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 made at home, due to the erroneous assumptions that they’re difficult and time consuming to make. As such, I’m going to share my version and method, and offer y’all homemade, painless Eggs Benedict
There are dueling Benedicts behind the origin of this dish; the only agreed points are that it is American, and that hollandaise is involved. Being a lifelong subscriber to the New Yorker, I am familiar with both stories, as they were both celebrated within the pages of that august magazine.
I was raised believing in the Lemuel Benedict version, in which a retired stockbroker with a hangover wobbled in to the legendary Waldorf one morning in the late nineteenth century and ordered more or less what is now known as Eggs Benedict – 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, and naming it after the broker as a nod to his genius.
The competing Benedict was E. C., a New York banker, who’s version included a mixture of chopped, hard boiled eggs and minced ham topped with hollandaise.
Given the wide differences between Lemuel and Elias Cornelius’ versions, it’s fairly obvious who has won at least the popular vote, if not the naming rights. I’ll admit that E. C.’s is tasty, but as you can see, it’s not nearly as photogenic, and you also lose the delight of a somewhat runny yoke.
And speaking of naming, there are myriad variants, many of which have been titled as well, from florentine to mournay, and Chesapeake to Hebridean. As far as I’m concerned, any variant is still Benedict; mine is a hybrid, (and I’ll willingly pass on having it beknighted.)
Having talked to a lot of home cooks, it’s apparent that the greatest stumbling blocks encountered when making this legendary dish are as follows:
An overall sense of fussiness and time pressure when constructing the dish, and
A broad supposition that you must make the hollandaise last due to its volatility, which leads to overdone eggs and muffins, and myriad problems with getting consistent results making hollandaise, and
Inconsistent results when poaching eggs.
My method does away with all that, and produces glorious results, guaranteed. As you’ll see, we build the hollandaise first, with a decent understanding of how and why it works, which clears the deck for a relaxed and successful result. And secondly, we’ll use a skillet instead of a sauce pan to poach, which affords you much better, very consistent results. Doing so means you can clearly see how your eggs are cooking, and better management of the whites.
First, a bit about the heartbeat of the dish, hollandaise. This is an emulsion, which means one of two things in cooking, either fat dispersed into water, or water dispersed into fat. Hollandaise is the former, and that’s important to understand when considering that it’s made with egg yolks only. Both yolk and whites are protein rich, and it’s the unraveling and meshing of such proteins that allows us to integrate a bunch of fat therein and form a nice, rich sauce. In that sense, yolks have a distinct disadvantage vis a vis whites – Yolks have almost no water when compared to whites, and their proteins are wound that much tighter. The best illustration of this is trying to whip either in order to increase their volume. Egg whites whip readily and expand willingly, while on the other hand, no amount of whipping will appreciably increase the volume of yolks. Those proteins in egg yolks are too dense to expand when they stand alone; water is what they need to be able to do that – add a tablespoon of water to the yolk of a large egg and you’ll get about the same water balance as one egg white has. Yet even doing that, the expansion you achieve will be very short lived. Those proteins are so tightly packed that, even though you’ve introduced air and made them expand, they are still not ready to truly relax and merge.
In light of this chemical fact, you might note that it’s surprising how many hollandaise recipes include no water, and you’d be right – I don’t get that, either.
Acids, like lemon juice or vinegar, will also relax yolk proteins, but the real protagonist here is gentle heat, with an emphasis on gentle – Heat this mixture too much and you get scrambled eggs, as many cooks are all too familiar with; in fact, overcooked hollandaise is easily the Number One Fail for home cooks. You’ll see, below, that I use far less heat than most recipes, and that none if it is direct. This solves the overcooking and the fussiness, to boot. Fact is, the indirect, (mostly steam), heat in the double boiler, coupled with the latent heat within the melted butter is more than sufficient to get the job done.
So, what we do is combine an acid, (lemon juice), with heat; that lets us achieve the desired end, and takes the pressure of screwing up off the cook as well. Here’s how you do it.
4 large, fresh Egg Yolks
1/2 Cup fresh Butter
1 Tablespoon 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
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.