Onward with the Mother Sauces – Today, it’s Sauce Hollandaise. Note how, thus far in our quest, these legendary pillars of classic French cuisine seem to all hail from elsewhere? That’s not a slight or a slam. It is, rather a paean to ingenuity, and to wholehearted adaptation of good things to eat.
Hollandaise, like many of its sisters, has somewhat veiled roots. The name implies Holland, of course, and one school of thought has the original version brought to France from the Netherlands some time in the 17th century, where it was used a sauce for fish. My Larousse Gastronomique, on the other hand, claims it as French from the get go, and printed French recipes are found as far back as the mid 1600s; some are quite close to the modern iteration, while others come from farther afield – There are even green versions mentioned, flavored with fresh parsley. The recipe that yields Hollandaise as we now know it, employing a rich emulsion of egg yolks and butter, was institutionalized in the late 1800s, commensurate with Auguste Escoffier’s reign. Regardless of from where and when it stems, it’s delicious, decadent, and something you just gotta have every now and again.
Hollandaise 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. While both yolk and whites are protein rich, it’s the cooks ability to unravel and mesh those proteins that allows us to turn a bunch of fat into an emulsion, (perhaps more importantly, one that will hold long enough to use in a dish without breaking). In this regard, yolks present a distinct disadvantage over whites – They have almost no water, and their proteins are wound far tighter. The best illustration of this is provided by separately whipping yolks and whites in order to increase their volume, as you would for Belgian waffle batter.
While egg whites will whip and expand quite readily, virtually no amount of whipping will appreciably increase the volume of yolks with nothing else added. This happens because the proteins in egg yolks are too dense to expand when they stand alone, even when coaxed by mechanical beating – water is what is needed to do the deed – add a tablespoon to the yolk of a large egg and it’ll expand with vigorous whipping, but the resultant foam will be quite short lived. Those yolk proteins are so tightly packed that, even though you’ve introduced a bunch of air and force expansion, they’re still fundamentally disinclined to truly relax. In light of this fact, you might be surprised at the fact that most recipes for Hollandaise don’t call for water, and frankly, I don’t get that, either.
Acids, like lemon juice or vinegar, will also relax yolk proteins to some degree, but the most effective catalyst is gentle heat, with an emphasis on gentle. To the chagrin of many a home cook, (and plenty of Pros, truth be told), if you heat those yolks too fast, you get scrambled eggs, and nothing will take the wind out of a cooks sails faster. Overcooked hollandaise is easily the Number One Fail for home cooks. My solution, (and believe me, it’s as much for my peace of mind as it is for yours), is to use far less heat than most recipes, and no direct heat at all. Doing so solves the overcooking problem, and the overall fussiness of preparing Hollandaise. The simple truth is that indirect, (mostly steam), heat within a double boiler, coupled with the latent heat from 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
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.
With that, you should make, if nothing else, Eggs Benedict, and fresh asparagus, right?