New Yorkers love their café breakfasts and we’ve been enjoying eating them here. Probably the most popular item on any New York café or restaurant brunch menu is Eggs Benedict: a toasted English muffin, some good ham (often from Canada), soft-poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, and perhaps some chives for colour and a slightly peppery counterpoint flavour. Lara had a particularly delicious one with a Moroccan twist at Cafe Mogador in the East Village.
While it’s a weekend eggs dish that never goes out of style, I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s a dish that I’ve always used to test out cafés when I’m reviewing them. Why? While the dish appears deceptively simple, it requires skill to get it perfect – and get it to the table hot.
I’ve written about poaching eggs at home at length in my Weekend Eggs series over the last few months, but poaching eggs in a commercial restaurant situation is a completely different situation. Whether poaching the eggs beforehand and holding them so that they’re still soft-centred after reheating or poaching them to order, in a busy kitchen, and with orders piling up, requires skill. It’s all too easy to overcook the eggs, have them turn out tasting of vinegar from the poaching process, have them arrive stone cold, or have them arrive as a stringy mess from bad technique.
Hollandaise (essentially warmed egg yolks, clarified butter, cracked pepper, salt, lemon juice, white wine or white wine vinegar, and cayenne pepper) can test even the most accomplished chefs. Making it is an art requiring great timing, plenty of wrist action with a whisk, and a keen eye. The sauce can easily split or curdle. The finished sauce is thick in texture, but fluffy – not easy to achieve. And a batch should not be held for more than an hour unless you like making people ill – although some disagree on just how long you can hold the sauce.
One of our favourite cafés in Sydney, Australia, which we used to frequent every weekend when we were first starting to become a little obsessed with food, would turn out hundreds of plates of Eggs Benedict over a weekend. One cook’s only job was to keep making batches of hollandaise, while another poached eggs continuously, and yet another assembled the dish. They were consistently delicious.
One of the reasons making Eggs Benedict is generally expensive is because of the labour involved. It’s okay to pay $18–$20 for the dish if it’s made well. But that’s a big if. I’ve seen it done with horrifying ‘hollandaise’ from a Tetra-Pak carton. I’ve seen fatty, greasy bacon (as if the hollandaise itself isn’t calorific enough) used instead of ham. I’ve seen French baguettes instead of the classic English muffin. I’ve seen cold eggs placed on the muffin, sauce pored over, and then the dish placed in a broiler to heat the eggs. I once had all the aforementioned crimes against Eggs Benedict presented on the one plate.
So why would you bother wasting time making it when you can go to a café and order it? If you know a place that does it well, doesn’t break any of the rules, and doesn’t charge like a wounded bull for it, I say don’t bother making it at home. That is, unless you’re really interested in cooking. Why? Because hollandaise is one of the master sauces of French cooking and learning to make it gives you skills that will serve you well.
My favourite way of making it is the more complex, traditional way, where sliced shallots, cracked pepper and vinegar are simmered in a pan until almost dry, and then a couple of tablespoons of water are added to make a reduction. The eggs are added, and then clarified butter and lemon juice to taste. It’s complex, rich and delicious.
I like to ‘cook’ the sauce in a metal mixing bowl over a pot of simmering water (the bowl shouldn’t touch the water), lifting the bowl out of the pot to control the temperature. And controlling the temperature is very important. The most common problem most people strike is that the eggs start to cook. If this does happen, I take the bowl off the heat and add an ice cube, stirring vigorously to bring the temperature down. The other problem is that the sauce can ‘split’ or ‘break’, which is when you can see a separation of the eggs and ‘water’. The best fix is to have another mixing bowl with a tablespoon of water in it and then add the hollandaise slowly to this while stirring vigorously.
A couple of final notes… Hollandaise should be ‘lemony’ and rich and have a little cayenne pepper in it. Some would argue that hollandaise is only butter, egg yolks and lemon juice. Some people don’t like it lemony or with cayenne pepper – it’s still hollandaise if it’s not too ‘lemony’ or doesn’t has cayenne pepper, it’s just not the classic version. There are recipes around that mention Hollandaise and blender in the one sentence. If you do want to go that route, make it the classic way first so you understand the difference.
For the Hollandaise Sauce recipe, click here.
- Hollandaise sauce (see link to recipe)
- 4 large farm fresh, free-range eggs
- 2 English muffins sliced in half
- Plenty of slices of good quality ham
- 1 bunch of chives
- Toast the muffin slices.
- Poach the eggs as per this post.
- Place the ham on the muffin slices.
- Top with the poached eggs and the warm sauce.
- Add chopped chives and serve immediately.
- If you’ve pulled it off, champagne goes very well with this dish!