Eggs Florentine Is The Creamy Brunch Dish With Puzzling Origins

If you try ordering eggs Florentine at any café, osteria, or ristorante in Florence, Italy, you're bound to be met with a look of bemusement. Though the name may suggest a Renaissance city origin, eggs Florentine are anything but. Local breakfast in Florence typically consists of nothing more than a pastry and an espresso. It is decidedly not a split English muffin topped with sautéd spinach, poached eggs, and smothered in hollandaise sauce. Of course, if you look hard enough, you will find places in Florence that cater to the American ideal of breakfast, but it's not any place the locals frequent. So why the name?

Italians are frequently puzzled by this, as no dish with the attached moniker "á la Florentine" is anywhere near Italian origin. Even the famous Florentine cookies are not actually from Florence. Tripe, salt cod, Chianti, and ribollita soup are all standard Tuscan fare – hearty, to the point, simple, and flavorful. The refined nature of eggs Florentine smacks of yet another glorious culinary heritage; that of the French.

Well, French and American. The big brother of eggs Florentine, eggs Benedict, was born during America's Gilded Age, a time when our culinary curiosity began to look for something new and flavorful. French culinary tradition was all too happy to oblige. So, it is actually from a French convention that gave eggs Florentine its name. 

The Medici come to France

The phrase "á la Florentine," in French, roughly translates to "in the tradition of Florence." As we've noted, the tradition behind eggs Florentine is anything but Tuscan. However, Florence does play a role in the creation of the phrase, albeit indirectly. During the heyday of the city's power, the famous Catherine de Medici was married off to the then King of France, Henry II. The story goes that the queen's favorite vegetable was spinach and that she brought it, along with other Tuscan specialties, with her to her new home in Paris. The legend continues that she requested the leafy green to accompany her every meal.

As a result of this, any French meal that somehow incorporates spinach gets the "á la Florentine" marker. The proper definition for this method of preparation applies to fish, chicken, or eggs served with spinach and a mornay sauce (more on that in a bit). Some examples are sole Florentine, quiche Florentine, and, of course, eggs Florentine. 

So, that's the Florentine connection, however slim. Clearly, the cooking method was named more in honor of the eating preferences of France's then-queen as opposed to the culinary heritage of the city she hailed from. Why the method isn't called "á la Medici" we cannot say. Just know that this method of cooking is 100% French, not Italian.

How to make eggs Florentine

Time for a question: What is the key ingredient in eggs Florentine that makes it different from eggs Benedict? Spinach! All you need to do is swap out Canadian bacon for spinach, and you're off and away. Okay, there's a little bit more to it than that. 

Making eggs Florentine is relatively straightforward, provided you're familiar with the cooking methods involved. The base is the stalwart English muffin. You could make them yourself, but it is just as easy to buy pre-made muffins, like Thomas, or purchase some from a local bakery. Next, on goes the layer of sautéed spinach. Doing this is simply a matter of putting spinach in a hot pan and letting it wilt. There is no need for cooking oil as the spinach will render its water as it cooks. You can add a little garlic here if you so choose. 

The spinach makes a perfect bed for the poached eggs to rest on. There are several ways to go about making these, but one of the easiest by far is to bring the water up to temperature, swirl it into a whirlpool, gently drop in your eggs, kill the heat, cover, and let stand for five minutes. The result should be some eggs that are firm enough to hold their shape, but with a yolk that is still springy and runny. Now, the next big question presents itself: hollandaise or mornay sauce?

Hollandaise or mornay sauce?

You have two sauce options for eggs Florentine. First is the classic hollandaise sauce. One of France's five Mother Sauces, hollandaise has come to resemble the epitome of decadence. An emulsification of melted butter, egg yolks, and lemon juice, hollandaise sauce is what makes eggs Benedict and its variations so special. It adds a buttery lemon flavor that pairs perfectly with the eggs and can easily be mopped up by the toast, or, in the case of eggs Florentine, with spinach. 

The second sauce for eggs Florentine is mornay. A variation of the mother of the Mother Sauces, béchamel, mornay is a cheesy white sauce that is just as decadent and indulgent as hollandaise, if not more so. Mornay is a mix of flour, milk, eggs, and butter, with grated Parmesan and Gruyére cheese. The addition of the cheese transforms this from a standard white sauce to a creamy, salty, and mildly tangy sauce that envelops the eggs in its cheesy goodness. 

Either sauce can be served on eggs Florentine. Though, if we're to base our serving on the traditional definition of anything "á la Florentine," the sauce of choice must be mornay because it's cream-based. Whichever you choose, it is the sauce that makes this breakfast dish so special. Without it, it's really just poached eggs on spinach. 

Where to eat eggs Florentine

One of the best places to eat eggs Florentine is your own kitchen. As it is one of the more well-known "fancy" brunch meals, learning to whip up a hollandaise or mornay sauce, and perfecting your poached egg game, is bound to impress anyone you have over to eat. Plus, any time you feel like being a little bit decadent, you can enjoy some on your own.

Still, there is something special about going out and ordering eggs Florentine at a good café or breakfast place. There are a number of famous institutions across the United States known for their eggs Benedict, such as The Grill Room in New Orleans, Peacock Alley in New York City, Yardbird in Miami, and Sprout Restaurant in Chicago. Even if eggs Florentine aren't on the menu, any of the listed restaurants, or any others that serve eggs Benedict, will be able to swap out the Canadian bacon for some spinach. As it is one of the most commonly ordered variations to eggs Benedict, there really is no reason why any establishment shouldn't be able to serve eggs Florentine.

Most places that specialize in breakfast/brunch will have it as a menu option, however. So you needn't ask for special treatment. Just remember: Don't ask for eggs Florentine in Florence. They won't serve it to you and you'll probably get laughed at. Probably best to just have another espresso.