There’s an item on breakfast menus all around the United States that I am wary of. This is a shame, because the item in question is, quite possibly, one of the more interesting choices one can have for breakfast or brunch.
Yes, I love Eggs Benedict. There’s no shame in admitting that. But I rarely order it, because so many places, a great majority of them in fact, get the dish wrong..
Okay, okay. Wrong is too strong of a word. Soulless is a better one.
Part of this problem stems from just being on a breakfast menu. When other menu options include the workman-like essence of hash, the immaturity of a waffle, and the straightforward attitudes of scrambles and omelettes, it’s not surprising that many cooks in the back treat the dish as just another item on the menu.
But Eggs Benedict have a sophistication about them that requires a bit more attention and a bit more nuance. This can be traced back to one of its legends of origins. At Delmonico’s Restaurant, the first big restaurant in the United States. One Mrs. LeGrand Benedict could not make up her mind as to what to order for breakfast, and asked the chef for help. Said Chef, one Charles Ranhofer, came up with the idea of ham and poached eggs on a biscuit, topped with hollandaise sauce.
Like all good dishes, this is not the only origination story for it. There are other similar stories, and the one thing that most have in common is that someone went out of their way to make this dish for somebody else when it was decided that what was being offered was not good enough.
Which is the point of the dish. When being made, one has to realize that it’s for someone who wants something more than eggs and toast. As a breakfast item, it has no equal. If one orders Eggs Benedict, they don’t just want to be fed. They want to be awed.
So how do you awe someone when making an eggs benedict? You pay attention to details. The English Muffin needs to be toasted to a point where there’s a distinct crunch in the bite and enough color on the muffin to draw attention to it. The Canadian Bacon must be hot, succulent, with a bit of crispiness on its outside. The eggs need to be poached soft, but the whites have to be firm enough to allow the customer to break the yolk with nothing more than a slight touch of the fork, rather than have the egg fall apart on its own. The Hollandaise Sauce is likely the most critical component of them all. It needs to be buttery, but not overly so. It needs a hint of lemon, but not so much that it overwhelms. And, most critically, the sauce needs to be fresh, as in, made within the previous 30 minutes, the younger the better.
The reason for the Hollandaise Sauce rule is logistical as much as it is for health concerns. Many kitchens whip up one batch of sauce, and then let it sit all morning. This comes with two problems. A good Hollandaise is a delicate sauce, full of nuance. As with any dish that is delicate, it means it can fall apart easily. If too much heat the yolks will curdle. Too low of a heat, and the sitting sauce becomes a haven for bacteria. So many kitchens opt for a more buttery, less egg yolky sauce which ceases, at least in my eyes, to be a true Hollandaise.
There are other ways to awe a Eggs Benedict fan – namely to create or offer a variation. This is how we’ve ended up with Eggs Florentine (Eggs Benedict with Spinach), Eggs Blackstone (Benedict with Bacon instead of Canadian Bacon), and Eggs Sardou, which is so different, some don’t even consider it an Eggs Benedict Variation. In my travels I’ve seen the English Muffin replaced with croissants, biscuits, and toast. I’ve seen the Canadian Bacon replaced by Crabcakes, Salmon, Sardines, Sausages, and Rashers. I’ve seen tomatoes added as well as artichokes. I’ve seen several variations of Hollandaise Sauce added, including Bearnaise, Dijon, and Bevaroise.
What all of these versions of Eggs Benedict show is someone willing to take a chance with something new, with the purpose of offering something different on the menu.
For those of us who love Eggs Benedict, these are the places that, more often than not, understand the meaning of the dish.