At its most basic, a coddle egg is one that’s baked or steamed until its white is opaque and set and its yolk still a little – or a lot — runny. To coddle an egg you need a very fresh egg and a small heatproof ramekin, ideally one with a capacity of 4 to 6 ounces. Butter the ramekin and slip in the egg, making sure to keep the yolk intact. If you’d like, you can drizzle the white with a little heavy cream and/or you can dust the top with some finely grated cheese. Neither the cream nor the cheese is necessary, but so nice. Season the egg lightly with salt and pepper and you’re ready to go.
The simplest way to cook the egg is to steam it, either put the ramekin on the base of your pasta pot, settle a rack in a skillet with a cover or put a double thickness of paper towels in the bottom of a skillet, pour in a little water and put the ramekin on the towels, which will keep it from rattling around. You don’t need to cover the ramekin, but you do need to cover the pot.
Depending on the size of your egg, its temperature, the number of ramekins you’re using and the amount of steam you’ve got going, the egg will cook in 5 to 6 minutes. Take a look at it: the white should be set and the yolk still jiggly. If you’re not fond of runny, jiggly yolks, just give the egg another minute. But keep an eye on it — if you let it go too far, the egg will set completely and you’ll lose the elegance of the dish.
Plain coddled eggs are good served with long fingers of buttered toast — this is one of the few dishes in which dunking is allowed — and even better if you put a little smoked salmon or a thin, thin piece of ham on the bread.
But coddled eggs don’t have to stay plain: you can plant little surprises in the bottom of the ramekins. Think about adding little bits — and you’ve really only got room for little bits — of cooked vegetables: spinach or chard, sliced mushrooms, peas, peppers (pieces of piquillo peppers are good here), onions or even mashed potatoes or a spoonful of celeryroot puree. And consider putting something on top of the eggs: cheese and cream, for sure, a drizzle of pesto, a dab of tapenade or a shower of finely minced herbs.
If you want to serve the eggs as a dinner-party starter — they’re lovely enough for the role — you can prepare them a few hours ahead of time and keep them covered in the refrigerator. Take them out about 20 minutes before you’re ready to coddle them.
I’ve mentioned only the merest fraction of the number of things you can do to flavor the eggs — what about smoked salmon or caviar, truffles or minced chives, tomato sauce or … The list can go on and on. If you’ve got favorite add-ins, pipe up, please.