Forget weddings or, even, dare I say it, the workers of the world: the first green shoots of spring are what gets my heart leaping at this time of year. Unlike, say, hot cross buns, asparagus is so beautifully easy to prepare that I can happily gorge on it morning noon and night during its brief season – initially just drenched in butter, and then, once the first frenzy has worn off and I can bear to wait more than five minutes for my fix, in more adventurous ways: baked with ham, steamed and served with anchovies and lemon zest, topped with a poached egg, or, of course, dipped into a big, greedy bowl of rich yellow hollandaise. And there, of course, is the lone fly in this mouthwatering ointment. Hollandaise is, I think, the single greatest thing a spear of asparagus can aspire to, yet the path to perfection is fraught with danger for the cook. British asparagus deserves better than curdled eggs.
The main difficulty, I think, is not that hollandaise is particularly difficult to make, once you understand the science of it; it’s the cult of the Sauce, by which I don’t mean tomato ketchup and its ilk, but the backbone of the classic French repertoire, the kind of recipe which sounds like one should have a legion d’honneur to even dare attempting. Ignore the hype, forget the breathy MasterChef-style commentary in your head, and just remember that hollandaise, like its steak-friendly cousin béarnaise, is nothing but a hot egg and butter sauce.
The trick, according to food science god Harold McGee, is “heat the egg yolks enough to obtain the desired thickness, but not so much that the yolk proteins coagulate into little solid curds and the sauce separates”. Caution, therefore, is good: fear, however, will almost certainly curdle your hollandaise quicker than the evillest of eyes.
The bain marie
The most common approach to keeping your sauce cool is to use a bain marie, as Nigel Slater advises. This, of course, has the benefit of keeping your delicate eggs away from direct heat, but, as a flip side, creates more washing up.
I set a heatproof glass bowl over a pan of simmering water, and then add three egg yolks and a little water, then gradually pour in 200g of “almost-melted” butter (by which I assume he means stuff which has a few lumps swimming it it), whisking furiously. It takes bloody ages to thicken, and then I go and spoil it by squeezing in too much lemon juice to loosen it, but it tastes as good as yolks and butter ought to. A good safe method for the nervous cook.
Harold McGee gives a number of techniques for making hollandaise, some of which, including the “butter mayonnaise” which doesn’t even begin to cook the yolks and the sabayon-style, which makes a foam, rather than the unctuous sauce I’m seeking, don’t strictly qualify as such. However, Carême, the “king of chefs, and chef of kings” (thanks Wikipedia), piques my interest with a particularly tricksy method, in which the egg yolks and water are heated gently until thickened, and “pats of whole butter” are then whisked in to emulsify the butterfat and thin the cooked eggs. McGee cautions that “the small volume of the initial egg mixture is easily overcooked”, which sounds suspiciously like a challenge to me.
I put the yolks and water on a ridiculously low heat, and anxiously stir them together, lifting the pan off the stove periodically to soothe a growing paranoia that strands of scrambled egg lurk beneath the surface. This may explain why they take so long to thicken, but slightly thicken they eventually do, which is my cue to chuck in the clods of butter. At this point, something goes a bit wrong, and some of the melted butter resists my attempts at emulsification, leaving me with a recognisable hollandaise, and a fair amount of grease. Not an outright success then, and a right hassle to boot.
Delia, always one to reassure the worried cook, suggests using a blender, which definitely falls foul of my moratorium on unnecessary washing up, but I give her method a try. I blend seasoned eggs yolks in the food processor for a minute, while heating a mixture of lemon juice and white wine vinegar to a simmer. Then, with the motor running, I pour this on to the eggs. This process is repeated with the butter, and voilà, I have hollandaise. And a whole lot of clearing up to do. It works, but really, why bother?
I save the simplest method until last, because, if I’m honest, I’m a little bit hesitant about it. It comes from McGee’s On Food & Cooking and, rather than faffing about, simply sticks all the ingredients in one cold pan, heats gently, and stirs until the sauce cooks. “The butter gradually melts and releases itself into the egg phase as both heat up together, and the cook then continues to heat the formed sauce until it reaches the desired consistency”. That’s the theory anyway. I’m expecting disaster, but somehow, miraculously, it comes together into a satiny pool of deliciousness – and all with just one pan and a whisk. I’m a convert.
I would have expected there to be debate over the best method for us amateurs, but I’m surprised to find disagreement among chefs over the sauce’s principal ingredient, butter. Traditionally, it would have been clarified – heated until the water, milk solids and fat have separated, and then drained to give pure milk fat. Because whole butter is about 15% water, according to Mr McGee, it has the effect of thinning the sauce as you whisk it into the thickening eggs, while clarified butter is all fat, and thus thickens the sauce with each addition.
Using clarified butter seems, therefore, like a no-brainer, as they say in his homeland – Ramsay, Rhodes and Roux are all fans, but Carême, Elizabeth David and Richard Olney all call for whole butter, which, according to posters on egullet.com, gives a superior flavour.
I’ve been lazily chucking in ordinary butter up until now, but I give the clarified stuff a try, and even strain it in, in obedience to Michel Roux Jr’s particularly pernickety method. The resulting sauce is indeed thicker, but, although tasty, in a side-by-side comparison, it definitely lacks the rich flavour of the others, and anyway, I reason, I want this sauce to be pourable, rather than stiff like mayonnaise.
Escoffier finishes his hollandaise with vinegar, rather than lemon juice, and Roux starts his with a vinegar reduction, but I think this takes it too close to béarnaise territory: a small squeeze of lemon juice is a fresher-tasting way to balance the richness of the fat.
Anthony Bourdain, never one to mince his words, has this advice when it comes to this family of sauces. “Know this. If you haven’t made [it] before, you will surely fuck this sauce up. Don’t worry. Just do it again.” I’m not so sure. He’s right that these concoctions can smell fear, but go into the kitchen with confidence in your abilities and even the first-timer can knock up a silkily unctuous sauce that does our homegrown asparagus proud. Go one, show that sauce who’s boss. This is also, by the way, very good with sprouting broccoli, or simply grilled fish – and is, of course, the star attraction of eggs Benedict and its ilk.
Perfect hollandaise sauce
4 large free-range egg yolks
250g cold unsalted butter, diced
1. Put the yolks, butter and 2 tbsp water in a heavy-based pan and heat very gently, whisking all the time. As the butter melts, the sauce will begin to thicken; don’t be tempted to hurry things along by turning the heat up, the sides of the pan should be cool enough to touch at all times. Do not leave your post at any time: this sauce will brook no postmen or tea-making.
2. Once the butter has melted, turn up the heat to medium-low and whisk vigorously until it thickens: if it begins to steam, take it off the heat, but do not, under any circumstances, cease whisking.
3. When the sauce is thickened to your taste, stir in 1 tbsp lemon juice and season. Taste and adjust if necessary. Serve immediately, or store in a warm place or a vacuum flask until needed: it doesn’t take kindly to reheating.
Is being doused with hollandaise the highest ambition to which asparagus can aspire, or a fancy French affectation that has no place on one of our finest seasonal ingredients? Why does it have such a fearsome reputation, and what do you like to serve yours with?