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Eggs - what's in a name?

"The variations on this simple dish are infinite" Robert Carrier

Indeed they are and it is perfectly easy to become completely confused with those variations and their different names, which obviously mean different things to different people. At left is a pretty basic version of an oeuf en cocotte. It comes courtesy of Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats, who has an amusing and comprehensive article about this classic French dish which has sort of been forgotten. Sort of because it has morphed into a variety of shapes and sizes - and names.

I started this post because of that 'en cocotte' phrase. When I decided on the chicken en cocotte, it immediately brought to mind 'oeufs en cocotte' - something I have never made, although now that I think about it maybe I have. Sort of. Anyway I thought it might be a short thing, but, of course, it isn't, when you look into it.

First of all the word. Today the word 'cocotte', loosely translated as casserole, is most often associated with those gorgeous French Le Creuset cooking pans - sometimes called Dutch ovens if they are not Le Creuset - which cost an absolute fortune at Le Creuset and much less at Aldi. You can get them in multiple sizes and a few different shapes. But cocotte is also a word for a prostitute:

"The meaning 'prostitute"'(1867) is a different word, from French cocotte, originally a child's name for 'little hen' (18c.), hence 'sweetie, darling.'" Etymoline

You would have to think that 'coq' (cock) comes into that particular definition. In fact I think Etymonline have it a little bit wrong. 'otte' is a diminutive ending for a word but 'coc' (coq) is really a cock - so the connection is a bit more obvious. I should perhaps clarify - 'cocotte' meaning the dish comes from a different French source - 'cocasse' which is a bit weird because it apparently means droll or funny. However, Etymonline goes on to say that cocasse derives perhaps from cucama (I think they mean cucuma) which is Latin for a kind of cooking vessel. Sorry - probably not interested, but I think words are interesting.

Mind you, when you look at Robert Carrier's words about eggs, you can perhaps see a connection with prostitutes, via eggs:

"To the ancients, the egg was almost sacred. Gods, were hatched from them, witches hid in their empty shells, and philosophers held them up as symbols of the world and its elements : the shell, earth : the whites, water : the yolk, fire ; and the space under the shell, air. St. Thomas Aquinas went even further in the Middle Ages, when he used the egg as evidence of the unity of life itself." Robert Carrier

Moving on. Let's look at the different words used for the kind of dish shown at the top of the page - fundamentally an egg baked in the oven in a small container, usually with something like butter or cream or cheese. But of course it's not as simple as that - although it can be.

This, in fact is a picture of Elizabeth David's Oeufs en cocotte and you can't be more simple. Melt some butter in the oven in your ramekin, break your egg into it, pour cream around the yolk (not on top) and cook for 4-5 minutes. And yet, I think even the great Elizabeth David (along with many others) hasn't got it quite right, because - having now browsed through a large number of recipes - you should place the ramekins in a tray filled with hot water halfway up the sides of the ramekin, and she doesn't. She does translate the title as 'Baked eggs' which they are, but really I now think that they should be called Shirred eggs.

The name 'shirred' by the way comes from the name of the original flat-bottomed vessel in which they were cooked - a shirrer. Denby, it seems are still making them - and all of the other examples that I saw were very similar in shape, even down to the handle. No water bath and therefore simpler, but possibly less sophisticated.

The Spruce Eats has a recipe for the most basic version which includes just cream and cheese as well as the butter of course.

Then there are Coddled eggs which are an English thing, and for which, ideally you need a special piece of equipment - a taller little pot than you need for 'en cocotte' or 'shirred' - which has a screw, or clip-on lid. The first recipe shown here is from the Lavender and Lovage site and as you can see has tasty additions - smoked salmon and dill which are layered in the pot with egg and cream. Sort of yum. And a very pretty pot. delicious. has a recipe in which the egg is layered with spinach and cream but also served with smoked salmon - well smoked salmon goes very well with eggs doesn't it?

But you don't really have to have a lid because you can just cover tightly with foil, but you do have to immerse the pot in water up to the neck. Which makes it a different proposition to the 'en cocotte' French.

But we haven't finished yet. There are also oeufs moulés - which means moulded eggs. What you see here is not quite what Robert Carrier described though:

"Nothing more or less than eggs baked in dariole moulds and then turned out before serving, these little egg turrets make a decorative first course, especially if served with an appropriate sauce and placed in individual pastry cases, cooked artichoke hearts, mushroom caps or tomato cases."

The above is the closest I could find to his description although the mould is obviously different. However when you look for this dish and also for moulded baked eggs, you find that mostly the ones in the dariole moulds are made by beating the eggs first - sometimes with other things, sometimes just as they are. Then you do the fancy stuff when you turn them out. Cover them with sauce, put them in things, on things, and so on.

Take a step further and you are into baking eggs in all manner of other things - tomatoes, bacon. Eggs in muffin moulds have also become a thing - either on their own - well perhaps a bit of cream or something - or in a pastry or toast casing - ideas abound:

I think I have run through all the different terms that people use - no - there is also potted. However, I should also mention that people confuse the terms - sometimes they call them 'en cocotte' when they don't cook them in a dish of boiling water, or they call them shirred when they are really 'en cocotte'. There are just too many mixings to mention. And, of course there are all manner of things you can add to your eggs to make them tastier - so here are a few of all those that don't fit the 'classic' terms: Baked soufflé moulded - well these are not moulded, but Robert Carrier had a recipe for 'en cocotte' in which the eggs were separated, the whites whipped, the yolks placed on top with some cream and then cooked. The photograph is the nearest I could find to this idea. Then there is Manu's Coddled egg with creamed rocket - not coddled but 'en cocotte' (baked) and none the worse for that. Next is Shirred eggs from Food 52 - and indeed they are, as are Recipe Tin Eats Shirred eggs with spinach and mushrooms. Then we turn to The Guardian and Alice Hart's Eggs en cocotte with goat's cheese, tarragon and tomato, which demonstrates that you can even use a tea cup for your baking implement, followed by Thomasina Miers' Eggs en cocotte with mushrooms, garlic and thyme. We then return to Daniel Gritzer of Serious Eats and his Eggs en cocotte with tomato and goat cheese and finish with Potted eggs from Taste - no water bath required.

At the beginning of all this I said that I had a vague memory of having a go at this kind of thing once, and indeed I did. It was back in the day of my 5/2 diet when I was keen. Nowadays when I'm fasting I just don't eat much. Back then I tried out thing like these Ham and egg pockets. They were very nice and very easy. And as I have been writing this I have thought that I might well have a go at a simple version for lunch every now and then. After all it's really just a rather more special - even decadent - all that cream and cheese - boiled egg and soldiers. And I do like boiled eggs. David really, really doesn't so having one for lunch might be a good idea.

Then there's shakshuka and piperade which in a way are really the same thing. But that's a whole other story for another time.

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