Sunday, June 10, 2018

French-Style Baked Eggs (Oeufs en Cocotte) with Spring Onions

I love eggs.  I love them on things, in things…and all by themselves.  I can’t imagine a life without eggs.  They really are a perfect food.  Over the years I have written countless posts that feature eggs…from the simple (poached, fried, baked on a bed of vegetables) the more complex (frittatas, tortillas, quiche, savory bread pudding)…to desserts where eggs play a prominent and irreplaceable role (ice creams, custards, tarts, bread & butter puddings).  I am not alone in my feelings. Yesterday as I was reading some of the tributes written about Anthony Bourdain, I happened across his thoughts on eggs:  “An egg in anything makes it better.”  Quite so.

I have for years included a classic French egg dish (Oeufs en Cocotte) in my spring brunch class.  I have always intended to post a recipe for this dish, but have refrained for a couple of reasons.  The first is that versions of this recipe can be found everywhere….both in cookbooks and on line.  But this of course has not stopped me with other classic recipes when I thought I had something to add to the conversation.  So the main reason is really the second one.  And that is that this dish is deceptive in its simplicity.  It requires being engaged with your senses in a way that is difficult to describe.  I can give some guidelines…but you will have to practice getting it done just to your liking in your kitchen…with your equipment.  (As one writer said when describing how to know when an egg en cocotte is done:  It’s “…the egg dish that's done when it's done.”The good news is that you will get to eat eggs while you practice.   And since Oeufs en Cocotte are fantastic for brunch…or lunch…or dinner—accompanied by all kinds of delicious vegetable and meat side dishes—you should be able to create lots of opportunities to practice. 

The nuts and bolts of method for Oeufs en Cocotte are easy to describe:  Butter a ramekin. Add a few cooked vegetables.  My favorite thing is softly cooked leeks or spring onions…and a little cream—but you could add almost anything:  cooked greens, a vegetable medley like ratatouille, mushroom duxelles, a bit of ham or smoked salmon, a thick tomato compote, etc…

When you place your garnish in the ramekin, make a little divot on the center.  This will help center the yolk.  Crack an egg into a small dish and then tilt the egg into the prepared ramekin, being careful to center the yolk as much as you can. 

Pour a little cream over the top…or add a dab of butter…and season lightly with salt and pepper.  Place the ramekins in a baking dish lined with a towel.  When you are ready to bake, add boiling water to the pan to come half way up the sides of the ramekins.  Cover with foil and bake, uncovering a couple minutes before you think they will be done.  When they are done, serve right away (with buttered toast).    

So what exactly is “done?”  To me these eggs are perfect when the white is just set—but still a bit delicate and trembly—and the yolks are a barely thickened liquid.  Some people like them when the whites are a bit more solid and the yolk is even more thickened.  But this difference is a narrow window—and either way is, as far as I am concerned, a successfully baked Oeuf en Cocotte.  Visually you can tell when the white is done—it will go from clear to white.  Even if you have poured a thin film of cream over the top, you will still be able to see when this happens.  The problem is that once this happens, the yolk will be well on its way to setting too.  (Whites begin to coagulate between 144° and 149° and yolks begin to coagulate between 149° and 158°.  From 160° to 180° the whole egg gets progressively firmer until it becomes fully coagulated and hard.)  Herein lies the rub—an uncooked white is unappetizing…and an overcooked yolk, while not unappetizing, is not the goal of this dish.  If you pull your eggs out of the oven too soon, the white will be undercooked…too late, and the yolk will be hard…and the length of time between these two outcomes might be just a minute or two.

I have given an oven temperature and a range of cooking time in my recipe below—but this is just to get you in the ball park.  You will need to look at the eggs....perhaps prod the surface of the egg with your finger…or jiggle the ramekin itself to see if the eggs are where you want them. When you are first getting started, inserting an instant read thermometer in the white (right next to the yolk…but not in the yolk, as this will cause the yolk to break before it gets to the eater) will tell you a couple of things.  It will give you a temperature—I think you should be around 155°—and it will give you the added visual clue that the egg is done because when the white is done, the tip of the probe will come out clean (you can use a paring knife to test this latter thing if you don’t have an instant read thermometer).   And of course it is important that you do all of this checking quickly so that your oven temperature doesn't drop drastically.

The eggs bake best in a moderate to moderately hot oven.   They will bake well at higher temperatures, but your window of time when they are just right will be narrower.  You will have a much wider window of time if the temperature is low—but too low and they will take a longer and much more unpredictable length of time to bake (you and your fellow eaters will be standing around, tapping your toes, while the toast gets cold as you wait).

It is for this latter reason that you want to make sure your water bath (the point of which is to stabilize the ambient cooking temperature—helping the eggs to cook uniformly, protecting the edges of the egg until the center bakes) is made with boiling water (not just tap water).  Loading a full pan of hot tap water into the oven will significantly lower the temperature of the oven and lengthen your cooking time by an unpredictable amount. 

