After some lacklustre eggs benedict at a restaurant last weekend, I resolved to make my own at home. The last time I’d attempted a hollandaise sauce was a few Christmases ago, but it was a bit of a disaster – the sauce split and I’d decided to poach the eggs using a method I’d read about online, by cracking your eggs into twists of saran wrap so that the whites wouldn’t disperse and the eggs wouldn’t have the hockey puck shape you get when you poach them in an egg cup. This trick would’ve worked brilliantly if I hadn’t used cheap plastic wrap that melted in hot water upon contact. Oops.
A few weeks ago I saw Sofia Copolla’s latest movie, Somewhere. I was disappointed by it (I tried hard to feel something for the main character, but whatever I felt was closer to irritation and boredom than sympathy.) My favourite scene, though, is when his daughter wakes up early and makes them the most gorgeous eggs benedict – there she is in the picture above, fishing out the eggs. It was immensely satisfying to watch her as she snipped chives over the pale yellow, creamy sauce with kitchen shears.
So, hollandaise sauce. I would try again. In the meantime I’d made mayonnaise, crème brulee and lemon curd, and they’d turned out okay, so why couldn’t I do this? The recipe is simple enough: you whisk 3 egg yolks and a little lemon juice over low heat until it thickens. You whisk in some melted butter (by “some” I mean an entire cup of it). Ta da.
I’d blocked out the exact details of how a sauce splits, what it looks like. I whisked the egg yolks frantically over gently simmering water and kept wondering if it was happening. If it was splitting. There’s this magic moment when you’re making a sauce when you realize that it’s thickened into something that, as the recipe says, coats the back of your spoon or ribbons away from your whisk. Whenever this happens to me, I feel like I’ve done something alchemical, like I’ve conquered a complex physics problem. It’s more intense than the feeling I get when I bake – with a cake the magic happens while it’s shut away in the oven; I don’t see it before my very eyes.
The egg yolks finally thickened and I cheered and then I had to dribble in the melted butter, which was more awkward than I thought it would be. I was whisking and dribbling, and the bowl was spinning in circles. I persevered and there it was – a hollandaise sauce! A little too lemony (I enthusiastically squeezed the lemon directly in instead of measuring), but it was still pale yellow and pretty. I’d been so focused on the sauce (and also afraid that it would fail) that I hadn’t bothered preparing the rest of the meal, toasting the English muffins or cooking the ham or poaching the eggs, so by the time that part was done, the sauce had cooled down. I reheated it slowly and spooned it over the first plate of bread, ham and eggs. I set the bowl aside above the pot, and made the plate look pretty. I admired it and patted myself on the back and felt as accomplished as Cleo in Somewhere.
And then I went back to the sauce and realized that resting the bowl above simmering heat hadn’t been a very good idea. The image of a split sauce came flooding back and I grabbed the whisk and started stirring, but it was too late. A split sauce looks like the worst parts of what it’s composed of – oily fats and spongy yolks. The reality is that you are coating your eggs in more eggs and lots of butter. It’s like eating bacon with a side of bacon. The rest of the bowl went in the trash, and Andrew and I shared the first plate, which despite the half-success of the meal, was still delicious. Ta da.