~ Mel's Over-the-Top but Very Easy Eggs Benedict: A Rich Dish w/a Great Story -- HISstory vs HERstory! ~
Eggs Benedict. For us runny-egg lovers, this is the la-tee-da, ooh-la-la, creme-de-la-creme of fancy-schmancy, American AM indulgences. American? Really? I, an all-American girl, did not grow up eating this. Heck, I never even heard of it until I found myself eating breakfast and brunch in some high-end restaurants in Philadelphia during the mid-1970's, and, I always assumed it was French -- until I started to do a bit of research. It seems this rich, artery-clogging delight has a fascinating story (HISstory vs. HERstory). This is a tale just begging to be told:
Culinary Fisticuffs? The Battle Between the Benedicts!!!
HISstory vs. HERstory:
Thanks to a food article appearing in the New York Times Magazine in 1967, written by the late, great NYT Food Editor Craig Claiborne, American foodies were led to believe this dish was French in origin, invented by the mother of French Commodore E.C. Benedict. Mr. Claiborne reported this to us shortly after receiving a letter from Edward P. Montgomery, an American living in France, who claims to have gotten the recipe via his uncle who was a friend of the Commodore. Edward, it seems, had just forgotten about it for forty-some odd years. HISstory.
In a rather immediate, scathing response to Mr. Claiborne's article, a woman named Mabel Butler sent her own letter to the New York Times Magazine, basically calling Mr. Montgomery a fraud and a liar, because she knew EXACTLY who invented the now famous dish. Ms. Butler, a relative of Mrs. LeGrand Benedict went on to say: It was invented in the kitchen of Manhattan's famous Delmonico's Restaurant when Mr. and Mrs. Benedict (two wealthy, influential patrons who dined weekly at Delmonico's) complained to the maitre d'Hotel that the chef never added anything new to the brunch menu. Upon their next visit, the chef responded to them in a very LeGrand way: two golden-toasted English muffin halves, each topped with a slice of smoky ham, a perfectly poached egg, a drizzle of buttery hollandaise and topped with a shaving of musky truffle.
Enter the Party-of-the-Third-Part & voila: the REALastoria!!!
It seems that a wealthy, elderly gentleman, Lemual Benedict, a retired Wall Street Stock Broker, had done an earlier interview with the New Yorker Magazine, in 1942, which appeared in their "Talk of the Town" column. In it, he confesses to having drunkenly stumbled into NYC's Waldorf Astoria in need of a good fix for a bad hangover. As Benedict explains, "back in 1894", he ordered buttered toast, poached eggs, bacon and a "hooker" of hollandaise (slang for a "shot glass"). Oscar Tschirky, the maitre d'Hotel of the Waldorf found the combination to be so delicious, he added it to his menu the same year, substituting ham for the bacon and an English muffin for the toast. In his 1896 cookbook, the Cookbook of the Waldorf, chef Tschirky writes of a twist on the dish, which he named "Philadelphia Eggs", in which poached chicken is served in place of the ham.
As eggs Benedict gained in popularity, chef's began taking creative license with inventive, palate-pleasing spin-offs, as well they should, because the dish is so user-friendly and adaptable. My favorite is eggs Oscar: crabmeat with a layer of blanched asparagus. If I sprinkle the same dish with Old Bay, the name changes to eggs Chesapeake. Eggs Hemmingway means served with smoked salmon in place of ham, and, eggs Florentine means please add a layer of steamed spinach. If I order Eggs Blackstone, I'll get bacon and fresh tomato. Several sauces can be substituted for the hollandaise too: bearnaise (hollandaise containing shallot and tarragon), mornay (a cheese sauce), and, blanchard (bechamel)!
An all-American eggs Benedict is easier to make than you think!
I don't know anyone who can't successfully toast an English muffin or heat a small slab of ham, but, the latter two components of this dish require learned techniques that require hands-on practice to master. For restaurant chef's who repetitively make both, the process is second nature. For home cooks, even some well-seasoned ones, poaching eggs and whisking hollandaise strikes fear in their hearts. Sadly, this is why this classy specialty dish is all-too-often reserved for those "honey, let's go out for breakfast" occasions. "A la Claiborne", who dedicated the better part of his life to encouraging home-cooking in America, I'm going to attempt to entice you into making eggs Benedict for your family.
Making the hollandaise is the most finicky part of this recipe. Like the other French mother sauces, it is a liquid combined with a thickening agent and some flavoring (liquid + thickener + flavoring = sauce), but, unlike the others, it is made by vigorously whisking clarified butter (a fat) into warmed egg yolks in the top of a double boiler. Voila: The perfect emulsification -- the perfect butter sauce. Voila in reverse: One wrong move or momentary lapse in judgement and you're screwed -- you've got scrambled eggs or a broken, greasy mess. I'm not perfect. I've done it. I know.
The past is the past -- let bygones be bygones. Change comes slow to some -- I am one such person. It took one of my chef friends to pull me out of the dark ages on this one. He laughingly explained that no busy restaurant can afford to waste time having someone standing around hand-whisking hollandaise all day -- it's what blenders, stick-blenders and food processors are for. As a gal who's been making her mayo in a food processor for over two decades, this should have occurred to me own my own -- a no-brainer, an ah-ha moment. The plain-as-day truth is: mayonnaise and hollandaise are nearly identical in structure -- they're cousins!
The day I started making hollandaise in a blender or a food processor I never looked back. With the motor running on either appliance, it vigorously whisks the eggs while you dribble in the melted butter. This foolproof, never fail method for hollandaise has made my food world a kinder, gentler place. Just click on the Related Article link below, ~ The Big Easy, Making Blender Hollandaise ~, to get the details.
Poaching the eggs. My method is my method, and, it came about after a series of egg-poaching disasters I encountered back in the latter 1970's. My mother never poached eggs, so I was never witness to a strategy, plan of attack or technique. She did make lots of eggs, with soft-cooked ones being my favorite, so, when I had my first eggs Benedict for brunch at the Lehigh Valley Country Club with my soon-to-be mother- and father-in-law in 1974, anyone could have guessed I was going to love them. After getting married and settled into our first apartment, I wanted to recreate that wonderful brunch, and, it failed horribly on two counts: the poached eggs and the hollandaise. The English muffins and ham, however, were very good. I admit, it was a high-risk undertaking with my culinary expertise at the time, but, I've always been fearless in the kitchen. In my own defense, there was no food TV or internet back then. Cookbooks didn't include step-by-step photos and their directions were vague at best. One often had to rely on the "practice makes perfect" approach to achieve success, and, so it was for me and poached eggs. That said, even an ugly-duckling of a poached egg still tastes good, so, you get to take pleasure in your mistakes. Once again, click on the Related Article link below and read, ~ It's Monday Morning! Wake Up and Poach an Egg! ~. I've included the necessary step-by-step photos for you too!
If you can toast an English muffin & heat a piece of ham, you've got an over-the-top, real-deal, stress free eggs Benedict!
Special Equipment List: cutting board; paring knife; small saucepan or butter warmer; blender or mini-food processor; small spatula; 1-cup food storage container w/lid or plastic wrap; 3 1/2-quart chef's pan w/straight, deep sides; 1-cup measuring container or ramekin; spoon; slotted spoon; rubber spatula; paper towels
Cook's Note: For another one of my favorite dishes, also a retro classic with a hollandaise heritage, click into Categories 3, 11, 19, 21 or 26 to get my recipe for ~ All that Jazz Chicken Oscar w/Blender Bernaise ~. I should mention it is REALLY easy too!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/Copyright 2015)