Friday, July 30, 2010

Kitchen Challenge: Eggs Benedict And The *&!@$ Hollandaise

A while back, I had eaten a late breakfast at Twig's Diner in Barberton, Ohio. I had ordered the Twig's Benedict (their interpretation of the diner classic, Eggs Benedict). When I received my food, I noticed that the poached eggs were not only perfectly shaped, but exactly the same. When I asked Twig if they poach their eggs before service and then reheat them, she looked somewhat aghast at me and insisted that they were cooked to order, which could get overwhelming on the weekends because of the popularity of the dish.

Puzzled by this series of inconsistencies, I asked friend and Western Reserve School of Cooking owner Catherine St. John about this and she indicated that Twig's was probably employing some type of egg poaching mechanism, either a machine, or some other device that allows them to cook perfectly poached eggs every time. She could sense that this information surprised me a bit and when we returned to her shop, she brought me to a section of the store where she pointed out an item made out of silicone called poachpods. For $9.95, you received two cup-like silicone molds not unlike something that might've gone a long way to cover up the Justine Timberlake / Janet Jackson nipple flash fiasco at the Superbowl only a few short years ago.

Furthermore, after our amusing conversation about these gadgets' effectiveness at making poached eggs, Catherine simply picked one up and said, "Here. A gift from me to you. Blog about it if you want to." Well, okay then! Knowing that I was coming over to my grandmother's condo for the weekend, I stopped at the store to pick up the necessary ingredients for Eggs Benedict: eggs, butter, vinegar, English muffins, and some sliced ham. My main goal was to try poached eggs two ways, one in the poachpod and the other using the old fashioned method of immersion in almost boiling water.

First, here was a shot of the poachpods (made by Fusionbrands - caution, website has sound):

There were actually two pods in this pack and after separating them from their tag, I thoroughly washed both, even though I would only be needed one today. Here were the pertinent instructions on poaching eggs from the cardboard tag:

"To poach an egg: evenly oil the poachpod. Bring about 1 1/2" of water to a boil in a sauté pan, reduce to a simmer, crack an egg into the poachpod and float in the water. Cover pan with a lid and cook in simmering water 4 to 6 minutes or to desired firmness. Use a slotted spoon to remove the poachpod from the water. To remove the egg from the poachpod, run a spoon around egg edge, then flip pod inside out and gently push egg out."

To be honest, the oiling step kind of threw me. For some reason I guess I had assumed that the silicone stuff was kind of non-stick, but apparently not. I assembled the ingredients required for today's brunch:

The picture should be pretty self-explanatory, although I will say that two sticks of butter was WAY more than I needed today, even with my multiple attempts at making a hollandaise. I probably ended up pouring about 1/2 a stick's worth down the drain when I was doing the dishes.

So you've seen the ingredients, let's take a look at the various equipment stations. First up was the English muffin toasting station, namely my grandmother's toaster oven:

Next up was the egg poaching station, a large dutch oven filled about halfway with water and brought to a simmer:

The cider vinegar was there for the non-poachpod egg. A small addition of vinegar to the water helps the white part of the egg to set faster. I ended up adding able a half a tablespoon to the water. It wasn't enough that I could taste vinegar on the poached egg, but you could definitely smell the aroma if you took a big whiff of the steam.

Finally, the hollandaise station:

The pan in the back would be used for making my clarified butter and the pan in the front was where I intended to build my hollandaise.

The first step in building a hollandaise was to separate out two egg yolks and put them in the pan with about a tablespoon of tap water. The addition of the water gives you just a bit of extra insurance that you won't cook your egg yolks too far:

With the burner on medium heat, start whisking the yolks and water furiously.

As you continue to whisk and heat, you'll notice that the eggs will get frothy and begin to thicken. You may also notice some steam rising from the pan. If you need to, pull the pan on and off the heat as you whisk to control how fast the temperature in the pan is rising. Once the yolks are nicely thickened, you are ready to start adding the clarified butter.

But, of course, I am ahead of myself. Let's clarify some butter first. In a small saucepan, place your sticks of butter and put them over medium heat:

After the butter fully melts, it will begin to bubble. This is the water content of the butter boiling out. This is good. You'll also notice that a white foam starts floating on top. Using a spoon, just skim this mixture away into a separate bowl.

Here was a shot of the butter bubbling away, midway to clarification:

Finally, once the bubbling slows and stops, turn the heat down or off immediately and do one final skimming. Congratulations, you've just made clarified butter!

