Poach a couple and feel free to improvise
By Regina Schrambling,
Usually when I see eggs Benedict on a menu my eye skips to the next anything. Brunch is where cliches go to molder, and this is one of the weariest: a dish allegedly invented to alleviate a hangover, inevitably hash-slung by cooks battling their own hangovers. At its most traditional it’s uninspiring; taken to poorly executed extremes it can induce what the French describe as crise de foie, that singular liver stress brought on by the likes of a stick of butter converted into hollandaise atop poached eggs on ham on a buttered English muffin. To put it more concisely: boring, with fries.
So when I saw the phrase “Irish Benedict” on a menu the other week, followed by “corned beef/Swiss/poached egg/Thousand Island hollandaise,” I had to order it. An obvious knockoff of a Reuben sandwich would surely involve not just creativity but acidity to counter the richness. And it convinced me that eggs Benedict is one classic made to be reinterpreted at home. Swap in chorizo and lime hollandaise, or cremini mushrooms and red pepper hollandaise, and it’s a whole new brunch.
Since my happy encounter with the Irish, at a restaurant called Meat & Potatoes in Pittsburgh, I’ve been seeing all manner of variations. Richard Deshantz, the chef there, says he has developed no fewer than 30 of them, always taking “old familiar things people can relate to and reinventing them.” But his riff on a Reuben became the menu standby.
Another restaurant in the same city offered a slow-roasted pork Benedict, a smoked salmon Benedict and a soy sausage Benedict, covering every base for carnivores and vegetarians and anyone in between. I’ve since come across versions online made with crab cakes, with pork belly, with spinach and tomato, even with steak, and with hollandaise alternatives including sauce Choron and an over-the-top sausage gravy. The muffin is not even always a muffin, English or otherwise; a potato pancake might wander into the equation.
A recent Forbes.com listicle reminded me that you can go too far with eggs Benedict. Foie gras under hollandaise at the Whole Ox in Honolulu sounds like a recipe for crise de foie, while braised pork shoulder on a polenta patty with a ranch-and-goat cheese hollandaise at Sprout in Chicago would probably induce a Technicolor yawn.
This is where a home kitchen is superior at both inspiring and reining in a cook.
Eggs Benedict are definitely more fit for company than some overnight egg-and-bread casserole upgraded to “strata” and decidedly more impressive than store-bought croissants. Even if you only make enough for two, the trip from stove to table is so much faster than floundering in Yelp to decide where poached eggs and hollandaise are fit to eat.
Eggs Benedict is almost kitchen Legos; there are so many ways to put it together yourself. The hollandaise is crucial, but the only tricky part is making it and not breaking it. I’m the timid type, so I do it in an improvised double-boiler, with a stainless-steel bowl set over barely bubbling water in a saucepan. It’s just a matter of blending a room-temperature egg yolk with lemon or lime juice until the egg starts to cook, then whisking in melted butter off the heat until the sauce emulsifies.
Most recipes yield oceans of hollandaise, but it’s possible to whip up enough for a mere two or four servings. And because hollandaise is one of those mother sauces that spawn a dozen others, it can be flavored many ways very simply. (Choron is tomato added to bearnaise, which itself is tarragon added to hollandaise.)
For my knockoff of the Irish/Reuben Benedict, I added ketchup, Sriracha sauce, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and relish to get that Russian dressing aspect. For a meaty yet meatless mushroom Benedict, I just mixed in diced roasted red pepper.
As the base for any Benedict, an English muffin does an ideal job of capturing oozy eggs and buttery sauce. But you can make nice, absorbent corn muffins or biscuits fast from scratch; if you were feeling particularly extravagant, you could use puff pastry instead. For the Reuben, though, rye bread is key against the corned beef and Swiss.
And then there are the all-important poached eggs. Chef Michel Richard, whose technique is illustrated in an accompanying video at washingtonpost.com/food, prefers to start with eggs at room temperature, but I’m in the straight-from-refrigerator camp. In either case, they should be super-fresh. (I had wildly different results using eggs bought at Whole Foods with an expiration date a month off and with the eggs I had bought at a farmers market a week earlier; the former spun off into white threads.)
The technique is straightforward: Add about three inches of water to a saucepan or skillet and bring it to a boil. Pour in half a teaspoon or so of cider vinegar or white vinegar; this helps quickly firm up the egg white. Reduce the heat so the water is barely bubbling. Gently break eggs into individual teacups, custard cups or ramekins to make them easier to handle.
Water that’s moving a bit makes the eggs cook better, so I swirl it a couple of times with a rubber spatula or wooden spoon. Then you should hold the side of each egg container as close as possible to the surface of the water and slide the egg in. Use the spatula or spoon to “shape” the white around the yolk. Cook for two to four minutes, depending on how runny you like your yolks. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a paper or tea towel.
The eggs may look a little sloppy around the edges, but any threads can be trimmed before serving. Or you can hope the hollandaise hides all sins.
Schrambling is a New York food writer who blogs and tweets as Gastropoda.