You might be sloppy when you eat it, but the brunch standard Eggs Benedict should be anything but. The dish is a careful construction of textures and calibrated flavors—gooey and crispy, with rich yolk with lemony Hollandaise, and plain muffin bolstered by salty cured pork. It’s an exercise in complete balance, making it the perfect foil for those 9 a.m. Bloody Marys.

And that’s why chefs in the Big Easy—where starting early is a way of life—have mastered the details of the dish, even though the open-faced sandwich supposedly originated in New York City. Such is the case for chef Slade Rushing, who earned his job at Brennan’s by demo-ing Benedict from scratch (and continues to get plenty of practice by serving 500 brunches on weekends). Each plate has just four perfect components: two halves of a homemade English muffin, home-cured Canadian bacon, poached eggs, and hollandaise sauce.

“When it’s done right,” says Rushing, “You’re a believer.”

We’re talking about some very specific beliefs, however, because Eggs Benedict is a very specific dish. Once you start substituting baguette for English muffins, salmon for ham, or low-fat Hollandaise for the crazy rich stuff, you’ve backed yourself out of Benedict land and into regular old brunch territory. The only acceptable modification, according to Rushing, is to mess with the sauce. Mother Hollandaise—basically, hot mayo—has many offspring sauces that vary in flavor enough to give the dish new life—but not so much as to change its essence. Or you can throw caution to the wind and use your newfound poaching, griddling, and sauce-making expertise to mess with the classic all you want. Just don’t tell Chef Rushing.

1. The English muffin

eggsbenedict_English MuffinsAt Brennan’s, Rushing makes his own English muffins. You can too if you have the time—it’s really not as difficult as you think—and the results speak for themselves. Otherwise, pick up your favorite muffin, the one with the soft interior and the chewy exterior, and, if you can find it, a tiny taste of tang left from the yeast dough’s rise. Most of all, “you gotta have the right number of holes in there,” says Rushing. Copious nooks and crannies will soak up the butter, egg yolk, and hollandaise to come. Don’t settle for muffins with lesser holes.

2. Toasting the Muffin

2_eggsbenedict_ToastingSkip the toaster, says Rushing. Melt butter on the griddle—in your case, probably a frying pan—and make the pat generous. Then split your muffin and toast it face down in the fat, pressing slightly with a spatula to be sure the surface crisps to a buttery, golden finish. That’s the right toasting for Eggs Benedict.

3. Picking Your Pork

3_eggsbenedict_Picking PorkHere’s what you want from your ham: saltiness, smokiness, and sweetness. Don’t simply grab any old Canadian bacon just because that’s what the recipe calls for. Rushing cures and smokes his own pork loins, but you don’t have to be that ambitious. Instead, skip the pre-wrapped Canadian bacon and “go to the deli counter,” says the chef. Try a few samples, preferably good bone-in hams, then “choose something you like to eat.” Ask for thick, ¼-inch slices. Or, if you love Serrano or prosciutto, opt for that. Keep the slices thin and pile several on top of your muffin.

4. Crisping the Pork

4_eggsbenedict_Crisping the PorkDon’t leave the ham cold. After you’ve griddled your English muffin, introduce your meat to the same hot pan. The idea isn’t to give the slice crazy crisp; it’s just to warm the middle and make the edges brown. Because heating the pork causes evaporation, you’ll up the saltiness factor by doing this. That’s fine if you’ve started with thick-cut Southern ham, but if you’re working with a saltier variety in the first place, consider heating the slices for a moment in the microwave instead—a technique that’ll warm them without increasing the salinity beyond what your Benedict needs.

5. Poaching Eggs

5_eggsbenedict_Poaching EggsA poached egg is a beautiful thing—a silky white envelope encasing a warmed yolk that oozes out at the slightest touch. You’ll need practice and patience to reach this ideal. But even if your whites ribbon off and set a little unevenly, you’ll still get the right effect in the final Benedict (remember, opaque Hollandaise can cover up anything awkward).

Beyond practice, there are a couple of poaching tricks. First, you want your water just barely simmering; keep adjusting the heat until you have a few bubbles surfacing, not a violent tidal wave. Second, crack the egg into a small prep bowl, then lower it gently into the water instead of cracking the egg right in. Third, add vinegar to help the egg sink down in the pot, keep its shape, and develop flavor. For 2 quarts of simmering water, Rushing uses 3 tablespoons of cider vinegar. Julia Child had another hack: she pricked her eggshells with a pin and boiled her eggs for 10 seconds before cooling, cracking, and poaching them as normal, according to TheKitchn. This eliminates the wispy white problem from the very start.

Ultimately, poaching eggs is also about being comfortable with failure. Sometimes your egg, like your hollandaise, isn’t going to come out right, and that’s okay. You’ll make another. There’s only one unforgivable error. “Poaching the eggs over-hard doesn’t do justice to the dish,” warns Rushing. “Then it’s an Egg McMuffin.” Pull your eggs from the water with a slotted spoon as soon as the whites are fully set. Drain on a paper towel until you’re ready to assemble.

