Eggs Benedict is one of those iconic dishes that everyone has heard about, but few have experienced in its authentic form. And most home cooks are too daunted to try making it themselves, so they are left with restaurant versions that may or may not be tasty or authentic. In September 2018, I was lucky enough to get a hands-on tutorial from my uncle, Alphons van der Poll.
Alphons, who is now 80, is a classically-trained European chef whose specialty is sauces. In the world of chefs, he is known as a saucier. And his skills are top-notch, as I learned when I watched him demonstrate this classic.
Sauces are what give a finished dish its character, but they are tricky to master. You have to get the right balance of flavor, and master the technique for heating and mixing, otherwise the chemistry won’t work and you’ll end up with a broken sauce -- a hopeless puddle of oil, solid, and liquid. That can be a huge problem in a busy commercial kitchen, and a headache for home cooks when you’re having get-together and the guest are due any minute. Ever try making mayonnaise that just won’t emulsify? Ever have a ganache break down into lumps of chocolate and oil? These are common failures that a saucier has to avoid as he turns his hand at his craft.
Eggs Benedict has four main components: A piece of bread, a poached egg, a slice of meat, and hollandaise sauce. This whole package is topped with some grated cheese, which is then broiled just until the cheese melts and starts to turn golden. Below, I give the recipe for each component in bold, along with the final assembly. Read through the whole thing so you get a sense of what’s involved, then refer to the sections in bold when cooking.
The one ingredient that determines the final quality of Eggs Benedict is the hollandaise sauce. If all you’ve ever known is some gloppy, heavy concoction that tries to pass for hollandaise, then you’re in for a culinary revelation. I knew Alphons’s hollandaise had to be excellent, given his profession. What I didn’t realize was just how delicious and manageable his version is -- even for a home cook. I am so grateful I had the opportunity to stand by his side and watch how a master saucier does his thing, and now share it with you, dear reader.
The acidic base of a hollandaise sauce is a gastrique. A gastrique is an acid component, usually vinegar, that is reduced and seasoned. Alphons uses white wine and lemon juice for his gastrique, and the end result is amazing. Another secret is to whisk the egg yolks continuously in a double boiler. This makes the hollandaise airy, almost like a liquid mousse. You must scrape the sides as you whisk, to make sure you aren’t accidentially ruining the eggs by leaving them on the hot sides of the bowl. Another factor is to control the heat. If the mixture gets too hot, you end up with broken sauce that consists of scrambled eggs and melted butter. One more thing. Because butter is crucial, use the best you can – preferably a high-fat European variety or an artisanal local variety.
Alphons does not measure – he does this all by eye. And no wonder – he’s been doing this professionally for over fifty years. I tried to gage the exact amounts he was using, and I got fairly close. The good thing is, the sauce still works even if your liquid measure is off by an ounce or two. You can always add in more liquid (such as water) at the end if the sauce is too stiff.
About 10 ounces dry white wine, such as a sauvignon blanc, pinot grigio, or chablis
3 small bay leaveshalf of a small lemon, juice squeezed into the wine and the peel added to the pan as wellAbout ¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper (I like to use white, but Alphons uses black)
Place all into a saucepan and reduce by about half. You should end up with a generous half-cup or so of gastrique. Strain out the solids. Add the gastrique to:
7 egg yolks
Whisk the gastrique and yolks continuously over a double boiler of simmering water. Do not let the mixture over-heat or it will curdle. Cook until it is thick like lemon curd or butter cream. The tracks of the whisk will show clearly. Take it off the heat if necessary, and keep whisking. You can hold it at a steady hot temperature while you whisk it, but you must not let the heat climb to the point at which the eggs scramble.
Finishing the hollandaise sauce:
About 12 ounces of good butter, melted and clarified a bit. (Clarified means the water has cooked off and the solids are separated out, and you are left with the clear butterfat).
When your egg yolk-gastrique mixture is thick enough, take it off the heat and whisk in the melted butter. Let the butter trickle in while you whisk it. Don’t add too much at once, or the sauce will break.
The finished sauce should be creamy and thick, but still pourable. Add:
About four drops of Worcestershire sauce
Hold the sauce in a warm spot until ready to assemble the final dish. Alphons says that at the restaurant they would hold it on a warming shelf – the same place where plates were warmed for service. He says you can also refrigerate it ahead of time. Re-heat it carefully, and add water by the teaspoon to loosen the mixture if it is too thick.
Alphons says the hollandaise sauce is similar to bernaise sauce. The difference is that with bernaise, you use tarragon vinegar in the gastrique. You can make your own tarragon vinegar by infusing white wine vinegar with tarragon leaves overnight.
Poach the eggs
The next step in a good Eggs Benedict is poaching the eggs correctly. Most people – including professional cooks -- don’t get this right. I’ve ordered eggs from commercial kitchens that were supposed to be poached, but were hard-boiled instead. A properly poached egg consists of a cooked white that encases a jiggly, runny yolk.
Alphons’s technique is a classic one that home cooks can master. You just have to pay attention and keep checking the eggs so they don’t over-cook. If you wander off and forget about them, they won’t come out right.
To poach the eggs, heat a pot of water and pour in a generous amount of plain white vinegar. The vinegar helps the egg to coagulate properly. When the water is simmering, crack the eggs into the water. The whites will thread off somewhat – this is not a problem. After about a minute or two, lift an egg out of the water, using a slotted spoon or skimmer or strainer, and see if it is ready. The white should be completely cooked, it will encase the yolk, and the yolk will just have begun to firm around the outside, but still be jiggly. If not quite cooked, put back into the simmering vinegar water and check again in 30 to 60 seconds.
When the eggs are poached, gently slip them into clean, cool water in a separate bowl or pot, and hold until you’re ready to assemble the portions. This step will leach out the vinegar flavor and hold the eggs until you’re ready.
Assemble the Eggs Benedict
Toast English muffin halves or other bread that has been cut into a circle about 4 or 5 inches in diameter. (You can use your oven's broiler for toasting the bread if there are too many rounds to fit into your toaster). Top each with slices of ham or turkey ham. Remove each poached egg from the water, and drain on paper towels just until they’ve lost most of their water. Place the egg onto the muffin half. Spoon a generous few tablespoons of hollandaise sauce over each portion. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. (Alphonse used Parmesan during our cooking session, but he agreed that Guyere would also be good).
Broil for a few minutes, watching carefully, until the cheese topping is melted and slightly browned. Serve immediately with more warm hollandaise on the side.
Thoughts and variations
What I’ve described here is the classic dish, without embellishments. But once you’ve mastered the basic components, you can adapt it. For example, instead of an English muffin, you could use a grilled portobello mushroom. Instead of meat (or in addition to), use sauteed spinach or steamed asparagus. If you want to take it in a southwest direction, use cornbread as the base, chorizo (or vegetarian soyrizo) as the meat layer, and cheddar or Monterey jack as the cheese topping, with a sprinkling of southwest seasoning such as chili powder or cumin and oregano to finish. Or, come up with your own version and let me know how it turns out. Bon appetit!