Baked eggs is a traditional French dish made very simply by cracking eggs into ramekins, and then cooking them in a bain marie until just done with a runny centre. There are countless variations, yet I have a bit of an on/off relationship with them. I first encountered oeufs en cocotte in a Nigella Lawson TV segment where she described eating them late in the evening as a bedtime snack. Her recipe baked the oeufs in the oven, drizzled over with cream and truffle oil. Furious seasoning is needed to counteract the blandness of the albumin and dairy, and I could never quite understand the appeal.
However, I later learned that oeufs en cocotte come into their own as a breakfast item in which a filling is put in the ramekin first, the egg cracked over and cooked, and then the surface broken with freshly made toast soldiers. This is the best way to eat them.
For The Nosey Chef, we decided to go one step further and make a version from top chef Jacques Pépin. Pépin was born in Lyon, France, and rose to prominence as the head chef for none other than President Charles de Gaulle. In the late 1950s, Pépin moved to the US where he struck up a collaboration with francophile Julia Child. The relationship spawned the TV show Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, which contains some of the most authentic footage of French family cooking ever committed to film.
In Season 4, Episode 1 of PBS’s Mind of a Chef, chef restauranteur Gabrielle Hamilton met with Jacques Pépin for a session of oeuf baking. He took an uncharacteristically dumbstruck Hamilton through a series of recipes for oeufs en cocotte, before he produced the show-stopper – an herbed egg turned out onto a crouton, sat on a mix of cream, peas and mushrooms flavoured with white wine and Madeira. Hamilton’s face was a picture of giddy excitement as Pépin carefully eased the egg out onto the fried bread. Obviously, this was the version we had to try.
Now, if only getting that egg out was so easy. I am not exaggerating when I say that it took a dozen attempts to get this right, and when I found a method that worked, it was a little different to that of Chef Pépin.
The ramekin needs to be buttered and coated with chopped herbs to enable the egg to release. We are asking the egg to release when it is barely cooked, so any sticking is impossible to deal with. After having about eight flat-out disasters, I tried applying some science to the problem. Given that the base of the ramekin is the part that is inaccessible with a palette knife, I needed to minimise that surface area. I hit on the idea of using an espresso cup. Next, I needed to prevent contact between the cup and the base of the pan. The solution was to sit the cup on a metal cutting ring to lift it off the floor of the pan. The final piece of the puzzle was to borrow some technique from egg poaching and cook the egg with the gas off for just 5 minutes.
I went through all this so you don’t have to. That said, it may take a couple of attempts before you can turn out a perfect egg with a runny yolk and a barely set white. Worth doing though.
Oeufs en cocotte Jacques Pépin
- 40g butter
- 4 shallots, finely chopped
- 150g mushrooms, chopped
- A couple of handfuls of frozen garden peas
- 100ml dry white wine
- A splash of Madeira
- 4 eggs
- Butter for greasing
- 4 tbsp dill, finely chopped
- 2 slices of white bread
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Melt half the butter in a saucepan and gently fry the shallots until softened. Add the mushrooms and cook until tasty. Add the wine and reduce by half. Add the Madeira and simmer until the alcohol smell subsides. Add the peas and cream. Reduce until a little thickened, season and keep warm.
Heat a deep saucepan of water to boiling with four cutting rings placed inside to support four espresso cups.
Cut the bread into 4 rounds using the rim of an espresso cup. Heat the remaining butter in a frying pan, and fry the bread on both sides until golden.
Smear more butter around the inside of four espresso cups and coat the insides with the chopped dill. Crack an egg into each cup and place on the rings in the pan. Put the pan lid on and turn the heat off. Cook for 5 mins.
After 5 mins check that the surface of the eggs has just set (if you cook too little, the yolk will drop out; if you cook too long, the yolk will set, ruining the dish). Lift the cups out and run a small palette knife around the sides to release the eggs. You may need to push the palette knife under a bit to release the base.
Divide the mushroom and pea mixture between four dishes. Turn the eggs out onto the croutons and place in the centre of each dish.
This recipe has been written for four oeufs, but in practice, it may be easier to do one at a time.