If you leave the heat on after you've reached this stage, two undesirable things will happen. The milk solids in the bottom of the pan will begin to brown and create buerre noisette. And while buerre noisette is utterly delicious, it isn't desirable when trying just to clarify the butter. The second, and more important, is that the butter will remain extremely hot and when you go to add it to your whisked yolks in your hollandaise pan, you will get hollandaise disaster #1:

This was my first attempt at hollandaise. Because the butter I added was too hot, it actually cooked the yolks and they coagulated. D'oh! Fortunately, I had more eggs and clarified butter, so I cleaned out the pan and started over with two more yolks and a tablespoon of water. When I got to the right point with the yolks, I began adding the now cooled clarified butter to much success. Until I accidentally added too much butter and the sauce split and little pools of butter began to form on the surface. Hmmm, this wasn't going as well as I had hoped. Hollandaise disaster #2.

But not to worry, I remembered something that Alton Brown from Good Eats had said on his show on making mayonnaise. If it splits, start a new yolk in a fresh bowl and gradually whisk in the contents of the split sauce into the new egg and all should be well. I did this and wouldn't you know it, it actually worked! I thinned the sauce with a little bit of vinegar (for flavor) and about a tablespoon of water.

Here was the finished hollandaise:

I also added salt to taste. The vinegar I added was a bit of sherry vinegar I had picked up at the store yesterday.

It did add a bit of brown coloration to the hollandaise, but the flavor was quite nice. Happy with my third attempt, I put the pan on extremely low heat and turned to make the next component of Eggs Benedict, the toasted English muffin. Maddeningly, when I turned to look at my perfect hollandaise just moments later, the smooth creamy sauce had once again, you guessed it gentle reader, SPLIT!! Ugh! Hollandaise disaster #3. At this point I had essentially run out of patience (as well as eggs), so I figured I would just live with the results I had. I am happy at least that I was able to get a shot of the finished sauce before it split just to prove I can make a successful hollandaise, even if I couldn't hold it until service.

I split my English muffin and placed it into the toaster oven to crisp it up:

Fortunately, I didn't really have to watch this so much as smell it to know when it was done. I oiled up the poachpod with some grapeseed oil and cracked my egg into it. I lowered it into the simmering water, covered the lid and set the timer for four minutes. At four minutes I checked the egg and while the outer edge was definitely set, the inner yolk seemed just a tad bit too liquid. I covered the pot for an additional minute and when I checked it again, the middle seemed firm enough. I removed the poachpod from the water, used a spoon to loosen the egg from the silicone, and flipped it on top of the English muffin half onto which I had already placed ham and inverted the cup. The egg did come out, but it overshot where I wanted it to land and I had to VERY CAREFULLY use the spoon to reposition the egg so that I didn't prematurely break the yolk open.

After topping the poached egg with the now broken hollandaise, here was what it looked like:

The egg was definitely a very nice uniform shape. When I cut into the center of the egg, five minutes had been the perfect amount of time to ensure that the yolk was warm and runny. Even with the unappealing visual aspect of the sauce, the flavor was actually still quite good. With the exception of the hollandaise, this was a nice Eggs Benedict. I think the poachpod product actually delivered on its promise.

For comparison, of course, I did my second poached egg the traditional way. First I cracked my egg into a custard cup:

I've read and been told many places that it's far easier to get a better poached egg if you crack it into a bowl first and then gently slip it into simmering water rather than cracking the egg directly into the pot. So that was what I did. I then used my slotted spoon to attempt to wrap the egg whites around the yolks. While I was somewhat successful, even with poaching just one egg, quite a good amount of whites got away. Because the egg was submersed completely in the water, I also didn't need to cover the pan. Additionally, the egg was cooked properly after only three minutes instead of the five I needed for the poachpod.

I removed the egg from the water using a slotted spoon, drained it slightly on a paper towel and deftly deposited it on my waiting English muffin / ham base:

I topped it with more of the broken hollandaise, and tucked into it to see if there were any differences I could spot. Both egg whites were tender and both egg yolks were warm and runny. Since the other three components of the Eggs Benedict were the same for both versions, other than the visual difference between the poached eggs, flavor-wise they were identical.

Here was a shot of the poaching pot I used after poaching just one egg the traditional way:

This kind of leads me to my final point, which was even with generously oiling the poachpod prior to cracking my egg into it, there was a bit of egg white residue left on the silicone after unmolding it. My guess would be that you would need to completely wash and clean it before using it again lest you have even worse sticking. That being said, with two molds, I was perfectly set up for a single serving of Eggs Benedict. But if you were making this for a group of people, you'd be well advised to get multiple sets of these molds as cleaning them between each use will become a truly time-consuming task.

So, even with my stupid hollandaise breaking three times, I still managed to vet the effectiveness of the poachpod in making perfectly poached eggs. While there were a few differences in technique and cooking times, in the end, it did a good job. For those who might be a little too frightened to do it the traditional way, it is a relatively inexpensive way to ensure that you get consistent results. As for my hollandaise making and holding skills, apparently I need just a few more lessons. That, or maybe a nice blender.

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