Julia Child told viewers of Boston’s public-television program The French Chef that “eggs can be your best friend,” and she especially loved the sophistication of shirred eggs.
On the short list of ingredient essentials, the humble, hardworking egg is a star. Nature-wrapped, nutritious, and endlessly versatile, eggs have the supportive role covered, adding tenderness to cakes and cookies, binding breadcrumbs to chicken cutlets, and lifting meringue to marvelously snowy peaks. As a solo act they’re a breakfast staple, from scrambled to sunny-side-up. As all cooks learn, however, achieving the perfect egg often requires an unexpected amount of skill and care, which, after several failed and rubbery attempts, makes us wonder whether the reason eggs are sold by the dozen (a practice dating back to Elizabethan times) stems from the need for repetition.
Shirred eggs, though, are the rare exception. By baking eggs with a little cream in small, individual cups at a relatively low temperature—just until the whites have set but the yolks remain fluid and golden—you can have a simple yet elegant brunch classic with minimal effort. The word shirred refers to the flat-bottomed dish, or shirrer, in which the eggs were traditionally cooked, similar to the French oeufs en cocotte, or “eggs in a pot.” Ramekins or custard cups are today’s most common cocottes for individual baked eggs, but muffin tins are a handy alternative for shirring en masse if cupboard space is at a premium.
A popular 19th-century dish, baked eggs enjoyed a resurgence during the happy-homemaker post-war decades, with recipes frequently appearing in local newspapers (perhaps most delightfully in the 1961 headline “Zesty Shirred Eggs Sure Winner at Men’s Brunch”); a national 1954 Associated Press lifestyle piece applauded the dish’s ability to “not only taste great” but also to “look so attractive and companyish.” The mention of company is key, since another perk of the shirred egg is the extra time it affords the busy brunch host to brew coffee and make a side of toast while the oven cooks several eggs at the same time perfectly.
Thanks to their simplicity, shirred eggs also lend themselves nicely to improvisation. Some adventurous midcentury recipes call for baking the eggs on beds of deviled ham, pork and beans, or even kippers—but more mainstream versions suggest cracking them into spicy tomato sauce or nests of buttered breadcrumbs, shredded hash-browns, or crisp bacon. No matter which variation you choose, armed with little more than a handful of eggs, a few spoonfuls of heavy cream, and a waiting oven, you’re just moments away from baked-egg heaven, so what are you waiting for? Take Julia’s advice and “give them the right break.”