I really am the high priestess of procrastination. If anything really needs to be done, I am sure to find a huge list of other tasks which need addressing so urgently, they simply cannot be left. This always applies to studying. Once I am in the midst of it, I am immersed and able to be productive, but getting started is always a problem. Those windows really do need cleaning, that shirt has been missing a button for over a month and, goodness, how have I not cleared the fluff from the tumble dryer this week?! The truth is obvious-none of it needs doing, but my studying does and that is why my brain is trying to come up with tasks to avoid it. Such procrastination often leads to cooking-well, it’s essential isn’t it? It also comes with the reassurance that even if I fail my exams this summer, at least I can make a mean hollandaise sauce!
Let’s not kid ourselves; this is not a healthy recipe. During the season of Lent, which is all about abstinence and reflection, I have chosen the most calorie-laden, richly decadent sauce to share with you. Ironically, I cannot eat any of it, as I have actually given up butter, but that doesn’t mean you should suffer too.
Hollandaise sauce is a classic sauce in the French repertoire, but it’s not an easy one to master. There are many shortcuts on the internet-including an amusing one using a vacuum cleaner attachment (look it up), but I have found that it really is just a question of practise. Hollandaise is a different beast to other emulsified sauces such as mayonnaise, as it is cooked and served warm. The difference is that you can buy reasonably good jars of mayonnaise, but I have yet to find a jar of hollandaise that does not taste either completely synthetic, or acridly vinegary. Homemade really cannot be replicated in this case. If you want Eggs Benedict at the weekend, (and who doesn’t?), you must attempt this sauce from scratch. To do this, you must face reality. You will curdle your eggs, the sauce will split, you will waste kilos of butter, but have heart, because once you have mastered this sauce, you will feel so competent and smug that you may be a bit unbearable for a while.
There are a few things you can do to make life easier for yourself. If you look up ‘Sauce Hollandaise’ in any classical French cookbook, you would be told to melt the butter gently, then separate the clarified butter from the milk solids at the bottom. This all sounds very technical and difficult. It’s not; all you need to do is melt the butter, pour it into a jug and add the melted butter, as per the recipe, stopping when you get to the milky bits at the bottom of the jug. If any goes in by accident, it does not make any difference to the sauce.
However, I have discovered something that I wish I had known when I first tried to make hollandaise. It would have saved several milk jugs and a rather nice mixing bowl from being broken in an hysterical rage. Controversially,(whisper it), I have found that you do not need to melt the butter at all. You can cut the solid butter into very small cubes and add that to your beaten egg, making sure every cube melts and is mixed in throughly as you go along. Purists would say that this method results in a sauce which is slightly less smooth and glossy than when using the original method, but I challenge you to find the difference. Another bonus is that using the butter as a solid seems to make the sauce more stable and less prone to splitting, therefore saving your sanity. Once you have mastered this, you can move onto the melted butter version if you want. I very rarely do.
The other thing to do is a have a large bowl or the sink full of cold water, ready to plunge the mixing bowl into if it even hints that it is about to split. The way to tell is if you start seeing any kind of lumps, or the butter isn’t being incorporated easily. Taking the sauce straight off the heat and putting the bowl into the cold water stops the cooking process. Whisk vigorously and you should divert any problems. If this does not seem to be working, you can add another egg yolk, but to be honest, if your sauce has split, the best thing to do is to start again. I said you would waste lots of butter.
Makes about 300ml-enough for 4 portions
250g butter-I prefer salted
4 eggs yolks
Juice of half a lemon
salt and pepper to taste
Fill your sink with cold water, ready to plunge the bowl into if it looks as though it is about the split. Bring a pan of water to simmering, place a heat-proof bowl over the pan, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Cut your butter into small cubes. Separate the eggs and place the yolks into a bowl. Add a squeeze of lemon juice and a grinding of pepper-you can use white pepper if you do not want the black speckles in your sauce.
Using a small whisk or fork, mix the eggs, making sure you are moving the mixture constantly.
Keep mixing the egg yolks until they become frothy, lighter in colour and more voluminous. Keep checking that the water is just simmering.
Once the eggs are at the frothy stage, you can start to add the butter. Add one small cube at a time, mixing constantly. Allow each cube to melt and be incorporated before you add the next one.
After you have added about half the butter, the sauce should be stable enough for you to add more cubes of butter at a time. Make sure you keep whisking. Keep adding the butter until it has all been incorporated into the sauce.
You should now have a rich, luscious sauce. Taste and add lemon, salt and pepper as you wish.
You can leave this sauce in the bowl or in a jug somewhere warm, but do not leave it over the heat and do not try to reheat it-that way curdled sauce always lies.
I love it with Eggs Benedict or Florentine, but it works with asparagus, smoked fish and mushrooms amazingly well too.