When the subject is brunch, I think of eggs, and in particular, eggs Benedict. I think of the rich and indulgent dish of Canadian bacon, sauteed spinach and poached eggs enthroned on an English muffin, the whole kit and caboodle drenched in hollandaise sauce.
Making this winner, however, is no snap. Not only must you time the cooking of the separate ingredients just right, but whipping up the hollandaise — that classic French butter sauce — can be challenging.
Happily, I’ve solved the first problem by rethinking the components so that they can be prepared in advance, then combined and baked together. This required a few subtle substitutions.
I traded the Canadian bacon for a thin slice of ham, which does double duty as a cup to hold the rest of the ingredients. Likewise, I swapped out the English muffin for croutons, which provide some welcome crunch. Finally, there’s now no need to poach the egg (a scary undertaking all by itself). Instead, it bakes right in the ham cup.
What about that fearsome old hollandaise sauce? In truth, it’s never been a terribly big deal as long as you take your time and pay attention.
I’ve made it every which way, with whole butter, melted butter or clarified butter, using a double boiler or a saucepan directly over low heat or a blender. But the method laid out in this recipe is my favorite.
The key to making a hollandaise is cooking the eggs just enough so that they thicken (starting around 145 degrees) but not so much that they curdle (between 165 and 170 degrees). The best way to control this process is to put the eggs in a metal bowl set over — but not touching — some barely simmering water and cook them slowly.
The lemon juice helps keep the yolks from curdling, but you’ll also want to keep track of how hot the egg mixture is becoming by sticking your immaculately clean finger into the bowl every couple of minutes. When the egg mixture is quite warm, it’s time to add the butter.
We’re using whole chunks of butter here for a couple of reasons. First, whole butter is roughly 15 percent water, and that water helps to keep the sauce from splitting — when it “breaks,” or the fats separate from the sauce. Second, using whole butter results in a lighter and fluffier finished product than a sauce made with melted or clarified butter. Still, to keep the sauce from splitting, be careful to add the butter just a bit at a time.
As noted, this recipe — unlike the classic method — does not require you to pull all of the cooked ingredients out of a hat at the moment of assembly.
You can saute the spinach and bake the croutons the day before your brunch. Then, on the morning of the appointed day, you can make the hollandaise up to an hour ahead of time and store it in a wide-mouthed thermos that’s been heated with boiling water.
Last step? Add the ingredients to the ham cups. Then just pop those cups into the oven 20 minutes before it’s time to sit down.
EGGS BENEDICT RECONSTRUCTED
4-1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 slices white bread, cut into 1/4-inch cubes
10 ounces baby spinach
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
8 thin slices ham
8 large eggs
Hollandaise (recipe follows)
Chopped fresh parsley, to garnish
Heat oven to 375 degrees.
In skillet over medium-low, melt 1-1/2 tablespoons butter. Arrange bread on baking sheet; drizzle with melted butter and toss . Bake on middle shelf 5 to 7 minutes, until golden. Remove; reduce heat to 350 degrees.
Return skillet to medium-high and add remaining butter. Heat until butter is melted and starts to brown. Add half of spinach and cook, stirring, until it starts to wilt. Add remaining spinach and cook, stirring, until all the spinach is wilted. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to strainer set over a bowl and let excess moisture drip away.
Lightly mist 8 muffin cups with cooking spray, then line each with a slice of ham, allowing excess to flop over edges. Divide drained spinach among cups, then crack 1 egg on each mound of spinach. Season with salt and pepper, then bake until whites are set and yolks remain runny, 16 to 18 minutes.
Transfer cups to serving plates (they should lift right out), then top with hollandaise sauce, bread cubes and herbs. Serves 8.
Approximate nutritional information, per serving: 360 calories, 32 g fat, 18 g saturated fat, 380 mg cholesterol, 540 mg sodium, 7 g carbohydrate, 1 g fiber, 1 g sugar, 13 g protein
4 large egg yolks
1 to 1-1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into tablespoons
Ground black pepper
In medium metal bowl, whisk egg yolks, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, salt and water until mixture is light and fluffy.
Set bowl over pot of barely simmering water and whisk constantly until mixture is lemon-colored, thick and almost hot to the touch. (If bowl gets too hot, lift pot off heat and whisk mixture.) Immediately drop in 1 chunk of butter and whisk until almost completely absorbed. Add another tablespoon and whisk again until it is almost absorbed, then repeat again.
Once the third piece of butter is nearly absorbed, start adding 2 butter chunks at a time, repeating process until all butter has been added. If at any time sauce starts to get very thick or look oily, add 1 tablespoon water and proceed adding rest of butter.
Taste sauce, then add cayenne, salt and pepper and additional lemon juice to taste. Serve immediately or transfer to a wide-mouth thermos to keep warm. Makes 1-1/2 cups.
Approximate nutritional information, per 3 tablespoons: 180 calories, 20 g fat, 12 g saturated fat, 140 mg cholesterol, 65 mg sodium, 2 g protein, no carbohydrate, fiber or sugar