenly distribute. Let cook for several minutes until eggs are cooked roughly halfway through, with just a thin layer of wet on top. Lift edges of cooked egg with spatula to let some of the runny top flow under cooked portion. When egg is fully set on bottom but still moist on top, fold one side over onto the other. Let cook for another minute, and serve.

Savory French Toast

Savory French toast, eggy toast, and fried toast are similar to the sweet varieties, in that they have a custard base. They differ in that they have more-intense flavors, involve cheese, or are filled. These are good for breakfast, snacks, lunch, or a light dinner. This is just a small sampling of recipes for savory French toast. You can certainly experiment with the idea and create your own signature one.

Savory Cheesy Eggy Toast
½ cup milk
4 eggs
4 slices stale bread

2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup grated or shredded cheese (your choice of cheese)

ketchup (garnish)

Mix egg and milk. Dip bread slices, and coat both sides evenly. Melt butter in skillet on medium heat, and heat until very hot. Cook until golden on both sides. Move slices of bread to an oven broiler pan, sprinkle with cheese, place under broiler, and heat until cheese melts. Serve with ketchup.