After the sugar coma-fest that was last week’s insanely decadent choc chip banana bread French toast, this Sunday demanded a somewhat more refined brunch.
None of your over-the-top American brashness (I’m married to one so I can get away with such flagrant cultural stereotyping); this week it’s all about stripped back, sophisticated simplicity with a soupçon of French-style insouciance.
Eggs en cocotte (or baked eggs in pots) are proof positive of the old chestnut that you can always make a meal out of an egg. It’s the kind of dish that’s perfect the day before a big supermarket shop, when the cupboards are bare save some out of date baking powder, mouldy hummus and an unopened packet of quinoa that expired circa 2008 when ‘Doctor’ Gillian McKeith was still A Thing.
Well, and hopefully some eggs and crème fraiche, which are the only ingredients you really need for this brunch, along with some herbs and whatever else you have lurking in your fridge (provided it’s still edible) to add flavour. Mushrooms, cheese, smoked salmon, cherry tomatoes, asparagus tips – all would be sublime. I have a sneaking suspicion that it would also be awesome with a smidgen of fresh pesto, but since I haven’t actually tried that particular combo don’t blame me if it is, in fact, dégueulasse.
So far, so simple. Possibly too simple. Although I was in the mood for a pared-back brunch, somehow accompanying the eggs with ordinary toast soldiers just felt a bit underwhelming. Alors, I decided to pimp those bad boys up with the help of this recipe from Smitten Kitchen.
Don’t worry though, despite said pimpage we’re still very much in the realm of the super simple. The soldiers are really just fingers of sourdough (bought, I hasten to add), tossed with melted butter, cheese and herbs then baked in the oven. Easy peasy, nice and cheesy. And there’s really no need to rush out and buy Gruyère and Pecorino; I’m pretty sure whatever cheese you have in the fridge would do. Indeed, I have a feeling good old Cheddar and Parmesan would be a cracking combo, if a little less Gallic (and yes, I’m aware that neither Gruyère nor Pecorino is French either, but the former is Swiss which is close enough).
As with all simple things done properly (especially French things) this dish tastes so much better than the sum of its parts. There’s just something so satisfyingly moreish about crispy, cheesy, herby bread dipped in creamy, beautifully seasoned eggs. It’s surprisingly rich too – one egg is definitely un oeuf (SORRY! Sorry, sorry.).
For an added touch of elegance I took inspiration from Rachel Khoo’s recipe in her book, A Little Paris Kitchen, and baked the eggs in china teacups. Et voilà, c’est tout!
Eggs en cocotte with herb-Gruyère sourdough soldiers
Serves 2 elegant brunchers
For the eggs (Inspired by A Little Paris Kitchen by Rachel Khoo):
2 large eggs
2 heaped tbsp full-fat crème fraiche (it is Sunday, after all)
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
2 tsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
salt, black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg to season
2 tea cups or ramekins for baking and serving
For the soldiers (adapted from Smitten Kitchen):
Approx 250g sourdough, cut into 16 soldiers around 1.5cm thick
4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp Dijon mustard (the original recipe states smooth but I used wholegrain to no ill effect)
50g finely grated Gruyère cheese
2 tbsp finely grated Pecorino cheese
1 tbsp flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to season
1. Preheat the oven to 190C (if you have a double oven, preheat one to 200C and the other to 180C).
2. To make the soldiers: place the soldiers in a large, shallow dish. Whisk together the melted butter and mustard then pour over the soldiers. Sprinkle over both cheeses and herbs, season with salt and pepper then toss the whole lot together so that the soldiers are liberally coated with butter, cheese and herbs.
3. Spread the soldiers out on a lightly greased non-stick baking tray then bake on the top shelf of the oven (if you’re using a double oven, these go in at 200C) for 20 minutes, turning halfway through.
4. For the eggs: Season the crème fraiche to taste with salt, black pepper and freshly grated nutmeg then put a heaped tablespoon-full in the bottom of each teacup or ramekin. Divide your chopped herbs between the two ramekins, sprinkling them on top of the crème fraiche. Crack an egg into each ramekin, then top with another heaped tablespoon of seasoned crème fraiche. Finish each ramekin with a pinch of salt and pepper, and a good grating of nutmeg.
5. Put the ramekins in an ovenproof dish or tin, then pour in some warm water until it reaches halfway up the sides of the ramekins (this is called a bain marie). Put the bain marie in the oven, underneath the soldiers (or in the 180C oven) and bake for 15-25 minutes until the egg is cooked to your liking (I found it took a good 25 minutes for a soft, runny yolk, perfect for dipping).
6. To serve, put each teacup or ramekin on a plate and surround with the sourdough soldiers. Dip and dunk to your heart’s content. Et voilà!