Hollandaise and I have a rocky relationship. It’s not that I don’t like the sunshine yellow sauce – I adore it. It’s just that it’s so damn difficult to make. I remember trying to impress a boyfriend once by cooking him eggs Benedict for brunch and nearly weeping in the kitchen from the stress of it all. After half an hour of vigorous whisking the sauce stubbornly refused to thicken and I eventually had to admit defeat. Then I discovered that French sauce maker Maille has a delicious version with a hint of lemon, which has saved my brunches (and blushes) ever since.
The painful memory of my eggs Benedict blunder has put me off tackling hollandaise until now. Having bossed my béchamel last week, I was feeling confident. The sauce was thought to have been brought to France in 1667 by the French Huguenots after escaping from exile in Holland, though it was in fact first created by Burgundian chef Françoise Pierre de la Varenne, who dubbed it ‘fragrant’ sauce in his seminal 1651 book, Le Cuisinier François. In his recipe, la Varenne used a dash of vinegar and nutmeg in addition to the holy trinity of egg yolks, melted butter and lemon juice.
Culinary legend Auguste Escoffier named hollandaise, which was known as ‘Dutch’ sauce during the 19th century, as one of the five mother sauces of French cuisine. It’s a marvellous accompaniment to asparagus and white fish, and is essential to eggs Benedict. The trick to nailing the sauce is encouraging the whipped egg yolks to work their magic and hold the butter “in creamy suspension”, as Julia Child elegantly put it. Hollandaise is the Pinot Noir of the sauce world – infuriatingly finicky and hard to make, but incredibly rewarding when done well.
I figured if I followed Child’s recipe with military precision, then I might be in with a chance of creating a little magic of my own. The first alarming discovery about hollandaise is the quantity of butter needed to make it. Half a pint of sauce requires an entire packet of butter, cut into cubes and melted over a low heat. To give the sauce a sunny shade, I used British blue eggs, which have gorgeous golden yolks. Following Child’s recipe religiously, I added the melted butter to the egg yolks drop by drop, then beat the sauce with such ferocity, I thought my whisk might catch fire.
Much to my delight, after some serious whisking it started to thicken, and once the final drop of melted butter had been added, I was left with a glossy swirl of sauce. All that was needed was a pinch of salt and a few drops of lemon juice. Feeling rather pleased with myself, I started poaching the eggs for my victory brunch, halving, toasting and buttering a muffin, then layering it with ham in anticipation of the eggs. I thought back to my younger self struggling to get the butter to play ball and felt smug about how well my second attempt had gone.
Eggs made, it was time to add the finishing touch. Dipping a spoon into the pan to sample the sauce, it tasted great but had gone cold while I made the eggs. Figuring all it needed was a quick lick of heat, I placed it on the hob on the lowest level possible. To my horror, the gloriously glossy hollandaise unravelled before my eyes, turning back to melted butter in seconds. I looked on in amazement as the sauce got the better of me a second time.
I tried to salvage it by whipping it into a frenzy in an attempt to thicken it up, but the damage had been done. There was no going back. Utterly deflated and exhausted from all the whisking, I was tempted to reach for the jar of Maille in my cupboard but soldiered on, eating the worst incarnation of eggs Benedict I’d ever created, the muffin soaking up the melted butter like a sponge. It looks like hollandaise and I are yet to work out our differences. I’ll be faking it from now on…