With all due respect to Dickens, in my book (pun intended) the following scene from Little Women by Louisa May Alcott eclipses both Pickwick and A Christmas Carol for the true spirit of the holiday season:
Merry Christmas, Marmee! Many of them! Thank you for our books. We read some, and mean to every day, they all cried in chorus.
Merry Christmas, little daughters! I’m glad you began at once, and hope you will keep on. But I want to say one word before we sit down. Not far away from here lies a poor woman with a little newborn baby. Six children are huddled into one bed to keep from freezing, for they have no fire. There is nothing to eat over there, and the oldest boy came to tell me they were suffering hunger and cold. My girls, will you give them your breakfasts as a Christmas present?
They were all unusually hungry, having waited nearly an hour, and for a minute no one spoke, only a minute, for Jo exclaimed impetuously, I’m so glad you came before we began!
May I go and help carry the things to the poor little children? asked Beth eagerly.
I shall take the cream and the muffins, added Amy, heroically giving up the article she most liked.
Meg was already covering the buckwheat’s, and piling the bread into one big plate.
I thought you’d do it, said Mrs. March, smiling as if satisfied. You shall all go and help me, and when we come back we will have bread and milk for breakfast, and make it up at dinnertime.
They were soon ready, and the procession set out. Fortunately it was early, and they went through back streets, so few people saw them, and no one laughed at the queer party.
A poor, bare, miserable room it was, with broken windows, no fire, ragged bedclothes, a sick mother, wailing baby, and a group of pale, hungry children cuddled under one old quilt, trying to keep warm.
How the big eyes stared and the blue lips smiled as the girls went in.
Ach, mein Gott! It is good angels come to us! said the poor woman, crying for joy.
Funny angels in hoods and mittens, said Jo, and set them to laughing.
In a few minutes it really did seem as if kind spirits had been at work there. Hannah, who had carried wood, made a fire, and stopped up the broken panes with old hats and her own cloak. Mrs.March gave the mother tea and gruel, and comforted her with promises of help, while she dressed the little baby as tenderly as if it had been her own. The girls meantime spread the table, set the children round the fire, and fed them like so many hungry birds, laughing, talking, and trying to understand the funny broken English.
Das ist gut! Die Engel-kinder! cried the poor things as they ate and warmed their purple hands at the comfortable blaze.
The girls had never been called angel children before, and thought it very agreeable, especially Jo, who had been considered `Sancho’ ever since she was born. That was a very happy breakfast, though they didn’t get any of it. And when they went away, leaving comfort behind, I think there were not in all the city four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning.
The March women do not have much food or money to spare. The girls’ father is away working as a pastor during the American Civil War for meager wages. Meg and Jo, the eldest sisters at ages 16 and 15 respectively, work to support the family: Meg teaches a nearby family of four children and Jo is an assistant/paid companion to the family’s wealthy aunt. Indeed, the chapter opens with Jo lamenting that there are no stockings hung by the fire on that Christmas morning.
And yet, the family sacrifices their breakfast – one of their very few holiday indulgences – to feed a family of poor immigrants. The parable of welcoming the stranger and feeding the hungry is as old as time in immemorial, still relevant today, and is, of course, an essential part of the Christmas story itself.
Yuletide feelings aside, I must admit that the foodie in me has always been curious about the breakfast the Marches donated. There were buckwheat cakes, for certain, as Hannah is directed to put them on the griddle. And muffins with cream – Amy’s favorite. But what else might have rounded out the family feast?
After looking into eating habits of the era, I’ve determined that there was probably some sort of meat on the table. Bacon, being both smoked and cured, traveled well and would have been sent off to Mr March or soldiers at the front and ham, also smoked and cured, was far more popular in southern kitchens than those of industrial Massachusetts. Sausage would have been a more likely candidate in 1869’s New England.
Also, just as today, eggs would have had an appearance. Not fried or over easy, but either scrambled or shirred.
Shirring, or cooking in cream, is no longer a common cooking method for eggs, but it’s absolutely delicious, super easy, and can provide an impressively elegant holiday breakfast for a crowd in no time flat.
Baked (Shirred) Eggs
I’ve added a cushion of mushrooms and baby spinach to this dish, but feel free to substitute other vegetables. Asparagus, roasted just until tender and cut into bite sized pieces, works well as do fresh spring garden peas. Fresh peas require no prior cooking so sprinkle them into ramekins as is or they will be overdone. And, although I might lose some of you here, I can totally envision leftover Christmas day Brussels sprouts (shredded with perhaps some crumbled bacon?) in the base for an incredible Boxing Day breakfast.
If you have picky eaters, omit the veg completely, but the eggs will cook more quickly without the vegetable layer.
If you don’t have ovenproof ramekins or custard cups, I encourage you to purchase some as you can use them for all sorts of recipes and they’re inexpensive: less than $1/£1 per ramekin. But, if you’re in a real pinch, I’ve even made it in a muffin pan. One egg per compartment instead of two and you really need to grease the pan well, but it can work!
As you can see, this recipe is highly versatile, so add or detract at will, but the one thing you should never leave out is the addition of buttered toast on the side for dunking into the gloriously rich yolk and cream mixture.
Serves 4. Multiply as needed.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 shallots, diced
8 oz/200g cremini, chestnut, or white mushrooms, sliced
salt and pepper, to taste
4 cups/100g baby spinach, washed
8 large eggs
4 tablespoons heavy or single cream
freshly grated parmesan cheese
Preheat oven to 425F/220C
Grease four large ovenproof ceramic ramekins or glass custard cups (approx 3.5 to 4 inches wide) or other oven proof dishes. Set aside.
Combine olive oil and butter in large skillet on medium high heat. When butter has melted and oil is hot, add shallots and cook until translucent.
Add mushrooms and cook until juices are released and then juices evaporate, about 4-6 minutes. Add spinach and cook until just wilted. Season all with salt and pepper.
Distribute vegetable mixture evenly among the greased ramekins. If you wish to make this the night before, as houseguests and holidays can be frantic, then just cover and refrigerate the ramekins and let come to room temperature before the next step.
Gently crack two large eggs into each ramekin and top with a tablespoon of cream. Grate cheese, if using, over eggs and cream.
Bake in oven until whites are set (there is cream on top so don’t confuse that for uncooked egg!) and yolks are runny, approximately 9 to 12 minutes depending on your oven.
COOKIN’ THE BOOKS is currently available in the UK
And is due for release in the US and Canada on March 1, 2019.