Creamed spinach is a classic, decadent side dish, but it also makes a fine nest for baked eggs. Despite its name, cream weighs down the spinach, so half-and-half or whole milk is a better choice. On the other hand, skim milk is puny, meager, and inadequate. Starting with fresh spinach requires an extra prep step, but the flavor and texture are so superior to frozen spinach that it's worth it. (You can make the creamed spinach the night before!)
Baked eggs, with their firm whites and soft yolk centers, have the appeal of poached eggs but are much easier. For best results, use extremely fresh eggs and let them come to room temperature before cracking them into the spinach. Cold eggs require longer baking and the whites can turn rubbery.
Creamed Spinach with Baked Eggs
Makes 8 servings (easily halved)
For the creamed spinach: 1 1/2 pounds baby spinach 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion 2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic 1/4 cup instant or all-purpose flour 2 cups half-and-half or whole milk 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese 1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg 1/2 teaspoon dry mustard Pinch of cayenne pepper 3/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
For the eggs: 8 large or extra-large eggs, at room temperature Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper Ground cayenne pepper or paprika, to taste 1/4 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
For the creamed spinach: Don't be alarmed about the huge amount of raw spinach; it cooks down considerably. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Working in batches, place the spinach in a large strainer and lower it into the boiling water only until it wilts, about 5 seconds. Quickly transfer the spinach to the ice water to stop the cooking and set the bright green color. When all of the spinach is cool, drain it in a colander. Pick up the spinach a small handful at a time and squeeze it as dry as possible. Place the little piles of spinach on a clean tea towel. Fold the towel closed and then twist the ends to squeeze out any remaining water. Separate the little clumps into loose strands of spinach.
Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic, and cook, whisking continuously, for 1 minute. Sprinkle the flour over the onion mixture and cook, whisking continuously, for 3 minutes. Do not let the flour brown.
Whisk in the half-and-half. When the flour dissolves, switch to a heatproof spatula. Cook the mixture, stirring slowly and continuously, until the sauce comes to a boil and thickens enough to coat the back of the spatula, about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and continue cooking until the sauce is the consistency of soft pudding, about 2 minutes longer.
Stir in the cheese, nutmeg, mustard, cayenne, salt, and pepper. Add the spinach and mix well. Keep warm over very low heat. (Make-ahead note: You can make the creamed spinach up to one day ahead. Press plastic wrap or parchment paper directly onto the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. When ready to proceed, remove the plastic wrap and reheat over low heat until it just begins to bubble.)
For the eggs: Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat it to 400°F. Set eight 8- to 10-ounce gratin dishes or other similar shallow baking dishes on a rimmed baking sheet.
Divide the warm creamed spinach among the dishes, making sure that it is no more than 3/4-inch deep. Use the back of a spoon to make a little hollow in the center of the spinach and crack an egg into each hollow. It's fine if the egg white spreads out a little over the spinach. Sprinkle the tops with salt, pepper, cayenne, and cheese. (You can also bake several eggs on top of a whole dish of creamed spinach, but be prepared to bake them much longer — 20 to 25 minutes.)
Bake only until the egg whites are set, 12 to 15 minutes. Keep a close eye on the eggs in the last few minutes of baking; the yolks can go from perfect to chalky quite quickly. The yolks will continue to firm up after they come out of the oven, so serve these promptly alongside the sausage and toast.