When the subject is Easter eggs, most folks usually are talking about the gaily painted specimens in a basket. Me, I think of holiday brunch, and in particular of 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 making 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. Over the years I've made it every which way, with chunks of whole butter or 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 F), but not so much that they curdle (between 165 F and 170 F). 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 to 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 reasons. First, whole butter is roughly 15 percent water, and that water helps to keep the sauce from splitting. 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.
What to do if that pesky sauce splits anyway? Dump the mixture into a measuring cup, wash out the bowl, drop in a tablespoon or two of hot water, then slowly add the split sauce to the water, whisking as you go, and watch with triumph as your sauce re-emulsifies.
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 pre-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
Start to finish: 1 hour
4 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
3 slices homestyle white bread, crusts discarded and bread cut into 1/4-inch cubes
10 ounces baby spinach
8 thin slices ham (try to find slices with no holes in them)
8 large eggs
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
Hollandaise (see recipe below)
Chopped fresh parsley, chives or tarragon, to garnish
Heat the oven to 375 F.
In a large skillet over medium-low, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter. Arrange the bread cubes on a rimmed baking sheet, then drizzle the melted butter over them. Toss well, then bake on the oven's middle shelf for 5 to 7 minutes, or until golden. Set aside and reduce the oven to 350 F.
Return the skillet to medium-high and add the remaining 3 tablespoons butter. Heat until the butter is melted and starts to brown. Add half the spinach and cook, stirring, until it starts to wilt. Add the remaining spinach and cook, stirring, until all of the spinach is wilted. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer to a strainer set over a bowl or sink and let excess moisture drip away.
Lightly mist 8 muffin cups with cooking spray, then line each with a slice of ham, allowing the excess to flop over the edges. Divide the drained spinach among the cups, then crack 1 egg on top of each mound of spinach. Season with salt and pepper, then bake until the whites are set and the yolks remain runny, 16 to 18 minutes.
Transfer the cups immediately to serving plates (they should lift right out), then top each with hollandaise sauce, a few toasted bread cubes and a sprinkle of herbs.
Nutrition information per serving: 360 calories; 280 calories from fat (78 percent of total calories); 32 g fat (18 g saturated; 1 g trans fats); 380 mg cholesterol; 540 mg sodium; 7 g carbohydrate; 1 g fiber; 1 g sugar; 13 g protein.
Start to finish: 20 minutes
Makes 1 1/2 cups
4 large egg yolks
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into tablespoons
Ground black pepper
In a medium metal bowl, whisk together the egg yolks, 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, the salt and 1 tablespoon water until the mixture is light and fluffy.
Set the bowl over a pot of barely simmering water and whisk constantly until the egg mixture is lemon colored, thick and almost hot to the touch. (If the bowl gets too hot at any time, simply lift the bowl off the pot and whisk the egg mixture off the heat.) Immediately drop in 1 chunk of butter and whisk until it is 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 the process until all of the butter has been added to the sauce. If at any time the sauce starts to get very thick, or look oily, add a tablespoon of water and then proceed adding the rest of the butter. Taste the sauce, then add the cayenne, salt and pepper and additional lemon juice to taste. Serve right away or transfer to a wide mouth thermos to keep warm.
Nutrition information per 3 tablespoons: 180 calories; 170 calories from fat (94 percent of total calories); 20 g fat (12 g saturated; 0.5 g trans fats); 140 mg cholesterol; 65 mg sodium; 0 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 0 g sugar; 2 g protein.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton is the host of public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals." She was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows, including "Cooking Live." Her latest cookbook is "Home Cooking 101."
ALSO READ: Kitchen Whiz: Embracing the Baked Dinner as Your Weeknight Meal Solution
Images: This Feb, 8, 2016 photo shows eggs benedict in Concord, N.H. This version of the classic brunch recipe saves time by letting the home cook prep many of the steps in advance, then finish and assemble the dish just before serving. (AP Photo/Matthew Mead)