It’s at least 120 years old, but with brunch more fashionable than ever in Britain, eggs Benedict is enjoying a ‘moment’. So, toast or muffins? Ham or proscuitto? There are key decisions to made here.
With Easter fast approaching, ovoid food is all the rage and, being a slave to fashion, How to Eat could not pass up this opportunity to pay homage to, arguably, the greatest breakfast-slash-brunch dish ... ever. Yes, this month, the Word of Mouth blog that is trying to identify the best iterations of our favourite dishes, is propping up the newspaper on the cruet set, pouring itself a coffee and considering eggs Benedict.
As ever BTL, do not ham it up or let your argument boil over. If you feel compelled to tell the world that – in answer to the question: how do you eat yours? – “I just put it in my mouth and chew”, do so, but be aware that yolk isn’t funny any more. If it ever was (it wasn’t).
What is eggs Benedict?
You are intelligent, urbane people. You know it consists of muffins with ham, poached eggs and hollandaise. But, as everyone from Antony Worrall Thompson to the Hairy Bikers is happy to play fast’n’loose with the term, it is worth reiterating that replacing the ham with spinach makes it eggs Florentine and replacing the ham with salmon, eggs royale. While enjoyable in their way, both are inferior dishes
Making hollandaise strikes the fear of Carême into even the most accomplished home cook, and how often do you have the ingredients (pristine fresh eggs, soft muffins) in, when the mood takes you? Moreover, this is an indulgence best enjoyed at a leisurely pace. One where half the pleasure is in letting someone else do the heavy lifting. Therefore, it is best eaten out, rather than at home.
Given its recent surge in popularity, however, this dish (the ingredients for which cost around £1.50*) is subject to rampant inflation, with the £8.95 eggs Benedict now commonly seen on menus. To paraphrase Crass and Billy Bragg – all big eggs Benedict fans, I’m sure – do not pay more than £6.99.
*For a double, naturally.
Its eggs-act (sorry) origin is unclear, but one theory suggests that Lemuel Benedict – socialite, stockbroker, raffish-man-about-town – “invented” eggs Benedict in 1894, when, in an emergency attempt to stave off a hangover, he ordered a combination of toast, bacon, eggs and hollandaise at New York’s Waldorf Hotel. If so, he was a man of great intuitive wisdom.
This only works when your hangover is of the blearily, wearily, giddily euphoric kind – when you actively want to leave the house, rather than lying poleaxed in bed, trying not to puke – but, in those circumstances, this relatively light, easily digested combination of emollient fat and amino-acid-releasing carbs and protein, is the perfect palliative. It will blow away the vapour trails of last night’s excesses, with a power second only to, well, starting drinking again.
This is not to say that eggs Benedict cannot be enjoyed sober. Of course, it can. It is a treat at any time. Either way, 10am to 11am on a Saturday or Sunday in your favourite brunch hangout is the ideal. It is too much fuss (not to mention far too calorific) to eat midweek, and should not be rushed. This is a dish in which to luxuriate.
The ideal eggs Benedict
Two is the magic number: two eggs, two muffin halves, two portions of ham. If not two litres of hollandaise The key point is, one egg is never enough.
The accent should be on lemon, not – as my colleague, Felicity Cloake, has observed – vinegary tang. Moreover, that spritzy, citrusy freshness should be thoroughly amalgamated into the sauce; it should break like effervescent surf, carried inshore on thick buttery waves. It should not be a sharp acid note that punctuates the hollandaise like an angry, aggressive full-stop. The sauce’s silky consistency, meanwhile, should be just a shade firmer than double cream. The sabayon-method and others that produce a light, airy hollandaise more akin to cappuccino foam should be avoided. You want a sauce thick enough that it can swaddle and coddle those eggs and assert itself in each mouthful.
So long as they are impeccably fresh, poach them as you see fit. But, and professional kitchens are often guilty of this, there are two key fails here that regularly ruin eggs Benedict. 1) Drain, drain, drain your eggs. There is nothing worse than soggy muffins or a plate swimming in watery dregs because some gormless chef, has chucked wet eggs on the plate. 2) Ever wondered why the centre of your egg is cold? It is because kitchens commonly poach eggs in batches, hold them in iced water, and reheat them (often incompetently), as the orders come in. Every breakfast item should be cooked-to-order.
Proper, rugged York-style baked ham is what you want here, gently warmed through (that is essential) and hand-cut into substantial, going-on-centimetre-thick pieces. None of this pre-cut, thinly sliced nonsense, much less sad wafer-thin slices of plastic, reformed meat. Texturally, like the muffin, the ham should offer a certain tensile strength and resistance to all that slippery egg and smooth hollandaise. Failing that, a couple of rashers of back bacon will work, as will, in a different way – its shards offering a crunchy textural variation – stiff bookmarks of stridently scorched streaky.
Other meats, however (even if one potential inspiration for eggs Benedict was a Philadelphian dish with white chicken meat), have no place here. Whether in an attempt to gussy it up or give it a local flavour (see also, the base), eggs Benedict does not need to be augmented with black pudding, smoked eel or chorizo. Continental cured meats (Parma, Bayonne, serrano) are wasted, here. Not only are those delicate slivers fatty and possibly difficult to cut, but their complex flavours should be allowed their full expression. They should not be smothered in hollandaise.
Again, for reasons of local pride (stotties), laziness (toast) or misplaced creative zeal (bagels, corn bread, crumpets etc.), many chefs cannot resist tinkering here. Yet, in their density, robustness and absorbency, semolina-dusted English muffins are quite clearly the most practical base for all that hollandaise and (unless something has gone disastrously wrong), egg yolk.
No. No chopped chives, tarragon or worse, parsley. No stalks decoratively criss-crossing the plate. It adds nothing. Indeed, it presents the diner with a problem – where to dump a piece of a parsley stalk covered in hollandaise sauce?
Never has warming a plate (and you need a full, easy-access dinner plate, not slate, enamelled tin or a wide shallow bowl), been more important. A cold plate means quickly coagulating egg yolk and hollandaise. If it is solidifying quicker than you are eating, your plate is too cold.
Coffee rather than tea. You need its slightly acrid, roasted edge to cut across all that butter.
So eggs Benedict, how do you eat yours?