Our chef combats heresy with hollandaise

Last month, lamb; this month, eggs. It’s all seasonally symbolic, you see – and no hint of a butchered and butterflied Easter Bunny anywhere. I find that there’s very little that can’t be improved with the introduction of an egg or two, within reason; so here are some tasty tips for what remains of Eastertide.

You can substitute the eggs of any bird you like in these recipes – altering the other measurements depending on size – but I warn you now that poaching a quail’s egg is more trouble than it’s worth, and that collecting the eggs of protected species will have the Plod around faster than you can say ‘osprey’.

For the purposes of this month’s column I will be using hens’ eggs, and proper free-range ones at that. I do hope that you also use free-range eggs, dear reader. Quite apart from the moral issues involved, an egg that comes from a battery-farmed chicken is an egg that comes from an unhappy chicken – and I still don’t understand why traditional hunting is banned while battery farming is tolerated. The best eggs come from happy hens; and so, unless you are fortunate enough to own your own, look out for the free-range markings in the shops. They will be slightly more expensive, but worth every penny by comparison.

One of the best things to do with eggs, obviously, is to serve them with other eggs; and Eggs Benedict or one of its derivations makes an excellent leisurely breakfast after the mass of Our Lady on a Saturday morning. You can work out for yourself how to acquire, slice, and toast a couple of muffins, and where to get hold of some nice thick ham. I’m also going to assume that you have a method for poaching eggs – what matters is that the whites are set and the yolks runny, so don’t leave them in the water too long.

The best bit of the dish is, of course, the Hollandaise Sauce. I’m not going to give you instructions on how to make this, either, because there are so many different ways of doing it that you must look them up and choose one that you think will work in your kitchen. What matters is that the resultant sauce should be thick and smooth.

Assembly is simple: two halves of toasted muffin, buttered; then a layer of ham; then a couple of poached eggs. Then a generous helping of the sauce over the eggs, and finally the whole thing put under a hot grill to glaze it. When you cut into the eggs, you’ll want to see the the yolks mingling irretrievably with the sauce: it’s about the best way that exists of refuting the errors of Nestorianism.

There are all sorts of variations to be tried, of course. Although purists will tell you that it must be muffins, you could use toasted bread or even toasted brioche. Substitute the ham for wilted spinach, and you get Eggs Florentine; use smoked salmon instead and you have Eggs Royale. My favourite is the New Directions house special: thick slices of well-toasted brioche, then a generous layer of smoked salmon, two perfectly poached eggs, and oodles of hollandaise. Under the grill to glaze, and then some really crispy bacon crumbled over the top, a small spoonful of lumpfish caviar (the heat will spoil the real stuff) to garnish, and finally chopped chives sprinkled over the whole. There you have it: Eggs Benedict XVI.

Hollandaise is so versatile, too. You could pour it over some well-cooked (as in not overcooked) asparagus, now that the season is upon us; or fold in whipped cream – make sure you use more hollandaise than cream – to make a Sauce Mousseline. That could go on the asparagus, for a lighter dish; but goes perfectly with poached white fish, too.

Along similar but sweeter lines, what about an Egg Custard? Start warming a pint of cream on a low heat, and then in a heatproof jug beat four eggs together with a few ounces of caster sugar, depending on how sweet your tooth is, and a few drops of vanilla essence. Then add the warm cream, whisking gently. Once everything is thoroughly combined – it should go a pleasing shade of yellow – pour it into ramekins and dust with grated nutmeg. Put them all in a bain-marie and bake on a medium heat for about an hour, or until they’re set.

But what to do with those egg whites, left over from the hollandaise? Well, you could always whip them stiff with some icing sugar and a squirt of lemon juice, and float a dollop of the mixture on top of each of your ramekins for a version of Îles Flottantes. If so, you’ll need to cook them for longer on a lower heat so that the meringue-like mixture doesn’t scorch.