Oeufs en cocotte with spinach and Parma ham

Serves 4

I think of this comforting little egg dish as something to be eaten for a light, late-night supper. Its simplicity is appealing: if the spinach is prepared beforehand there is very little to do except crack the eggs.

200g/7oz small, young spinach leaves
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
A knob of unsalted butter
8 slices of Parma, San Daniele or Bayonne ham, roughly torn
4 large, fresh, free-range eggs
4 tbsp double cream
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
50g/2oz Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
Rustic bread, to serve

Prepare the spinach in advance (in the afternoon, perhaps). Wash the leaves to remove all traces of dirt and drain well. Place a large, dry pan over a low heat and add the spinach. Cook briefly until the spinach has just wilted – no additional water is needed as the water clinging to the leaves after washing is enough. Drain and set aside until the spinach is cold enough to handle. In batches, squeeze it with your hands to get rid of the excess water and place in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper, then cover and refrigerate.

When you are ready to eat, preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Place the blanched spinach in a pan with a knob of butter to warm through. Season with a little more pepper to taste. Divide equally between four ramekins (about 200ml/7fl oz capacity). Arrange the ham on top.

Crack an egg into each ramekin and spoon over the cream. Finish with a sprinkling of nutmeg and Parmesan, and a generous grinding of pepper.

Stand the ramekins in a roasting tin and pour in enough hot water to come two-thirds of the way up the side of the dishes. Cook on the middle shelf of the oven for about eight minutes; the white should be set, with the yolk still soft.

Carefully lift the ramekins out of the bain-marie. Serve on small plates, with a folded napkin underneath the ramekins to secure them, and rustic bread alongside.

Very fresh, free-range organic eggs will make all the difference to this dish. As you crack open each one, the white should be viscous and buoyant, and the yolk glossy and a warm yellow colour.

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