By the same logic, if you are feeding a crowd…and perhaps putting a very large pan—or two or three smaller pans—of eggs into the oven, you might want to start out at a higher oven temperature (a sufficient volume of boiling water will still lower the oven temperature).  When I prepare 32 eggs in 4 to 6 pans (in two ovens) for my classes, I bump the oven temperatures up to a 450° to 500° starting point.  I am able to observe with an oven thermometer that the oven temperature drops almost immediately after I put the pans in the ovens to below 400°.   Some ovens recover well enough that you don’t need to alter the temperature for a large number…or be careful to heat your water to boiling.  All ovens are different.  If you bake/cook a lot, you probably already know if you will need to make some of these adjustments.  If you don’t know, then making Oeufs en Cocotte would be a great exercise in getting to know your oven better. 

One final observation.  I have seen several recipes that encourage you to put two eggs per ramekin for “larger appetites.”  This seems like a bad idea to me since it will necessarily put egg whites in the center of the ramekin….and not the yolks.  Since the center will be the last spot to come up to a coagulating temperature.  Keeping the yolks runny in this situation will probably mean that there will be undercooked white in the center.  While true that the yolks coagulate at a slightly higher temperature than the whites…and it might be technically possible to get the whites in the center set and still have two runny yolks…this would be a difficult thing to pull off.

If all of this is more detailed information than you like, I would encourage you to just print the recipe and jump in.  If you have difficulties in your first attempt, then return and read the above tips (which will make much more sense after you have some practice).  I would never want an excess of explanation to discourage anyone from trying to make Oeufs en Cocotte.  Once you have made them a time or two you will know that they are actually quite easy.  And they are a classic that belongs in everyone’s repertoire…perfect for a festive brunch…or a dinner for one when you are feeling under the weather…or just when you feel like pampering yourself.  

 French-style Baked Eggs with Spring Onions

1 c. thinly sliced spring onions (use roughly equal quantities of white and green)
1 to 2 T. thinly sliced green garlic (optional)
1 T. unsalted butter
6 T. Heavy cream
4 large eggs (room temperature)

Preheat oven to 375˚F.  Butter 4 4 oz. ramekins or custard cups.  Line a roasting pan with a kitchen towel or a double thickness of paper towels and place the custard cups in the roasting pan.  Set aside.
In a medium-sized sauté pan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the spring onions and green garlic and toss to coat in the butter.  Add a pinch of salt, cover and cook over low heat until the onions are wilted and tender. If they release a lot of liquid as they cook, uncover during the last few moments of cooking to allow the liquid to evaporate.  Set aside briefly to cool.  (The onions may be cooked ahead.  Cover and refrigerate.  Bring to room temperature before proceeding with the recipe.) 

Divide the onion mixture among the buttered ramekins.  Spread the mixture out, mounding it up a bit around the edges—you are making a "nest" for the egg that will help center the yolk.  Drizzle 1/2 T. of cream into each ramekin.

One at a time, crack eggs into a small bowl and then transfer the egg to a ramekin, centering the yolk as much as possible as you do.  

Carefully pour a tablespoon of cream over each egg.  Sprinkle each sparingly with salt. 

Pour boiling water into the roasting pan until it comes up to the same level as the eggs in the ramekins.  Cover the pan with foil.  Bake for 10 minutes.  Uncover and continue to bake until the white is opaque and just barely set—the yolk should still be liquid—another 2 to 4 minutes. (If you like, you make carefully insert an instant read thermometer into the white right next to the yolk—be careful not to pierce the yolk.  (The temperature should read somewhere between 155° and 160° for jiggly white and liquid yolk.)  Remove the pan from the oven.  The eggs will hold in their hot water bath for a few minutes.  If you know you will need to hold them, undercook them slightly as they will continue to cook as they sit.  They should be served as soon as possible.  Sprinkle each with a bit of freshly ground black pepper and serve with buttered toast.

Serves 4

Notes & Variations:
  • You will probably have to experiment with baking times in your oven. I have given what works in my oven. Classically, oeufs en cocotte are baked uncovered, but this produces a hard surface and an undercooked white in my oven. You will find some sources that recommend as little as 7 minutes baking time (Julia Child). The initial temperature of your eggs will also make a difference—if your eggs are refrigerator cold, consider allowing them to sit in a bowl of hot tap water for a few minutes before cracking them into the saucers. 
  • If you like, sprinkle a bit of finely grated Parmesan or Pecorino over the egg before baking. 
  • The onions may be omitted for the simplest of baked eggs. 
  • Replace the onions with the same quantity of thinly sliced leek—one leek should yield a cup of thinly sliced leeks. 
  • Instead of onions, any finely cut, cooked vegetable may be used—diced sautéed mushrooms, a spoonful of ratatouille, minced braised artichokes, a few cooked fresh peas, etc. 
  • You may bake as many or as few ramekins at one time as you like (a French-style baked egg makes a wonderful lunch for one!). Simply adjust the size of the pan that you use for your hot water bath accordingly. For a baked egg for one, you could use a small oven-proof sauté pan or a metal pie pan. For two or three, a medium-sized sauté pan works well. Etc.

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