The Oxford English Dictionary must be our starting point if we are to understand how a celestial event and a dinner dish share the same name. Moonshine - the light of the moon - is only reflected light after all, so perhaps this is the explanation for one of the other uses of the word – to mean something ‘unsubstantial or unreal’. Gazing at the moon is also, perhaps, a ‘pleasant distraction’, which, according to the OED is also ‘moonshine.’
Sometimes we only glimpse the moon as pale yellow fragments hidden behind clouds – hence, perhaps the well-known dish ‘Eggs in Moonshine.’ The OED tells us this is ‘a dish consisting of egg yolks on a sweet base, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.’ Such a dish is surely also a pleasant distraction?
In a post some long time ago, I gave you a sixteenth century recipe for this dish: I repeat it here to set the scene for the remainder of the interpretations of the idea.
Take a dyche of rosewater and a dyshe full of suger, and set them upon a chaffyngdysh, and let them boyle, than take the yolkes of viii  or ix  egges newe layde and putte them therto everyone from other, and so lette them harden a lyttle, and so after this maner serve them forthe and cast a lyttle synamon and sugar upon them.
Proper New Booke of Cokerye (1545)
The following version, from a century later, is not sweetened. I do love the phrase ‘on a bed of butter’ because it is surely not to be found anywhere in modern cookery books.
Egs in the moon shine with creame.
Make a bed of butter in your dish, and break your eggs over it, after they are broken, season them with salt, then put some creame to them until they be hidden, or some milk, so that it be good, seeth them, and give them colour with the fire-shovel red, then serve.
The French Cook (1653), by la Varenne
And a different version from the same century, but from England this time, with onions
Eggs in Moonshine.
Break them in a dish upon some butter and oyl, melted or cold, strow on them a little salt, a set them on a chafing dish of coals, make not the yolks two [sic] hard, and in the doing cover them, and make a sauce for them of an onion cut into round slices, and fryed in sweet oyl or butter, then put to them veryjuyce, grated nutmeg, a little salt, and so serve them.
The Accomplish’t Cook (1660) Robert May.
May has several versions of Eggs in Moonshine: this one is quite different – it is very sweet and would have been fragrant from the ambergris and cinnamon – almost an egg candy, perhaps.
Make a sirrup of rosewater, sugar, sack or white wine, make it in a dish and break the yolks of the eggs as whole as you can, put them in the boiling sirrup with some ambergreece, turn them and keep them one from the other, make them hard, and serve them in a little dish with sugar and cinnamon.
As time went on, the style of the dish changed, as is wont to happen, and by the eighteenth century. Moonshine also applied to ‘any of various sweet, usually light puddings, often made of blancmange, meringue, etc., originally sometimes formed in a moon-shaped mould.’
First have a Piece of Tin made in the Shape of a Half-Moon as deep as a Half-pint Bason, and one in the shape of a large Star, and two or three lesser ones. Boil two Calf’s Fee in a Gallon of Water till it comes to a Quart, then strain it off, and when cold skin off all the Fat, take Half the Jelly and sweeten it with Sugar to your Palate, beat up the Whites of four Eggs, stir all together over a slow Fire till it boils, then run it through a Flannel Bag till clear, put it in a clean Sauce-pan, and take an Ounce of sweet Almonds blanched and beat very fine in a Marble Mortar, with two Spoonfuls of Rose Water and two of Orange-Flower Water; then strain through a coarse Cloth, mix it with the Jelly, stir in four large Spoonfuls of thick Cream, stir it all together till it boils, then have ready the dish you intend it for, lay the Tin in the Shape of a Half-Moon in the Middle, and the Stars round it; lay little Weights on the Tin to keep them in the Places you would have them lye, then pour in the above Blanc Manger into the dish, and when it is quite cold take out the Tin Things, and mix the other Half of the Jelly with Half a Pint of good White Wine and the Juice of two or three Lemons, with Loaf-sugar enough to make it sweet, and the Whites of eight Eggs beat fine; stir all together over a low fire till it boils, then run it through a Flannel Bag till it is quite clear into a China Bason, and very carefully fill up the places where you took the Tin out; let it stand till cold, and send it up to table.
Note, You may for a Change fill the Dish with a fine thick Almond Custard, and when it is cold fill up the Half-Moon and Stars with the clear Jelly.
The rather odd-sounding step of laying ‘little weights on the tin to keep them in the Places you would have them lye’ is necessary because the tins would have been the bare outlines, without bases – much like large cookie cutters. These would have needed to sit firmly on the dish so that the blancmange mixture did not run out. Once the mixture was set, the tins were carefully lifted off, and the sauce (the second step) carefully poured around the shapes. Metal moulds or cake tins as we know them today were only made possible with the improvements in metal technology which took place during the Industrial Revolution.
Here is a much easier version (especially with the aid of electric beaters) which is indeed a light pudding, but which also hints at the moon shining through clouds. If you are unafraid of uncooked meringue, this may be for you.
This dessert combines a pretty appearance with palatable flavour, and is a convenient substitute for ice cream. Beat the whites of six eggs in a broad plate to a very stiff froth, then add gradually six tablespoons of powdered sugar (to make it thicker use more sugar up to a pint), beating for not less than thirty minutes, and then beat in about one heaping tablespoon of preserved peaches, cut in tiny bits and put on ice until thoroughly chilled. In serving, pour in each saucer some rich cream sweetened and flavored with extract of vanilla, and on the cream place a liberal portion of moonshine. This quantity is enough for seven or eight persons.
Progressive Cookery, (San Francisco,1892) E. Hinckley
There is another type of ‘moonshine’ of course, though strangely, it is not included in the Oxford English Dictionary. Moonshine also refers to illegally distilled spirits. The name comes from the necessity for secrecy in its production and distribution – night-time being giving the best chance of success. I do not include a recipe for this type of moonshine, as I have no wish to assist the disintegration of your liver, or get you a jail sentence.
Quotation for the Day.
Oh, God above, if heaven has a taste it must be an egg with butter and salt, and after the egg is there anything in the world lovelier than fresh warm bread and a mug of sweet golden tea?
Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes (1996)