It’s the youngest’s Birthday, and he’s up for a visit, so I offered several options for breakfast – he landed on Eggs Benedict. It’s also Palm Sunday, which means that this weekend and certainly next, a lot of folks are gonna think about going out for a special breakfast, and often enough, for the same dish. That’s all the reason you should need to make it at home.
Few breakfast dishes are more celebrated than Eggs Benedict. This is as it should be, because when done well, there are few things more delightful. And yet they’re rarely done at home, due to the assumption that they’re a royal pain in the ass to make. They’re really not if you go in understanding what you’re gonna do and have a pretty simple mis en place ready – do that, and they can and will be pretty easy.
There’s a couple versions of Benedict that claim to be the original out there. What’s generally agreed to is that it is an 19th century American dish and that hollandaise is involved. I was raised believing in the Lemuel Benedict version, named after a retired stockbroker with a hangover who wobbled in to the legendary Waldorf one morning in the late nineteenth century and ordered toast, bacon, poached eggs, and hollandaise. The Maître d’ on duty liked the idea and put it on the menu, subbing English muffin for toast and ham for the bacon.
The competing ‘original’ Benedict came from Elias Cornelius Benedict, a New York City banker – his version included a mixture of chopped, hard boiled eggs and minced ham topped with hollandaise.
With this post as an excuse, we tried both versions. We found them both delish, but it was agreed that Lemuel’s version is best. In any event, it’s quite obvious who has won at least the popular vote, if not the naming rights.
There’s a boatload of variants, from Florentine to mournay and Chesapeake to Hebridean. As far as I’m concerned, any variant is still Benedict so long as it involves eggs, bread and hollandaise.
So why does the dish have such a bad rep for home kitchens? The overall sense of fussiness and time pressure when constructing the dish, (largely due to a broad belief that you must make the hollandaise last), and mixed results when poaching eggs are the top complaints.
What you’ll find here does away with all that, and produces consistent, pretty results. We’ll build the hollandaise first, with a grounding in how and why it works, which makes for an unfussy, unhurried brunch. We’ll also deploy a skillet instead of a sauce pan to poach – that way you can clearly see how your eggs are cooking and have a much easier time with assembly.
First a bit about hollandaise. This is an emulsion, not much different than salad dressing in what we’re after getting it to do for us. The egg yolks we’ll use are basically protein rich water, and butter is our fat.
Successful hollandaise involves giving egg yolks, a little water, and lemon juice the time and gentle heat needed to allow us to gradually add butter and end up with a delicious, stable emulsion.
A couple tablespoons of water isn’t much, but it’s key to allowing the proteins in the yolks to relax. For the life of me I can’t understand recipes that omit it. Acids like lemon juice or vinegar also help relax yolk proteins, but the real protagonist here is gentle heat, with a strong emphasis on gentle.
Heating that mixture too much or too fast is the top cause of Hollandaise failure for home cooks. I’ll have you use far less heat than most recipes, and none if it direct -that’ll solve the overcooking problem. The indirect, (mostly steam), heat in the double boiler, coupled with the latent heat of the melted butter is more than sufficient to get the job done. Here’s how you do it.
4 large, fresh Egg Yolks
1/2 Cup fresh Butter
2 Tablespoons Cold Water
2 teaspoons fresh Lemon Juice
2-3 shakes Tabasco Sauce
Separate eggs. Place whites in an airtight container and refrigerate or freeze for future projects.
Put about 2″ of water in a sauce pan sized such that a mixing bowl or double boiler will fit within. You want the bottom of the bowl you’ll work in to be above the water by a good 2″. Not doing this right is a primary cause of failed hollandaise – Too much heat, and/or heating too fast.
Turn heat to medium low.
In a separate sauce pan, melt butter over medium low heat.
When the water starts to simmer, turn off the heat.
In a small mixing bowl, combine egg yolks, water, and lemon juice.
Whisk briskly by hand to combine, until blend thickens and the volume has increased notably, about 2 minutes.
Place bowl over the hot water pan.
Gently but steadily whisk the egg yolk mixture to heat it through, about 1 – 2 minutes.
Begin slowly adding butter in a thin stream; add a few seconds worth, whisking gently but constantly, until the yolk mixture has incorporated the butter, then add a little more, and keep doing so until all the butter is absorbed.
The sauce will thicken somewhat, but possibly not as much as you like it to end up, but don’t sweat that point; as the sauce sits while you prep the rest of the dish, it’ll thicken a bit more.
Whisk in the Tabasco, then set the whole double boiler rig on the back of your oven, and cover with a clean towel.
Eggs Benedict – Serves 2
4 large, fresh Eggs
2-4 slices thick cut Ham, (Cooked)
4 slices thick cut Sourdough Bread
Tablespoon of White Vinegar
Optional: Pinch of fresh Dill
Preheat oven to Warm.
Cut sourdough into roughly 4″rounds, and do the same with the ham.
Toast sourdough lightly, then place ham onto plates in the oven to heat through.
In a large skillet over medium heat, add about 2″ of hot water, and the vinegar.
When the water starts to simmer, roll the heat back to medium low.
Gently crack an egg and, with the shell just above the water, slowly release it into the pan. The vinegar will help the whites to solidify quickly, keeping your eggs together. Repeat with the other three eggs.
Poach eggs for about 3 minutes, until all the whites are nicely set and the yolks are still semi-liquid.
Remove plates, toast, and ham and set up two of each on warm plates.
Use a slotted spoon to gently corral eggs and set them carefully on the ham and toast stacks.
Uncover hollandaise and whisk to loosen it up a bit. If it’s a bit too thin, a little burst of heat and whisking will take care of that in less than a minute. If perchance it’s thickened too much, a teaspoon to two of milk whisked in will bring everything back to status quo.
Spoon generously over eggs and garnish with a little fresh dill if you wish.