Eggs benedict is, I think, the perfect brunch dish. It combines the best bits of breakfast – eggs, some kind of pig product, a good sauce and bread – with sufficient elegance and composure that it doesn’t feel weird to be eating it after 10am. Although it is the balance of the individual components that make it such a successful dish, that hasn’t stopped restaurants and chefs the world over creating a host of variations. Swap the ham for smoked salmon to turn it into Eggs Royale, or spinach for Eggs Florentine. These are probably the best known variations on the benedict classic, but that’s only the beginning: Eggs Chesapeake adds a Maryland blue crab cake, Eggs Mornay replace the buttery hollandaise with a cheesy mornay sauce, and Eggs Cochon is a New Orleans version which adds pulled pork and replaces the muffin with an American biscuit (turning it, some would say, into an entirely different dish).
But when it comes to the domestic kitchen, this popular dish can be a bit of a pain. Irrespective of the skill-level of the chef, the differences between a hotel or restaurant kitchen and a domestic kitchen are myriad – but one that is key is that the chef isn’t also expected to be the maître d’, the waiter, the barista, and the babysitter. In a restaurant kitchen, the chef can keep his eyes on the sauce. The chef doesn’t have to corral people to the breakfast table, or make coffee, or feed the dog. The chef isn’t expected to sit down and eat with his guests.
Now when you’re making a full English breakfast, or a vat of porridge, or pancakes, juggling those different roles can be tricky. But when you’re making eggs benedict, you have another thing to contend with: hollandaise.
A perfect hollandaise is edible satin: primrose yellow, tart and slightly lemony, rich and buttery, thin enough to pour, but thick enough to enrobe eggs and coat the back of a spoon. Draped over the curve of a poach egg and sitting on an English muffin, it’s obvious why it’s become such a popular (and luxe) breakfast. But hollandaise is tricksy: it is an emulsion of egg yolks and lots of melted butter. As is the way with emulsions, hollandaise is fragile, and prone to breaking. If the emulsion breaks, the butter will split out of it, leaving it greasy and lumpy, oily and claggy, and absolutely not the sort of thing you’d like to ladle onto your eggs.
The thing is, the classical way of making a hollandaise – whisking cold cubes of butter into egg yolks while slowly heating them, not too hot, not too cold – means that if you get the temperature wrong, just for a moment, or add the butter a little too quickly, then you have a one-way express ticket to splittsville. But there is a solution (there’s always a solution). The hollandaise method below turns the whole thing on its head, using very hot melted butter to cook the yolks very fast, and an immersion blender to quickly break up the butter as it’s added to the yolks, so that the emulsion forms in a more stable way. It also has the advantage that it takes a matter of moments. And anyone who tells you that making hollandaise this way is incorrect or a cheat is just trying to show off, and isn’t worth your time or sauce. You can choose whether you hand them a whisk and ask them to put their money where their mouth is, or just eat a whole spoon of hollandaise while maintaining eye contact.
Using the freshest of eggs will help them hold their shape as you poach them – but if you end up with any wispy bits of white, do what all the best chefs do, and just pull them off. No one will ever be any the wiser.
Makes: breakfast for two
Takes: 15 minutes
Bakes: No time at all
½ tablespoon white wine vinegar
4 slices ham
2 English muffins
2 egg yolks
100g unsalted butter
1/2 tablespoon lemon juice
Salt, to taste
1. Bring a large pan of water up to a simmer, add the vinegar, swirl the water, and drop the two eggs into it. Poach for 4-5 minutes until the whites are set.
2. Meanwhile, place the egg yolks, the lemon juice and a small splash of hot water into a small food processor or a narrow cup or jar that will just fit your stick blender.
3, Melt the butter in a small pan until it is bubbling fast and reaches 90°C. Carefully but swiftly pour this into a small measuring jug.
4. Whizz the egg yolks, lemon juice and water briefly in the blender or with the stick blender. Slowly, drizzle in the butter: you should see the sauce thicken. Keep going until you’ve added all the butter. If you’re using a blender, you may need to pause, scrape down the sides, then continue. Season with salt, taste, and season again if necessary.
5. Slice in half, lightly toast and butter the English muffins, and divide them between the plates. Lay a slice of ham on each half muffin
6. Once the poached eggs are ready, drain them using a slotted spoon, and lay them on top of the ham on the muffins. Spoon the hollandaise generously over the top of each egg. Serve straight away, with any remaining hollandaise in a jug.