The chickens are laying again, the greens and onions are up, and the days are getting longer: Brunch season is here. I've been practicing a simple dish of poached eggs served on a bed of spinach and asparagus, garnished with crispy pieces of salt pork or bacon. Sometimes I drench the whole business in a blanket of hollandaise sauce. Or more often, it’s a blanket of failed hollandaise that I resurrect to perfection with mayonnaise and a microwave.
Hollandaise is one of the most decadent sauces out there. It's rich without being greasy, and it’s tart with citrus and vinegar. Served warm, it improves the flavor of whatever it touches. In classical culinary circles, a chef's hollandaise sauce is considered a barometer of his or her overall skill, like a ballroom dancer's cha-cha moves.
Hollandaise is similar to mayonnaise. Both are emulsions—mixtures of fat and acid that manage to hang together despite their contrary tendencies. While mayo combines oil and acid (in the form of vinegar and/or citrus), hollandaise combines those acids with butter fat. In both cases, it's the lecithin hiding in the egg yolk that makes the emulsification happen. Emulsifiers like lecithin are peacemakers, keeping the otherwise mutually disinterested fat and acid entangled in a creamy truce.
Emulsifiers like lecithin are peacemakers, keeping the otherwise mutually disinterested fat and acid entangled in a creamy truce.
The Silk Road restaurant in Missoula, Mont., once served a brunch whose menu featured the "Benedict family” of dishes. That family included eggs Florentine (which adds greens to the equation), eggs Benedict (which includes ham), and other egg-and-hollandaise customizations like smoked salmon, sliced tenderloin and lamb hash.
I phoned the patriarch of Silk Road's Benedict Family, Abraham Risho, hoping some of his hollandaise magic would rub off on me.
He tried. I did too. But my hollandaise failed. Each batch was a roller coaster ride with a few breathless moments where I thought I was actually pulling it off ... before another crash.
In hindsight, my problem is obvious. Abe Risho teaching me to make hollandaise over the phone would be like Michael Jordan trying to explain to me how to go reverse from the baseline.
Each batch was a roller coaster ride with a few breathless moments where I thought I was actually pulling it off ... before another crash.
It's not that I'm physically incapable of making it. But becoming proficient at hollandaise is a journey that I have only just begun to undertake. If you decide to walk that path, I salute you. I also suggest you consider investing in a quality double boiler, a thermometer and a good whisk.
The good news: If your hollandaise fails, which it probably will, you can still use it. It may look as curdled as a cup of tea with cream and lemon, but that rich, tangy flavor will still be in place. Just call it lemon butter curd sauce. Or fail-landaise.
And there are ways to rescue failed hollandaise. A splash of boiling water, for example, can snap the sauce to attention long enough to pour it. In my experience with hollandaise rehab, nothing beats the microwave and mayonnaise (or specifically Vegenaise, a fake-but-better mayo). Mix two tablespoons of mayo for each cup of curdled, separated, chunky or otherwise miserably failed hollandaise. Zap in the microwave for 15 seconds, whisk for 10 seconds, add more mayo if necessary, and repeat. Adjust the seasoning with salt, acid and Tabasco sauce. Just like that, you're back in the game.
If you don't want the emotional turmoil of birthing, killing and reincarnating your hollandaise, you can fake it from the start with a simple mixture of drawn butter and citrus, vinegar, salt and garlic. It won't have that thick hollandaise body, but the flavor will be good. Whichever route you take—successfully making fresh hollandaise, rescuing failed hollandaise or going with a faux-landaise—the citrus element should be lemon or lime juice, and the vinegar should be a white wine vinegar, white balsamic vinegar or Champagne vinegar.
Compared to these saucy complexities, poaching the eggs is a breeze. Chef Risho told me that Dutch ovens, or deep pans in general, are ideal for poaching because you want to use as much water as your pot can comfortably hold. The more hot water, the less the temperature will drop when you add the eggs.
The hardest part of poaching is fine-tuning the heat so the water holds steady at 180°, the desired poaching temperature. After that, the rest is easy. Add two tablespoons vinegar and a teaspoon of salt for each gallon of water. You want it at least 3 inches deep.
The eggs should be at room temperature, with each egg cracked into a separate ramekin or other egg-size dish. Risho uses espresso cups. He also advises putting the water into motion before adding the eggs, because there's a brief moment when the raw eggs could stick to the bottom of the pot. You don't want to stir the water into a full-on vortex—which could pull apart the eggs and make a mess—just a gentle motion.
In addition to a thermometer for getting the water temperature right, you'll need a slotted spoon. Otherwise you risk traumatizing the delicate egg en route to its perch atop your greens.
While heating the water to 180°, prepare your plates. Lightly steam the asparagus spears and lay them in a row, covered with uncooked baby spinach leaves.
When the water is holding steady at 180°, add the eggs and poach for two to four minutes, depending on how set you want your yolks and whites to be. I usually err on the runny side, especially with high-quality eggs.
Remove the poached eggs from the liquid with a slotted spoon and set them on cloth or paper towels (or gingerly in a colander) to drain. Place the eggs on the spinach while they're still hot, then drench them with your hollandaise (or faux-landaise, lemon butter or whatever you ended up with).
Sprinkle pinches of paprika and black pepper onto the dish, break the yolks and start eating. Even if you’re not cut out for making hollandaise, a poached, runny yolk from a good egg is the most perfect sauce there is.