6. The Hollandaise

6_eggsbenedict_Hollandaise2Hollandaise is important. Just ask Thomas Keller, whose essay “The Importance of Hollandaise,” connects the sauce to the magic and mystery of cooking, and the feeling of coming into his own as a chef. Hollandaise is not so intimidating if you follow directions to the letter, but you won’t feel mastery of until you make it every day—like Rushing does. It’s “an advanced home cook-type sauce,” says Rushing.

To make the sauce, you incorporate a lot of melted, clarified butter into egg yolks, creating an emulsion. This is easier to do if there’s some moisture in the mix—water for chemistry, lemon and white wine vinegar for taste. Also note that Hollandaise uses clarified butter, meaning you have to scoop the white milk solids off the top of the melted butter and leave any that have sunk to the bottom in the pan. Here’s how to make Hollandaise the way you’d do in cooking school: melt 10 ounces or 2 ½ sticks of butter in a pan. Scrape off most of the milk solids—don’t worry if you don’t get them all, they’ll actually make emulsifying easier. Then, combine 2 tablespoons of cider or white wine vinegar with some peppercorns and chopped shallot in a small pan on the stove and reduce to less than half. Strain out the solids and put the vinegar into a heat-safe bowl. Add 4 teaspoons of water and 3 egg yolks. Stir in ½ teaspoon salt. Set this bowl over a pot of barely simmering water to improvise a double boiler. Whisk constantly while the bowl is on the heat; the yolks will quickly puff up, becoming voluminous and light-colored. Remove from the heat when they’ve doubled in size. Then drizzle in the tiniest bit of butter, whisking hard. Make sure this first bit gets emulsified, then slowly drizzle in the rest of the butter, whisking and watching the sauce thicken. If it breaks—the liquids and solids separate—then add a tiny bit of water or some lemon juice until it comes back together. When all the butter’s in there, add up to 2 teaspoons of lemon juice to get the sauce tangy enough to balance the richness—not just of the butter, but also of the egg yolk and ham it’ll soon be topping.

Sound like too much work? Try blender Hollandaise. One more tip: don’t go easy on the butter. “It’s hard to make Hollandaise fat free,” says Rushing. Hollandaise is rich, even though it tastes light. That’s why it’s delicious.

7. Hollandaise’s Children

7_eggsbenedict_Other SaucesThere aren’t too many tweaks you can make and have your Benedict retain its dignity, but one outlet for creativity lies in Hollandaise’s offspring. Sauce Choron, one of the child sauces, has tomato puree or sauce whisked in at the end, while fragrant Béarnaise gets an upgrade from tons of chopped tarragon. Eggs Hussarde, invented at Brennan’s, “is the only true derivative,” according to Rushing. In Hussarde, you pour on a reduced red wine sauce called marchand de vin in addition to the Hollandaise.

8. Is This a Benedict?

8_eggsbenedict_Is This a BenedictBrunch menu authors have taken a lot of liberties with Eggs Benedict, meaning they’re no longer making the dish with its balanced flavors and textures, according to Rushing. “I’m a purist, a classicist,” he maintains. And yet, here are some close relatives that are delicious and useful. Make a vegetarian spinoff by skipping the ham and piling on something salty instead: greens and sun-dried tomatoes are my pick; at Brennan’s, there’s crispy artichokes and creamed spinach (called Eggs Sardou); and simplest of all is Eggs Florentine, made with spinach instead of pork. For a Maryland version, heap on a crab cake instead of the ham, then sprinkle on Old Bay. A smoked salmon variation goes by Eggs Atlantic or Eggs Hemingway; like the ham, the salmon contributes smokiness and salt. Try other breads, other meats, and other sauce seasonings as you like, just don’t expect to one-up Eggs Benedict’s perfection.

9. Assembly & Make Ahead

9_eggsbenedict_AssemblyEverything happens fast when you make Eggs Benedict, so you want to be on your game. You might start cautiously by making them for your own personal Big Easy brunch before you invite the masses over. Prep by splitting the muffins and cutting the ham to size. Hollandaise doesn’t hold forever, but you can put it together a few hours ahead of time and store it in a tightly covered thermos. If you need to reheat Hollandaise, do so in a bowl over a double boiler, very gently. Get the egg poaching liquid simmering while you crisp the muffins and ham, then poach the eggs last of all—though some believe you can reheat cooled-down poached eggs by submerging them again in the poaching liquid for about 30 seconds. To assemble, top each muffin half with ham, egg, then Hollandaise. Garnish with an sprig of parsley, tarragon, or dill.

Note the genius of the Benedict’s open-faced assembly. It’s set up to ensure that every bite is a perfect one, with some of each of the four elements available to fork into your mouth together. And that’s intentional: “You need things to play off each other,” says Rushing. “It’s like a roller-coaster ride.” The yolk bursts and balances out the lemony Hollandaise. Both soak into the muffin’s nooks. The muffin’s crispy edges crunch. And the glorious ham seasons every last bite.

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