I tend to like my breakfasts savory rather than sweet. Maybe it's the Asian DNA, but eating a syrup drenched pancake for my first meal just doesn't have the same appeal as an omelette. It's also worth noting that I like my eggs runny, prefer good ham, and that nothing puts a smile on my face faster than the floral aroma of Meyer Lemons. Now that you know all of that, it's probably no surprise that Eggs Benedict is my favorite breakfast food.
When prepared properly it's like eating a small piece of heaven with every bite. The creamy sauce and rich egg are offset by the bright lemon and green herbs. The crusty english muffin offers crunchy and chewy textures while providing a mop to sop up the sauce. The ham brings the salt to the party with a lingering umami that dances around your tongue with the tangy Hollandaise sauce. Before you know it, you're staring down at an empty white plate with a few golden streaks of yolk punctuated by a scattering of crumbs.
It's not a difficult dish to make, and requires relatively few ingredients, but pulling off a perfect Eggs Benedict requires precision, attention to detail and a deft hand. Definitely not a kitchen project to undertake with a raging hangover (which is always when I crave this most)
Perhaps the most daunting component is the Hollandaise sauce. It's one of the five "mother sauces" in French cuisine defined by Auguste Escoffier, and while it's not the most time consuming, it requires the most skill to prepare as it involves defying mother nature and combining oil and water. But with a little care you can emulsify egg yolks and butter over a gentle heat so that the water and lemon juice will incorporate seamlessly into the the velvety sauce.
After conquering the sauce, the rest may seem like a piece of cake, but each component requires the same care and attention. The English Muffin should be separated with the tines of a fork rather than a knife so that the craggy surface of the bread can take on color and crisp at its peaks, while remaining soft and chewy in the valleys. The ham needs to be thick enough that it doesn't dry out and get chewy when seared, but not so thick that it overwhelms the other components with its smoke and salt.
And then of course there's the egg. While opinions on doneness may vary, my perfect poached egg needs to have a white that's fully set, with a yolk that has just started to thicken, and yet doesn't hesitate to flow all over my plate when pieced. A pool of ochre decadence waiting to be lapped up with a crusty piece of english muffin.
Because poaching eggs can be a challenge on it's own, I'd recommend getting familiar enough with the process to be able to turn out good poached eggs consistently. I've written a post in the past on PBS Food describing my method of making perfect poached eggs
The most important part of making Eggs Benedict, is the timing. You have the bread, ham, sauce and egg to prepare. Four separate things that in an ideal world would be done at the same time. The timing takes some practice to nail, but if you're a newbie, I'd recommend toasting the bread and searing the ham while you wait for the water for the poached egg to boil and prep the ingredients for the sauce. Then, as soon as you lower the eggs into the water, start making the sauce, which should be done right around the time you pull the eggs from the water.
- Poach the 4 eggs per this tutorial.
- Poke the tines of a fork into the sides of the English muffins, working your way all the way around the muffin to split them in half. Toast until lightly browned.
- Fry the ham until browned, but not tough or chewy
- Start the Hollandaise sauce as soon as you start poaching the eggs. Setup a double boiler by finding a heatproof bowl that sits on the rim of a pot, then add 1/2" of water to the pot before covering it with the bowl. The bottom of the bowl should not be touching the water.
- Add the egg yolk and butter into the bowl and turn on the heat to medium. Whisk together until there are no lumps and the mixture is smooth.
- Add the lemon zest, marjoram and salt and then slowly add the boiling water while whisking constantly (it may be helpful to have someone pour the water for you). Continue whisking until the mixture is thick and creamy (about the consistency of thin gravy) or if you have an instant read thermometer it should read 160 degrees F (71 C). Do not overcook it or it will get lumpy.
- Use a towel or oven mitt to remove the bowl from the pot, then whisk in the lemon juice. Taste and adjust seasonings to taste. The Hollandaise Sauce needs to be used immediately or it will clump. If you need to hold it, you can periodically warm it in the double boiler while whisking to maintain a constant temperature between 150 and 160 degrees F.
- To assemble your Eggs Benedict, put the toasted English Muffins on plates, top with a slice of ham, top with a poached egg, then finish with a generous blanket of Hollandaise Sauce. Garnish with paprika and serve immediately.