At last year’s presidential inauguration, the luncheon following the ceremony commemorated the 200th anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s inauguration as vice president. On the menu, which reflected foods that the renowned gourmet might have grown or imported, was a timbale of macaroni and cheese (no, macaroni and cheese was not the 1950s invention of a major food company).
A timbale (variously pronounced TIM-bull, tim-BAHL, or tam-BAHL) is a baked egg dish that has been likened to a crustless quiche or a cross between a custard and a soufflé. The name is French for “kettledrum,” in reference to the shape of the mold in which it is baked as well as the food that emerges from it. Recipes for timbales may or may not include milk or cream, cheese, bread crumbs, meats, or vegetables, but they nearly always include herbs–especially the anise-flavored herbs, such as tarragon, chervil, and fennel. Parsley, thyme, chives, garlic chives, basil, dill, savory, and marjoram are other herbs that complement the delicate flavor of eggs.
Timbales were once so popular that Fannie Merritt Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896) contains two dozen timbale recipes (including one featuring macaroni and cheese). The thirteenth edition, now known as the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, lists only a single recipe with two variations.
Are timbales worth reviving? Yes! They’re a simple, nutritious dish that can be prepared as easily for one as for a crowd. Timing is not crucial, as it is with omelettes or soufflés, because timbales can be served either hot or at room temperature. They are an ideal main course for a brunch, lunch, or supper, or they can serve as a side dish with poultry, meat, or fish. They also offer an opportunity to showcase the perfect union of eggs and herbs.
Timbales may be made as austere or as decadent as desired. Those watching their cholesterol and fat intake may use egg whites or a commercial egg substitute and skim milk or evaporated skim milk. Others may prefer to use whole eggs and heavy cream.
Whereas timbale recipes in older cookbooks typically call for cooked, minced meats such as ham, chicken, or fish, today’s recipes tend to highlight vegetables. Spinach is traditional, but almost any other finely chopped or pureed vegetable will work as well. Timbales may be served with a sauce, whether a traditional tomato cream or béchamel or an au courant red-pepper sauce, but they also stand quite well on their own–a testament to their versatility and adaptability.