Eggs Benedict

Imagine my surprise:

Eggs à la bénédictine (soft boiled or poached) Oeufs a la benedictine - Pound some cod with garlic, oil and cream and add some chopped truffles. Arrange the eggs on the mixture and mask with a Cream sauce (see SAUCE)

That's the recipe given in the 'old,' 1961 edition of the Larousse Gastronomique. I looked it up thinking that I'd find out what sort of bread the English muffin, which has become traditional in America, replaced, only to discover that everything in the French recipe has been replaced, excepting only the eggs. "Pound some cod..." No, thank you. Not for breakfast, truffles or no truffles. Excusez-moi, but - Ew!

Eggs Benedict (à l'américaine, anyway) is certainly the most luxurious dish in the culinary canon that does not involve any luxury ingredients. The wherewithal can be purchased at any supermarket. Even the best butter available isn't all that costly, and neither is the best Canadian bacon. Eggs Benedict is a basically dish of eggs two ways: poached eggs bathed in buttery egg custard. I can't think of anything richer. Mushrooms, whether humble creminis or exalted truffles, would add an altogether distracting complication. Rather, the sumptuous egg-on-egg texture must be countered with tart lemon juice and the leanest of breakfast meats. Because Hollandaise is not a true sauce, because it does not depend on a starch for thickening, it does not taste heavy; you don't know how full you are until it's too late. But what a way to go.

Because  egg yolks must be handled with care - above a certain temperature, they become granular and revolting - many cooks are leery of Hollandaise, but like another egg dish, the soufflé, it is a fundamental preparation that repetition will render foolproof. Because there's more to Eggs Benedict than making Hollandaise, however - its last-minute composition is a sharp test of the cook's marshalling skills - you may want to master the sauce in a less stressful context, in which case I recommend serving it with steamed asparagus. Since there's no better way to steam asparagus than in the microwave (and the water comes from the asparagus itself), this famous dish is, from the cook's point of view, all sauce. To reduce distraction to an absolute minimum, consider preceding a roast with accompanying vegetables with a dish of Asparagus Hollandaise, preparing the latter while the former is setting.

There are lots of recipes for Hollandaise, involving slightly different proportions of eggs and butter, salt and vinegar (or, preferably, lemon juice). I am going to repeat the one that accompanied the egg poaching pan that I bought at Williams-Sonoma last fall, but the technique will work for any recipe. My trick is to use frozen butter. This continually brings the sauce mixture back from the danger of overheating, and it slows the incorporation of egg and butter, making a richer sauce. Because cubing a stick of frozen butter is somewhat awkward - the butter tends to chip and fly off the cutting board - I recommend cubing a stick of refrigerated butter and then freezing it, suitably wrapped. There's no reason why you might not do this the night before. (Do not try to cube butter at room temperature.) The butter ought to be the freshest that you can find, and it should also be unsalted. If you can find the French brand Échiré, by all means splurge, but the American brands Plugra and Cabot are also excellent. Ideally, you will have bought the butter no earlier than the day before.

I like to use a double boiler to make Hollandaise (as well as anything involving chocolate), but you needn't have one; indeed, on some reckless occasions I've made Hollandaise directly over an open flame. The basic idea is to bring water to a simmer beneath the vessel in which you're stirring the sauce. A larger saucepan will do the trick; so will an au gratin dish. At no point, however, should the sauce vessel come into direct contact with the water. The point of the simmering water is to moderate the violent effect of direct heat (no matter how low the flame), and there's no getting round the fact that making Hollandaise is a two-handed job, even if you've got a double boiler.

While I cannot promise that the addition of a cold egg yolk will rescue a curdled Hollandaise, I've known it to work.

Sauce Hollandaise

1. Cube and freeze a stick (1/2 cup) of unsalted butter.

2. Bring water to simmer in the bottom of a double boiler or other suitable vessel (bain-marie).

3. Separate three eggs, reserving the whites for another purpose, and combine the yolks in a light, stainless steel saucepan with 1/2 teaspoon salt and the juice of half a lemon.

4. Whisk the egg mixture together over the simmering water until the mixture just begins to thicken - about a minute. Add a few cubes of butter and continue to whisk until it has melted. Continue with all the butter, moving the saucepan to and from the steam. Within a minute or two of adding all the butter, the sauce will thicken almost to the consistency of mayonnaise. Serve at once!

 It's because the Hollandaise must be served the moment it's ready that Eggs Benedict presents a challenge to any cook. Poached eggs can't sit around, either. I happen to like eggs that have been poached for four minutes; this means that I have four minutes in which to make the Hollandaise. Then I have to be ready to sit down and eat. This means that everything else must be prepared in advance. I don't just mean the other elements of Eggs Benedict, but the rest of the meal as well - coffee or tea, juice, grapefruit or melon, and, of course, a set table with everything laid out (napkins, salt and pepper, cream and sugar) before separating the eggs.

The one shortcut that I have to take is to rely on an egg poacher. This is a saucepan with an insert that holds small, perforated cups; the model that Williams-Sonoma sells features non-stick cups, but even these have to be buttered.

Eggs Benedict for four (TPFDL)

1. Cube and freeze butter. (Step 1. above)

2. Set the table, brew a pot of coffee or tea, pour four glasses of juice, and halve two grapefruit or melons. If possible, have someone else check to make sure that everything has been laid out; you don't want to spoil the treat of Eggs Benedict with post-last-minute rushing. Because the muffins will be crisp, you might want to use steak knives.

3. Toast four English muffin halves. Butter them and keep them warm in a low oven.

4. Sauté  eight slices of Canadian bacon in a skillet with a little butter and a drop or two of oil. When they have taken on some color, arrange the slices on the muffin halves (two per half), and return the muffins to the warm oven.

5. While the Canadian bacon is browning, butter the cups of an egg poacher. Bring the water in the egg poaching saucepan to the simmer, and do the same for the bain-marie(Step 2. above)

6. Separate the eggs and combine the yolks with the salt and the lemon juice. (Step 3. above)

7. Break open four eggs onto four saucers. Slide the eggs into the poaching cups and place the cups in the saucepan insert. Set a timer for four minutes.

8. Finish the Hollandaise (Step 4. above)

9. When the eggs are done, transfer them to the muffins. Place each muffin on a plate and top with a fourth of the Hollandaise. YOu may garnish with parsley if you like. This is something an extra pair of hands can certainly help with; you might even ask each diner to bring his plate to the stove for assembly.

10.  Sit down and go to heaven.

11. Do not repeat for about six weeks. This would  not be a healthy habit. (April 2003)

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