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Eggs Benedict is as much a challenge to historians as it is to chefs. Deciphering its eponymous origins is as tricky as its methodology. So get out your history books and your best whisk, it’s going to be a rough ride.
How and by whom eggs Benedict was first created is a matter of controversy. The first story, which itself has four variations, begins in New York City somewhere in the 1860’s or 1880’s, (even the dates conflict, depending on the source). Supposedly a financier by the name of LeGrand Benedict (version one), or his wife, (version two), complained to Charles Ranhofer, the famous chef of Delmonico’s restaurant, about the paltriness of the menu. Ranhofer responded by creating eggs Benedict. Or was it co-created by Mrs. Benedict and Ranhofer, (version three), or by Mrs. Benedict and the Delmonico’s maitre d’, (version four)? Interestingly, in Ranhofer’s well known 1894 cookbook there is no mention of eggs benedict, or any of the possible namesakes.
An altogether different account credits a stockbroker by the name of Lemuel Benedict in 1894. As the story goes, the hungover stock broker was having breakfast in the Waldorf when he ordered toast, bacon, poached eggs and a side of hollandaise sauce. According to Lemuel Benedict, the maitre d’ of the Waldorf, a fellow by the name of Oscar Tschirky, noted his order and transformed it into the modern day classic by substituting English muffins for the toast and Canadian bacon for the regular bacon. Interestingly, Tschirky had been a head waiter at Delmonico’s, a possible link to the confusion of the stories.
The third and least credible claim is that eggs benedict was invented at the renowned Brennan’s Restaurant in New Orleans. One myth can be dispelled. Eggs Benedict is not named after Benedict Arnold, the famous Revolutionary War general turned traitor.
Eggs Benedict consists of English muffins, topped with a slice of Canadian bacon, a poached egg, and finally hollandaise sauce. Canadian bacon, although smoked like regular bacon, is taken from the loin of the hog, i.e., the tender area of meat along the back. It is leaner than standard bacon which is derived from pork “bellies,” the underside of the hog along the ribs.
The difficulty with making eggs Benedict is properly poaching the eggs, and even worse, making the dreaded hollandaise. Poaching eggs presents two problems: prevention of the dissipation of the whites, and knowing when they’re done. The first can be tempered by using very fresh eggs, (since the structural integrity of the white diminishes with age), and my adding a splash of vinegar and some salt to the water. Both acid and salt cause the protein chains in the egg to denature, (i.e., unwind), quicker and thus cook faster. The faster they cook, the sooner they solidify and thus, the less they will disseminate throughout the water. Even so you will still probably need to coax the whites together with occasional nudging with a large spoon.
Next is determining when the eggs are done. For starters, “done” is subjectively determined by how much you like your eggs cooked. Nevertheless, all degrees of doneness will be influenced by the size of the eggs, the temperature of the water, and the number of eggs you are cooking simultaneously. Three to five minutes for four eggs is a rough guideline. Those of you who prefer a runny yolk and don’t suffer from raw egg phobia should aim for closer to three minutes.
There are three other factors to consider when poaching eggs. Do not boil the water. Poaching is done at a gentle simmer between 160 and 185 degrees. Placing eggs in vigorously boiling water will facilitate the decimation of the whites. Cracking the eggs first into a small bowl or custard cup and then gently slipping them into the water will also protect the fragile whites. Finally, to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pan, poach them in a non-stick skillet or a larger pot with ample water.
And then there’s the hollandaise sauce. No sauce incites more anxiety amongst fledgling chefs than hollandaise. I certainly ruined the first few that I attempted in culinary school. Hollandaise, one of the mother sauces of French cuisine, is an emulsified sauce made from egg yolks, butter and lemon juice, (as well as salt and sometimes black or red pepper). Probably the richest sauce on the planet, it is indescribably delicious and decadent, and pairs well with vegetables, fish, and even steak. Let’s face it; it’s mostly butter. How many foods don’t taste better with butter?
The nightmare of Hollandaise is balancing the heat so the eggs are cooked without becoming scrambled and the butter becomes incorporated without separating. In the next edition of “Food For Thought” we’ll delve into the intricacies of hollandaise. If we’re lucky, maybe we can turn the nightmare into sweet dreams.