The World’s Simplest Hollandaise Sauce (with thanks to MFK Fisher)
Early asparagus are a thing of beauty, don’t you agree? The first ones that show up in the market in what still seems like the dead of winter pull you up and whisper in your ear that the dead of winter thing is an illusion, and that spring is near. At least, that’s what they whisper in my ear. And even though the bundles of them from Mexico are not nearly as tasty as the homegrown multi sized ones will be much later on in the growing season, they’re still springlike and delicious enough for me to bring home bunches and bunches of them through April.
So many bunches of them, in fact, that we start eating them, not just for dinner, but for lunch, too. Pretty sumptuous lunch. Easy, too.
One half-spring/half-winter day (snow flurries in the morning, breaking into brilliant, crystal drop sunlight on trees afternoon), I decided to celebrate with such a lunch. Baked potato and asparagus. And since I was celebrating…and since The Indigo Ray has begun raising chickens and selling her eggs in competition with Dawn the Egg Lady, and had delivered a just-laid dozen and a half that very morning, without being asked or anything…I decided it was going to be baked potatoes and asparagus and HOLLANDAISE SAUCE.
Hollandaise sauce, you may or may not know, is sunlight on a plate. Sunlight and clogged arteries, sure, if you eat too much of it. But just enough of it, no more, no less, and a big pile of hot asparagus to dip in it at will, is just what you need to celebrate the end of the winter and the coming of the spring.
There’s just one problem with it, normally. It’s kind of a bitch to make. Especially for lunch. Especially if your morning goes, as mine does: work, notice the dogs have grabbed their squeaky toys and are squeaking them for all they’re worth to let you know it’s way past time for a walk, walk, lunch, back to work. There’s no time for planning, or for concentrating on your sauce, with all that squeaking going on, in the brief recreation times between work.
But I really wanted Hollandaise Sauce that day. And when you really want something, and you can really get it without too much fuss for yourself or your loved ones, I really think it’s a good idea to have it.
So I tried an experiment. I decided to see if it was possible to make Hollandaise Sauce on the top of the stove while I went out for a walk.
And you know what? It turns out you can. If you know about a recipe MFK Fisher passes on in her book “With Bold Knife and Fork,” anyway. This is a recipe she says was given to her by a dignified and pleasant older woman who liked to make Hollandaise for One as a treat, now and then. It involves melting some butter in a custard cup set in a pan of simmering water, adding one egg yolk, some cayenne, and a little lemon, and stirring it now and then while the rest of dinner is cooking, making sure the water never gets hot enough to scramble the eggs, until it’s nice and thick and hollandaise-y.
That gave me an idea. And I figured I had so many eggs, and that a lunch of just baked potatoes and asparagus and lemon would be luxury enough if my idea flopped, that I was justified in taking the plunge.
So this is what I did (for two people):
I scrubbed three smallish potatoes (that was all I had, but a small one is enough for me for lunch, and two are good for the Beloved Husband), pierced them so they wouldn’t explode in the toaster oven, put them in at 475 degrees.
Then I went back to work for fifteen minutes, until the dogs got bored and started squeaking their toys again.
Back to the kitchen:
I put two pyrex custard cups in a heavy skillet on the stove, and added water up to half their size. A heavy skillet because I wanted the pan to hold the heat while I went for a walk–a thin, aluminum one wouldn’t work here. Then I brought the water to a simmer, and cut about three tablespoons of butter into each cup. (MFK Fisher recommends a scant quarter cup…four tablespoons…and normally I would have followed her advice, but I was avoiding that Clogged Artery feel, which I enjoy at dinner, but not at lunch…and besides, Indigo’s eggs are smaller than the normal market ones…)
While the butter melted in the cups, I quickly set the table, snapped the ends off of about fourteen asparagus, and put them in a water filled sink to soak. I filled my oval asparagus pan up with water, salted it, and put it on the stove to await action. Pulled out two plates, cut up two lemon quarters, one for each plate.
When the butter was melted, and bubbling a bit, I dropped an egg yolk each into each cup and whisked it with a small wire whisk. Added some hot sauce. Squeezed a bit from each lemon quarter into each cup, and put a quarter on each plate.
Now I hit the intercom to let the Beloved Husband know it was time for the dogs’ walk. No need to speak; he could hear the frantic squeaking toy noise and knows very well what THAT means.
I gave the egg yolk/melted butter another whisk, then, seeing the BH come out of his hut down the meadow, turned off the heat underneath.
Let the dogs outside (“drop those toys, no, NOW, inside, not outside!”), went out with them, put on my walking boots, and enjoyed the spring day for about a half an hour or so.
On the way back, I wondered: was this really going to work? And when I walked into the kitchen, shedding my coat and fumbling around in the cupboard for post-walk dog treats, I looked over at the stove. Oh no. Curdled. Scrambled eggs. Must have left the water on too high.
But how could that be? I’d left it at a simmer, and turned it off. The pan couldn’t have held THAT much heat, could it?
Thinking things over, I turned on the water to boil in the asparagus pan, and when it did, added the asparagus. Then I turned my attention back to the custard cups. Taking the little whisk, I tried whisking one.I turned the heat on low just to warm the water up and encourage everything. And then, like magic, the more I whisked, the more that curdled looking egg thing turned into Hollandaise Sauce. Until it WAS Hollandaise Sauce. By the time the asparagus were done, and the potatoes, too, I had two small custard cups of, yes, that’s right, Hollandaise Sauce. Just lifted them out of the water, wiped their sides and bottoms, deposited them on the plates with the lemon and the drained asparagus and the potatoes, and put them on the table.
And the BH was suitably impressed. “You don’t have to work this hard!” he protested faintly as he poured sauce on his potatoes and dipped an asparagus spear into what was left in his custard cup. “Want me to take you out to dinner tonight?”
Silly me, I told him how easy it had been. Melt butter in cup set in simmering water. Add egg yolk, hot sauce, lemon juice. Whisk. Turn off heat. Leave for about a half hour. Come back, turn heat onto low, whisk hell out of it, and voila!
“I’ll still take you out if you want,” he said earnestly. “But whatever we have, it won’t be as good as this.”
Which was really a very nice end of a spring/winter morning, and start of a spring/winter afternoon day.