Eggs Benedict still reigns supreme

The origin of this dish is a topic of debate, but its royal reputation is inarguable.

Lounging luxuriantly on a toasted English-muffin throne upholstered with ham, swathed in a golden robe of rich hollandaise sauce, and crowned with a sprinkling of caviar or, for those most royal occasions, a thin slice of black truffle, Eggs Benedict is the reigning queen of the brunch. And so it has been for decades.

Exactly where this majestic, ubiquitous midmorning offering was conceived is a topic of some debate. But most reliable sources trace it back to the swanky old Delmonico's Restaurant in Manhattan, where a couple with the marvelous moniker of Mr. and Mrs. LeGrand Benedict were regular diners.

It is said that Mrs. Benedict's eyes began to glaze over when presented with the menu, so she complained to the maitre d'hotel that she was bored with the offerings.

The gracious maitre d' asked her for suggestions. And voila!

Out of their colloquy appeared Eggs Benedict.

Another less-popular story is that Wall Street broker Lemuel Benedict and restaurateur George Lang, in collaboration with the chef of New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, came up with the dish.

And a few hangers-on in the Old South still believe that it came about at the legendary Brennan's Restaurant in New Orleans - but there's little evidence to support that theory.

Whoever gets the credit, everyone agrees that it is a decidedly American creation and a perfect centerpiece to a special brunch. Twelfth Night (Jan. 6) might be just the occasion, or perhaps a Valentine's Day breakfast for two.

Although the poached egg has remained stable on its English-muffin throne, the other trappings have changed over the years. (See story below.)

Rich as any European kingdom, this simple, elegant repast can elevate a gathering of commoners to an almost royal status.

Traditional Eggs Benedict

2 tablespoons butter
6 slices cooked ham or Canadian bacon
6 poached eggs (recipe below)
3 English muffins, split in half with a fork
Hollandaise sauce (recipe below)
Chopped parsley, optional

Heat butter in a large skillet; sauté ham or bacon briefly in the butter, turning once.

Toast English muffins.

Place a piece of ham or Canadian bacon on each muffin half, and top each with a poached egg.

Cover each muffin half with hollandaise sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley and serve while still hot.

Serves 3 to 6.

Quick Hollandaise Sauce

3 egg yolks

1 to 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/4 pound butter

Put the egg yolks, lemon juice, and cayenne pepper in a blender or food processor. Blend together.

Next, heat butter in a small saucepan until bubbling; do not let it brown.

Turn on blender or processor; slowly add melted butter and blend until sauce is thick and smooth, about 15 seconds.

Fresh dill, tarragon, or other herbs may be added at this point, and blended for an additional few seconds. Makes 3/4 cup.

Perfect poached Eggs

Cold water
2 to 3 tablespoons white vinegar
1 teaspoon salt
6 large eggs at room temperature

Pour 1-1/2 inches of water into a large skillet. (A 10-by-2-1/2-inch stainless steel pan works well.) Add vinegar and salt; bring to a boil.

Crack eggs, one at a time, into a saucer or individual cups.

Gently slip eggs into water. (Keep water at a simmer once all the eggs are added.) Simmer 3 to 3-1/2 minutes, or until whites are set and yolks are still soft. Simmer for barely 3 minutes if you plan to hold them for later use. (See note below.)

Lift the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon; drain on several layers of paper towels.

If the eggs look a bit shaggy, you may trim the whites with a knife to form perfect circles.

Serves 3 to 6.

Make-ahead note: Eggs may be poached a day ahead of time and held in the refrigerator until just before serving.

After eggs have been poached (following recipe above), use a slotted spoon to remove them from the pan and place them in enough cool water to cover, and then refrigerate them. When ready to serve, use a slotted spoon to carefully lift eggs into a skillet of simmering salted water and heat for about 30 to 45 seconds.

This method is especially helpful if you plan on serving poached eggs in any quantity for, say, a large brunch.

Breaking with tradition

Although Canadian bacon and hollandaise sauce are the traditional accompaniments for Eggs Benedict, alternatives can be equally delicious.

Substitute smoked salmon for bacon, for example, and top with béarnaise sauce and a bit of caviar. (Salmon caviar is a little pricey, but far cheaper than the imported sturgeon varieties. Lumpfish caviar is inexpensive and readily available, especially during the holiday season. It is tinted black, red, and sometimes pale yellow.)

Other alternatives:

Corned beef hash with hollandaise topped with a dollop of ketchup or your favorite salsa.

For a vegetarian alternative, substitute cooked chopped spinach, asparagus, sautéed Portobello mushrooms, or artichoke bottoms for meat; top with poached egg, hollandaise, and chopped hard-boiled egg or snipped chives.

Virtually any thinly sliced meat, such as roast beef, chicken, or poached fish may be used.

Chopped olives, pimento, dill pickle, and chutney make interesting alternative toppings over the hollandaise.

For added flavor, a pinch or more of tarragon, dill, or herbes de Provence, or a teaspoon of Dijon mustard, chopped garlic, horseradish, or capers may be added while blending the hollandaise.

There are several brands of packaged hollandaise and béarnaise sauce on the market. If you want to "cheat" and use them, be sure you use whole milk and real butter, not margarine or oil in their preparation.

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