The origins of Eggs Benedict, as with so many recipes, are by time obscured. Competing claims have it invented for a bored Delmonico’s patron, as a hangover cure for a breakfaster at The Waldorf Hotel and as the whimsy of a banker/yachtsman. All assertions have two things in common: diners named Benedict and the will to boost normal morning fare to a new level with this layering of muffin, Canadian bacon, poached eggs and Hollandaise sauce.
But much more than a century after the dish was created (by whomever), Eggs Benedict is now served at most diners and has lost some of its luster. It may be time to reconsider how to build this treat. Happily, its tiered construction makes renovation a snap. You can swap out ingredients by module without disturbing the basic DNA of the thing.
Starting from the base, consider the bread portion. Lightly toasted English muffin is the norm now, although unspecified muffins or toast were described in early recipes. For a French twist, a slice of brioche can be cut into a circle. For carbohydrates more substantial, a bagel can be used. A waffle at the bottom gives it a Southern accent.
Meat presents a spectrum of choices. The current vogue for heaping decadence on a dish is to bring on the bacon. But the original recipe is already fraught with cured pork in the form of Canadian bacon. Of course, stripped bacon is an option, but there are so many more inventive choices. Seafood is a popular direction, with options like smoked salmon and crab meat. Lobster is the ultimate. Not to slight red meat: slices of filet mignon or prime rib are the best for excess. Not feeling carnivorous? Substitute artichoke bottoms or avocado.
Early practitioners likely worked with free-range eggs and it’s hard for the store-bought type to beat their retro infusion of flavor, color, size and nutrition. Poaching is a process of cooking cracked eggs directly in boiling water. We find coddling in a pan over a simmering water bath is easier to master, and it allows the addition of spices during cooking.
Hollandaise sauce (egg yolk, drawn butter and lemon juice) lends the dish its topping of richness (and probably accounts for its use for treating hangovers), but it is a bit bland. Using Béarnaise sauce, which substitutes a concentrated reduction of tarragon, shallots and vinegar for the lemon juice, takes the dish up a couple notches with explosive flavor.
Eggs Benedict is essentially a base that invites all manner of culinary invention. Consider anything you have on hand fair game. And if you are lucky enough to have black truffles, by all means shave them on. Just remember to whisper thanks to Benedict, whoever that was.