A Recipe in Prose
I want to talk breakfast philosophy. I think we’ve all been two mimosas deep at an afternoon brunch staring at a menu item described as ‘our take on Eggs Benedict’ comprised of sliced, smoked brisket over a grilled corn tortilla w/ a poached egg covered in a green pepper salsa. Perhaps not that exact variation. Perhaps it was salmon on sourdough. Perhaps the English muffin and ham were withheld for a crab cake. Today, I want to pose the question:
When does a dish stop being a variation of Eggs Benedict and become its own dish?
No reasonable person would assert that a Croque Madame with its ham, gruyere, béchamel, and potentially poached egg is a variation of Eggs Benedict. Is it only the inspiration of the Croque Monsieur that saved our Madame from being claimed as a derivative to Eggs Benedict? Is culinary inspiration the key to a dish’s lineage?
I first found these thoughts as I was gathering ingredients for an impromptu Eggs Benedict breakfast motivated by my wife’s idle thoughts towards the dish the night before as we drifted off to sleep. I found myself with the proper ingredients for a hollandaise. I had eggs. I didn’t have Canadian bacon because no one’s pantry is stocked with Canadian bacon. An English muffin isn’t an anomaly in our kitchen, but this particular morning there was no muffin within reach. I did have deli sliced ham and some sliced sourdough that was getting on with age.
And so I found myself thinking of the Ship of Theseus. For those unfamiliar, the Ship of Theseus is an ancient thought experiment. Consider the eponymous ship having been dry docked and preserved. As each wooden plank expires a proper shipwright replaces it with a fresh plank. Plank by plank, piece by piece the ship is refreshed until one day it is finally true that not a single board of the ship that Theseus crewed remains. Is it still the ship of Theseus? If it is not, when did it stop being the ship of Theseus? Thomas Hobbes, perhaps having experienced a corrupt carpenter in his day, extended the thought further. If you say that it is the Ship of Theseus then let us presume that an enterprising shipwright kept the discarded pieces until eventually our shipwright had enough components to rebuild a second ship of the original pieces. Which of these ships is the original Ship of Theseus?
I’m not well studied in philosophy. I’m uncertain if there exists a right answer, but it feels to me that a satisfying answer can’t quite exist. The ship changed each day, every day, its identity tied to what each of us believes to be the identity. And so, each day, we collectively identify so many combinations of an egg covered with sauce over protein and bread as a variation of the same idea. “They’ve really only replaced the ham with avocado,” we say. “I prefer béchamel to hollandaise anyway,” we justify to ourselves. I believed that my variant with toasted sourdough and thin sliced ham is just another set of swapped planks in the breakfast of Benedict. I hoped that my wife would accept this incarnation as valid.
The act of producing any variant of Eggs Benedict is more a testament to one’s planning and preparation than any prowess in the kitchen. This particular morning my wife came into the kitchen as I was stirring my poached egg whirlpool with one hand while blending my hollandaise with the other. My fear, then and now, is serving a cold poached egg with lukewarm hollandaise. What I realize now, looking back on this particular breakfast is that there is a simple path to perfect timing.
Let’s first imagine what success looks like. Our goal is a toasted sourdough topped with pan seared ham, a warm poached egg with an over-medium consistency, and a warm hollandaise.
There are a number of things we can do in any order as we prepare ourselves.
- Butter or oil our sourdough for toasting.
- For each poached egg(s):
- Start water to boil in a medium sized sauce pan for our poached egg whirlpool.
- Crack an egg into a ramekin or other small dish for transfer into the whirlpool.
- For our hollandaise:
- Isolate egg yolks, add to blender along with dijon, salt, and cayenne.
- Measure out our lemon juice set to the side.
- Melt our butter in the microwave to a liquid.
- Set aside a serving dish for the finished hollandaise.
Once these steps are complete we are ready to enter the gauntlet.
Landing the Dish
On medium heat toast the sourdough to your liking. Once complete plate them as you intend to serve them. Reduce the heat of your boiling water to low. Using a large slotted spoon create a whirlpool then gently deposit the poached egg into the center of the whirlpool. If you are making two eggs at a time then stir both sauce pans. Test your coordination: see if you can go in opposite directions.
Start a timer for three minutes. This timer is a one minute warning to pull our now perfectly poached egg(s).
For the first minute or so you’ll notice the egg take shape with lots of wisps of egg white drifting away. Let them go. Things are fine. You’re doing great, just keep going.
After a minute has passed in poaching the egg let’s do three things. First let’s heat the butter for our hollandaise in the microwave for a minute. While this is going put our ham in the pan we toasted our sourdough in. Finally, if you are making another round of eggs go ahead and crack another in our ramekin so it is prepared. Once our butter bings it is time to make hollandaise. It needs to be hot to properly emulsify in the blender with the egg yolks. Add the lemon juice and butter and turn on the blender until it takes the expected, creamy consistency. This should take under a minute. If your blender allows you might slowly pour the butter into the mixture as it blends. Pour it into our reserved serving dish.
A Quick Aside on Emulsions
I made Eggs Benedict again to take pictures for this article. I realized I wanted to write this article after I had already eaten the evidence leading to the necessity of having to eat the same breakfast another day. I persevered. After I had plated the dish I realized that my hollandaise had broken.
You can see the clotty mess where the oil from the butter is separated from the water contributed from the egg, lemon juice, and dijon. I learned the solution to this problem making wine sauces like lemon butter and marsala: add more water. If you have a similar experience with your hollandaise after it has been blended just add a tablespoon of water and blend again.
The Final Countdown
At this point the expectation is that your three minute poached egg timer is going off. We need to get the egg out between thirty seconds and one minute from now. Transfer the seared ham onto the toast. Using the slotted spoon pull the egg, drain it, then place it on the toast. Finally, pour a healthy amount of hollandaise on top to complete your Eggs Benedict.
Repeat as necessary.
Eggs Benedict et al
- 1 Blender Emersion, Bullet, Margarita. Any blender will do.
Hollandaise and Poached Eggs
- 7 eggs Eggs 4 for poaching, 3 egg yolks for the hollandaise
- 1/2 cup butter 1 whole stick
- 1 tbsp lemon juice
- 1 tsp dijon mustard
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp cayenne To your level of comfort
Bread and Protein
- 2 breads sourdough, rye, english muffin, tortilla The world is your oyster
- 2 proteins Canadian bacon, ham, smoked fish, avocado
- Toast the chosen bread with a smear of butter in a pan
- Toss the protein in the retired bread pan for a spot of heat
- Plate the bread with protein on top to await our eggs and hollandaise
To make the hollandaise
- Combine 3 egg yolks, dijon, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne into the blender
- Melt butter in microwave then heat on high for an additional minute
- Pour the hot butter into blender and blend for up to one minute
- Pour the hollandaise into a serving dish. It looks cooler this way
To poach the egg
- Consider working two sauce pans at a time to make two eggs at a time
- Start with a boiling sauce pan of water then reduce heat to low
- Crack an egg into a ramekin or small dish
- Spin the water in the sauce pan to a whirlpool with a slotted spoon; deposit the egg
- Stir occasionally to keep the whirl pool. Total cooking time 4 minutes provides an over-medium yolk consistency.
- Once the egg is cooked spoon it out with the slotted spoon.
- Place the poached eggs on top of the chosen protein
- Spoon a healthy amount of hollandaise onto each plated egg.
- Serve warm