Brunch season is finally here. The chickens are laying again, the greens and onions are up and the days are getting long enough that it's no longer dinnertime by the time brunch ends.
In preparing for Mother's Day, the official start of brunch season, I've been practicing a simple dish of poached eggs served on a bed of spinach and asparagus, and garnished it with crispy pieces of salt pork or bacon. Sometimes I drench the whole business in a blanket of hollandaise sauce—or more often, a blanket of failed hollandaise that I resurrect to perfection with mayonnaise and microwaves.
Hollandaise is one of the most decadent sauces there is. It's rich, but without being greasy, and at the same time tart with citrus and vinegar. It's always served warm, and improves the flavor of whatever it touches. In classical culinary circles, a chef's hollandaise sauce is considered a barometer of his 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. Lecithin, an emulsifier, is a peacemaker, keeping the otherwise mutually disinterested fat and acid entangled in a creamy truce.
The Silk Road restaurant in Missoula 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, as well as customizations like smoked salmon, sliced tenderloin and lamb hash. Nowadays, the only brunch being served at Silk Road is on one Sunday a year: Mother's Day. Several Benedict family members will be in attendance.
I recently phoned the don of Silk Road's Benedict Family, Abraham Risho. I wasn't looking for a reservation for this Sunday—though I imagine they're scarce. No, I was hoping he could rub some of his hollandaise magic onto 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, the 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 do a reverse layup from the baseline.
It's not that I'm physically incapable of making it. But becoming proficient at hollandaise is a journey that, in fairness, I haven't undertaken. If you decide to walk that path, I salute you and suggest you consider investing in a quality double boiler, a thermometer and a good whisk.
And 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.
There are many ways to rescue a failed hollandaise, and some of them actually work. A splash of boiling water can snap the sauce to attention long enough to pour it. But in my experience with hollandaise rehab, nothing beats the microwave and mayonnaise—or, specifically, my preferred brand of mayonnaise, Vegenaise, which is a fake but better mayo. Mix two tablespoons of fake or real mayo for each cup of curdled, separated, chunky or otherwise miserably failed hollandaise. Zap in the microwave for fifteen seconds, whisk for ten 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 mix 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, be it successfully making fresh hollandaise, rescuing failed hollandaise or going with a faux-landaise, the citrus 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 breeze.
Dutch ovens, or other such deep pans, are ideal for poaching, Risho told me, 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 degrees, 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 three inches deep.
The eggs should be at room temperature, each egg cracked into a separate ramekin or other-egg-sized dish. Risho uses espresso cups and 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 the water is all that's needed.
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 degrees, prepare your plates. 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 2 to 4 minutes, depending on how set you want your yolks and whites to be. I usually err on the unset 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 in a colander, to drain. Place the eggs on the spinach while they're still hot, and drench with your hollandaise, 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. A perfectly poached runny yolk from a good egg might be the best sauce of all.