Eggs Benedict is a stalwart of brunch menus and the ambitious home cook can make this rich and luxurious-tasting dish at home after mastering a few basic cooking techniques. At its simplest, eggs Benedict is composed of poached eggs, served on a toasted English muffin and a slice of cooked ham, sauced with hollandaise, a classic French sauce made of butter and egg yolks. However, eggs Benedict is open to as many variations as you like, and smoked salmon, spinach and jalapenos all make regular appearances in Benedict variations.
The Base - While English muffins are most commonly used as the base for eggs Benedict, any type of bread can be substituted. Toasted farmer’s bread or day-old toasted baguette are easy standbys for when you don’t have English muffins on hand. For something heartier or more rustic, a half a bagel or a split country biscuit can be used. Crumpets, a toasted quick bread similar to English muffins, are the most texturally similar and make for a very decadent eggs Benedict. Regardless of your bread choice, toast it before using it for eggs Benedict, as the softness of the poached egg and the moisture of the sauce can cause plain bread to turn soggy.
Topping Options - Cooked ham, brought to room temperature or gently warmed in the microwave, is most commonly used, 1 slice per piece of bread. For vegetarians, sliced fresh tomato is commonly substituted or, in some cases, a piece of Swiss cheese. To make eggs Benedict Florentine, use poached spinach in place of the ham, and many brunch menus feature smoked salmon or trout eggs Benedict, where the fish takes the place of the ham. Leftover meats, such as turkey, chicken or even beef, can be used, warmed up, in place of the ham.
Hollandaise Sauce - Hollandaise sauce comes from classic French cuisine. It is made by whisking butter into egg yolks, slowly heating the sauce so it turns thick and creamy. On low heat on a stove, beat egg yolks with a small amount of white wine vinegar or lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Slowly pour in melted butter, using roughly 1/4 cup of melted butter per egg yolk. Whisk constantly and do not overheat the yolks, beating until a thick, creamy texture develops. Thin the sauce to your desired consistency with vinegar or lemon juice, and season with salt to taste. The basic hollandaise sauce can be augmented with minced capers; shredded fresh herbs, such as tarragon or mint; or even diced jalapenos. For a fast variation, use dried spices, like smoke paprika or cayenne pepper, to give your hollandaise distinction with little effort.
Poaching Eggs - While you can use a silicone egg poacher, this tends to lead to overcooked eggs with rubbery whites rather than giving them the soft, pillowy shape that makes eggs Benedict such a delight to look at. Heat on high a pot of water, around 3 to 4 inches deep, with a generous splash of white vinegar to a rolling boil. Lower the temperature so that the water is at a very gentle simmer. Carefully crack and drop in 1 very fresh egg, letting it sink to the bottom undisturbed. Poach the egg for 3 minutes before carefully removing it from the liquid with a slotted spoon. Once you become better practiced at poaching eggs, you can cook several eggs at a time in the same water bath.
Assembling and Food Safety - To assemble, place 2 pieces of toasted bread on a plate, covering them with your topping of choice, such as ham, smoked salmon or spinach. Gently nestle a poached egg onto the topping, using 1 egg per piece of bread. Dress the eggs generously with hollandaise sauce, being sure to fully coat the entire egg. Extra sauce will be mopped up by the bread. Garnish with minced parsley, freshly ground pepper or, if you like, crumbled fried bacon. Because hollandaise can be finicky -- it separates when cooled and reheated -- use it immediately or keep it warm on a low stove top setting for no more than 1 hour.