I know you came to this story thinking we were going to talk about eggs Benedict—a.k.a. everyone’s favorite brunch. We are, but first we’re going to talk about dancing. Bear with me. Think for a moment about the last middle or high school dance you went to (yikes). The whole of it is a crazy anthropological experiment, but the essence of it is overwhelming awkwardness. The tween/teen social scene is all about knowing who your group is, and when it’s time for the various groups to mix, things start to get weird. Initially, the groups won’t and don’t mix at all, preferring to stay utterly separated (while, ahem, checking out the other groups). This is how all dances begin.
For everyone to warm up and get over their initial awkwardness, there needs to be some personal fortitude and some asking of permission. It always begins extremely slowly—and has to—or it will break apart and everyone will return uncomfortably to their initial groups.
The hallmark of eggs Benedict—hollandaise sauce—and other emulsions like mayonnaise and vinaigrette start out like this, with oil and water steering clear of each other, refusing to mix. To achieve an emulsion is to get fat and water to dance with each other. Just like encouraging 14-year-olds to dance with each other, this is no small feat. The result is something both sturdy and precarious. And delicious. And great on eggs.
So how to go about encouraging the liaison? A good place to start understanding how hollandaise comes to be is with Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking. McGee tells us that The most important characteristic of emulsions is that they require energy, and sometimes ingenuity, for their formation.” That tends to entail a lot of vigorous whisking, and often the help of what he calls a stabilizer, such as eggs, mustard, or certain starches that coax the oil and water to get and stay together. (Maybe, if we’re speaking middle-school dance, this stabilizer is the friend who assures you that the person you want to ask to dance will say yes.)
It all starts with egg yolks whisked together with a little water in a bowl set over a pot of water set over a very low flame. A tiny bit of salt and lemon juice go into the egg mixture, too. They make the protein in the eggs more available to make connections with each other. They also make the sauce taste really, really good. All of this is whisked together vigorously until the eggs have lightened in color and appear to have thickened slightly.
Another thing that makes the sauce taste good: a lot of melted butter, which you’ll add drop by drop to this frothy egg mixture. I find it helpful to think of this trepidatious, little-by-little beginning as asking for permission. Would you like to dance? Too little and you’re still a wallflower. Too much and you’ve completely skeeved out your potential dance partner.
This is, quite literally, the warm up stage. You need to very gently warm the eggs over the pot of water so they don’t cook the moment warm butter is introduced, and the butter needs to go in sloooowly not only because it’s warm but also because of that whole water-oil thing. Getting together takes time. This is an important thing to keep in mind while making hollandaise.
As you add the butter drop by drop, whisking all the while, you’ll notice the mixture starting to come together. It will be pale yellow, very creamy, and thickening slightly. Add butter and whisk, whisk, whisk until the mixture is thick but still pourable, almost like a very thick heavy cream (another emulsion).
The true balancing act, in my opinion, when it comes to making hollandaise is the business of heat. The egg in the hollandaise is eager to cook. Get it too warm and you’ll start to see telltale white curds in your sauce. But the sauce has to stay warm, or the butter will begin to cool and solidify, thus separating from the water and breaking the sauce. Meanwhile, you want it to stay warm while you poach an egg and toast an English muffin. I find the best way to do this is to just leave it in the bowl you make it in, still set over the pot of water, but remove it all from the heat.
If the sauce breaks—maybe you added a bit too much butter at once—you can save it. Ladle a bit of the broken mixture into a fresh bowl with a new yolk and whisk until they come together and look creamy, then very slowly add the broken mixture into the new bowl, whisking all the while. If this doesn’t work, simply start again. It's a delicate dance.
- Yields: Makes enough for 4 servings of eggs Benedict
Melt the butter in a saucepan with a bit of a lip, swirling the butter in the pan regularly. Meanwhile, put an inch or two of water in another saucepan, and set a heatproof bowl over the top. (Ideally, use a stainless steel or glass bowl—an aluminum bowl can discolor your sauce.) Set this double boiler over a medium-low flame.
Crack 2 egg yolks into the bowl, add the salt, lemon juice, and water, and whisk well, until the yolks have slightly lightened in color. Remove the double boiler from the heat while you very slowly add the melted butter—1 tablespoon at a time at first, then more quickly, whisking enthusiastically all the while. Return to the heat and continue whisking until the mixture has fully come together. It should be a pale buttery yellow, thick enough to coat a spoon, and completely smooth. Taste for seasoning; add a little black pepper and/or smoked paprika (especially nice if you’re a vegetarian and not serving this over smoky Canadian bacon or ham), and a little squeeze of fresh lemon juice if you like. Whisk together well.
At this point, the sauce is ready. Remove the double boiler from the heat and spoon it over steamed asparagus, dip artichoke leaves into it, or use it as an egg Benny’s crowning glory.
For eggs Benedict for 4 people, fry or bake bacon (classically, Canadian bacon) if you’re serving meat eaters; slice up some avocado or sauté some spinach with a bit of garlic. Lightly toast 4 English muffins—too crispy and they’re hard to cut. Meanwhile, poach 4 to 8 eggs (up to 2 per person). Here’s how. To assemble, lay the bacon or avocado or what have you onto the toasted muffin, carefully set a patted-dry poached egg onto each muffin half, and carefully spoon over each egg.