Saturday, April 11, 2009

My Favorite Form of Easter Egg: Thoughts on Hollandaise

On Thursday night we made burgers on the grill, and last night had take-out Chinese food, so not a lot of cooking to talk about over the last couple of days. However, I had breakfast with my wife at Patrick's Bakery and Cafe at 66th & Xerxes in Edina on Thursday, and was inspired to write today's posting. Today's words are, in part, about the wonders of Hollandaise, but in equal part about how we learn to cook by observing carefully what we enjoy in others' cooking.

Patrick Bernet, co-owner and chef, is a bona fide talent, and Patrick's Bakery and Cafe is a truly fabulous French bakery and restaurant, one you should make the effort to visit if you don't know it (website: It's a true French bakery, with croissants and baguettes that are, in my opinion, the best in the Twin Cities. They have many other treats as well, including fabulous desserts, and now an expanded breakfast, lunch and dinner menu, including a few wines.

I almost always get a pastry item and a cappuccino, but on Thursday I decided to order the Eggs Benedict. I love Hollandaise, and I'm a sucker for a good Eggs Benedict. I make my own Hollandaise pretty regularly, and have learned to execute it quite well. I often make Hollandaise at Easter time because both brunches (thus, egg dishes like Eggs Benedict) and young asparagas (which I love with Hollandaise) are typical of Easter.

Patrick's Hollandaise sauce was a revelation; my understanding of this little sauce was expanded ten-fold by this experience.

When our food first arrived at our table, I took a little taste of the Hollandaise and was a bit disappointed. The texture was sublime - velvety, very light, completely stable (poorly-executed Hollandaise can break and appear oily). But the flavor was a bit bland. It lacked the piquant tang of lemon I so love in Hollandaise, and it seemed under-seasoned. Then I dove into the whole dish. The eggs were poached to utter perfection - the whites completely cooked but so delicately tender they were falling away from the yolk, which was warm but completely loose. The Canadian bacon was tender, salty and a bit smoky. The English muffin was, well, a very nice English muffin. Execution looked completely right.

Then I took my first bite, and was amazed. The delicate flavor of the Hollandaise enveloped and married with the warm soft egginess of the poached egg, and was counterpointed by the texture of the muffin and the Canadian bacon; the salt in the meat provided the necessary lift in seasoning to balance the flavors. As I ate, I realized that the Hollandaise was seasoned precisely to bring out the flavor of the egg, not to smother it. The whole thing became this sensual celebration of egg in two complimentary forms.

This was when the dish became an education, not merely a delicious experience. I continued to marvel at the fact that I could taste almost no lemon in the Hollandaise - if I didn't know it was a standard ingredient of Hollandaise, I probably wouldn't have detected it. Which got me thinking. When a chef is extremely talented and skilled, as Patrick is, one assumes everything was done with purpose. Why would he so tame down the lovely lemony brightness of the typical Hollandaise? Of course, I've already partly answered this question above: it made a more harmonious whole with the rest of the dish. In other words, Hollandaise wasn't the point of Eggs Benedict; if all you can taste is Hollandaise, then why bother with the other ingredients? He was striving for what, in his judgement, was the perfect balance of flavors (and textures) in this dish.

Patrick got me thinking about my own uses of Hollandaise. My favorite is with fresh asparagas: served on a warm platter, drenched in Hollandaise and sprinkled with some diced, peeled & seeded tomato (concasse). In this use, more lemon makes sense: to marry with and balance the sweetness and earthiness of the asparagas you want more acid. The tomatoes add more still. I'd bet 100 francs (or is it all Euros now?) that Patrick would make a more lemony Hollandaise to serve with asparagas.

Then I got thinking about the technique required to achieve this. It is necessary to add some liquid to the egg yolks when making Hollandaise to loosen them slightly (see recipe below). Immediately I realized, he must thin them with a little water. I haven't tried this yet - I'm telling you something in a blog that could never be done in a recipe book: an un-tested technique! I shall be smitten by the gods! Yet I'm convinced from my experience this must be so.

As I mopped up the last of my Hollandaise with my hash browns and sipped the last of my cappuccino, I realized I'd had one of those wonderful dining experiences in which a discovery is made - about what one loves to eat (self), about how to create something beautiful (artistic and technical skill), and about how a chef thinks about his craft (other). Especially on the latter point, I actually felt I could imagine Patrick's training years in France, some master or other talking to him about the nuances of flavor balance and texture, and about how to think about what a dish is really supposed to be.

Thus, I offer two versions of Hollandaise. However, these are merely two points on a spectrum. Depending on your use for it, you may require flavors that are bolder, milder or in-between. You may need more acid (lemon), but less salt. It's all about adjusting flavor profiles to serve the needs of the whole.

Hollandaise Sauce (bright)
(adapted from Jeremiah Tower's New American Classics)
(makes about 1.5 cups)
3 egg yolks, room temperature
about 1.5 - 2 T lemon juice, fresh-squeezed
salt (start with 1/4 tsp, and add more if needed)
1/2 lb. (2 sticks) high-quality unsalted butter, room temperature - I use Land-O-Lakes (their unsalted butter is award-winning and quite good)
pinch of cayenne pepper

Put the yolks in a stainless steel or glass bowl and whisk until lemony and a bit frothy. Whisk in the lemon juice and salt. (If you are not sure how tart you want it, start with 1 T.) Place bowl on a pan of simmering water over low heat such that it seals the pan, but does not touch the water. Continue to whisk until foamy. As they get warmer, the yolks will increase in volume and become like loosely-whipped cream. Be careful not to hard-cook them - they must get hot, but stay in liquid form. If you think they are getting too hot, take the bowl off the steam to let them cool down for a bit.

Once they are at this stage, begin whisking in butter, one T at a time. Whisk vigorously to maintain the emulsion, and to incorporate as much air as possible to make the sauce very light. Again, be careful not to get it too hot such that the eggs become hard and the emulsion breaks. Afer all of the butter has been added, remove from heat, whisk in the cayenne and check seasoning to see if more salt or lemon is needed.

Keep warm until served. Make this sauce as fresh as possible; use within an hour of making.

Hollandaise Sauce (mild)
Based on my experience at Patrick's, use this version for Eggs Benedict or other mild egg dishes. May also pair well with mild sausages, such as chicken sausage.
Reduce the lemon juice to 1/2 - 1 tsp.
Reduce salt to a scant 1/4 tsp.
Eliminate cayenne
Add 2 T of water at the same time lemon juice and salt are added.

Prepare as above, with even more vigorous whisking to give the lightest possible texture. The yolks will be more vulnerable to hard-cooking in this version, as acid raises the solidifying point of proteins. Therefore, be extra-careful not to hard-cook the yolks. Disclaimer: I have not yet tested this version of the recipe!

Jeremiah Tower
Jeremiah Tower trained, in part, under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse, and was owner and executive chef at Stars in San Francisco amongst other restaurants. He became a great chef in his own right, and trained a host of the current generation of celebrity chefs in California and across America. His cookbook, New American Classics, is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks. I've read it cover-to-cover twice. He reveals a lot about his techniques and his philosophy of cooking in the descriptions of his recipes.

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