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HOME ON THE RANGE: Eggs benedict are snooty and delicious

Eggs Benedict possesses a bit of an attitude. Just look at it: The eggs are poached, not fried. They perch daintily atop toasted English muffins, like two Cleopatras resting on round divans with butter tunnels. And then there’s the Hollandaise sauce, which is creamy, rich, finicky and mysterious. Seemingly impossible to make.

It’s the sauce, I think, which lends Eggs Benedict its positively aristocratic feel (well, that and the artful sprinkling of paprika and requisite pineapple garnish). No other breakfast food boasts a sauce so refined. While omelets survive under blankets of greasy, melted cheddar and biscuits drown in thick sausage gravy, Eggs Benedict stands pert and balanced beneath a dollop of subtle sauce.

Even the origins of the dish suggest arrogance. There are two competing legends, neither of which are terribly interesting, but they’re short, so I’ll relate them anyway. Both date to the 1890s in New York City.

One finds a Mrs. LeGrand Benedict (hoity-toity to be sure) oh-so-bored with the food at Delmonico’s Restaurant. She supposedly negotiates the new dish with the help of the maître d’hôtel. The other involves a Mr. Lemuel Benedict, who allegedly comes down for breakfast at the Waldorf-Astoria (well, aren’t we special?) nursing a blazing hangover. He orders toast, bacon, poached eggs and a small pitcher of Hollandaise to cure what ails him.

Now, I’m no fancy-pants, but I’ve loved Eggs Benedict ever since I was a kid. Frankly, it’s drop-dead delicious — the most scrumptious, satisfying food item one can consume on a Sunday morning. I’ve gobbled it in a number of different incarnations: with crab instead of ham, orange juice added to the sauce, fresh spinach and tomato, even atop crab cakes rather than muffins. But always I come back to the classic. So, when I set out to make Eggs Benedict myself, in my very own kitchen, that’s the recipe I decided upon. The pared-down version I originally fell for.

I assumed the hardest part of making this dish would be the Hollandaise. But, actually, it was poaching the eggs. I’ve never in my life been able to poach an egg without creating egg soup or at least spinning thick webs of white throughout the boiling water. Basically, my eggs wind up yolks donning wispy white beards.

So, I did a little research and came up with some immensely helpful tips. For the best result, start with fresh eggs. Heat at least two inches of water in a deep skillet or saucepan to a gentle simmer. An electric frying pan serves perfectly. Don’t let the water boil (this is the problem I’ve had in the past). Some egg experts smartly recommend adding to the water 1 tablespoon of cider or white wine vinegar to help the eggs hold their shape. There also are those who create whirlpools, into which they plop the eggs. This never works for me. The absolute best method is to break the eggs, one by one, into a cup and slip them gracefully into the calm, simmering water. Poach the eggs for 3 minutes if you prefer soft yolks, 5 minutes if you like them firm. Here’s something I didn’t know: Poached eggs can be stored in cold water in the refrigerator for up to two days and reheated in hot water for 10 seconds just before serving. Be sure to pat them dry first.

Classic Eggs Benedict

8 slices Canadian bacon (regular ham works just fine)

8 English muffins

8 large eggs

2 cups Hollandaise sauce

Paprika

First, sauté the Canadian bacon or ham in a nonstick skillet until slightly crisp. Set it aside to drain on paper towels. Split your English muffins, but don’t toast them yet. Timing is everything when it comes to Eggs Benedict.

Fill two nonstick skillets (or one large electric frying pan) with water and bring it to a gentle simmer. Slide in your eggs, one at a time. Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes.

Now, toast your muffins.

It’s time to get the Hollandaise sauce started.

Hollandaise sauce

16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter

6 egg yolks

4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

Pinch of cayenne pepper

Salt and black pepper, to taste

Melt the butter in a small saucepan. Set it aside to cool to room temperature.

Fill the bottom of a double boiler with water and bring it almost to a boil (adjust the heat so the water is hot but not rolling). If you don’t have a double boiler, don’t worry. I made the sauce entirely in a saucepan.

Mix the egg yolks and lemon juice together in the top of the double boiler (or in a saucepan on very low heat). Whisk until smooth. The trick here is to keep the egg yolks at a low, even temperature. Gradually whisk in the butter in a slow, steady stream. Add the cayenne, and salt and pepper. Continue whisking until the sauce is thick. Serve immediately. Makes 2 cups.

Note: If the sauce should separate or curdle, add 1 ice cube and whisk briskly until it melts completely. This will bring the sauce back together. I tested this troubleshooting method (for scientific purposes, of course) and it actually works!

Assembly

Now, place two muffin halves on each plate. Top each with a slice of Canadian bacon or ham, a poached egg (remove eggs from water with a slotted spoon; let the water run completely off), and a scoop of the warm Hollandaise.

Makes four servings.

Suggestions and recipes can be sent to

vogel@whidbey.net.

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