The idea of this post was to provide something more than a recipe for Hollandaise. The idea was to help you feel the mojo that affects the chef when he is preparing a batch of hollandaise that goes beyond good to perfect. I thought that was necessary in order to impart the technique, perhaps some of the mojo could seep off of the computer screen and into the reader. But finally, my pursuit of the essence of the mise en place became a restaurant story with a great recipe for Hollandaise included.
Hollandaise Sauce, when properly made, is light and frothy, lemony and buttery, tart and a wee bit spicy and deeply rich. You can smell the lemon and butter if it is freshly made, and if the sauce is still hot, the aroma wafts up to your nose, as your dinner plate is set in front of you. You taste lemon and a little zing on the tip of your tongue. Farther back on your tongue you savor the flavour of the butter and the richness. The texture is the absolute epitome of smoothness. It soothes the tongue with warmth and velvet softness and then the aftertaste lingers lusciously in the throat and all along the entire length of the tongue. It makes almost anything taste better. It turns a poached egg into a delicacy. It is so delicious on vegetables that any child will eat all the asparagus or broccoli on his plate if it is served with Hollandaise Sauce.
It is a simple sauce, often maligned, and too often it is brutally butchered by uncaring chefs and incompetent cooks. The sauce produced at home is almost never worthy to carry the classic name: Hollandaise. That is because, although it has few ingredients and a seemingly facile preparation, it is extraordinarily touchy. It takes practice to make good Hollandaise: practice and a good eye, and a strong wrist to whip the froth into silken ecstasy. Millions can make a sauce that shares some characteristics with Hollandaise, but falls short of my favorite classic French sauce. The perfect Hollandaise is not easy. I am going to attempt to point you towards its creation.
Some background and descriptions will be necessary to understand my method in order for you to recreate it in your kitchen. The background may seem a diversion from the recipe for this heavenly concoction. But if you are in a hurry for a recipe, a formula, then you are thinking chemistry. Baking is chemistry. If you are inclined to the concrete, the mathematical, then get a recipe book and make a Genoise cake. Like Hollandaise you will beat eggs and Genoise is delicious and unlike Hollandaise, it can be competently produced from a recipe. Hollandaise sauce cannot be produced by formula. Sauce making is art and art is not the result of formulae, it is the result of finesse.
This fortuitous occurrence that will serve as an example of sauce making happened on a Saturday night in May. It was one of those perfect late spring nights when the moon shines over the Catlina mountains, when the green desert is bathed in silver light and a warm breeze slowly sighs through the palo verdes, the ocotillos and the mesquite trees. You can smell the clean desert and the aroma of spring flowers. It is a good time to get out of the house and drive up into the mountains to look down on the lights of Tucson. You can find a good restaurant up in the Catalina foothills, with a long, covered terrace that takes advantage of the soft night air and the view of the city lights, and the moon over distant mountains to the southeast. That would be a very good place to taste the perfect Hollandaise.
I happened to be the executive chef at just that restaurant on that Saturday night. The reservations had been quite heavy so my sous chef and garde manger, my dishwashers and dessert man were getting ready for a busy night. Lunch had been busy and dragged along until three thirty like Saturday lunches are wont to do, so that my lunch line-chef couldn't help prep for dinner. The rest of us were chopping and peeling, boning and pounding, stirring and seasoning as fast as we could go. My sous chef, bless his heart wherever he is today, looked at me with more than a little irritation:
"You had to pick a packed house Saturday night to put all this stuff on the menu? We aren't gonna be ready, we're gonna get buried tonight. I wanna see you with 20 sauté pans going at the same time"
Normally I was the pessimist and Rob generally would let me know that everything would be fine. His fears were therefore quite unsettling. Maybe the menu was overly ambitious.
"You're right man. I screwed up, but the menus are printed, so hurry up and get two more rib roasts in the oven. Is there a leg of lamb in the walk-in? Lets get that ready for the oven, we'll take it out rare and then finish it if we run out of lamb loins. Slice up another 15 onions and get them caramelized so that we can stretch the onion soup out a bit. Just keep movin' baby! We'll make it."
There is something marvelous about the intense pressure in the kitchen when you can count on your staff. These people all knew what to do because we had done almost everything on the menu before. Rob the sous chef was now pounding veal and cutting steaks, He had already put the split ducks in the oven on beds of celery and onions, the garde manger was setting up our line with vegetables to sauté and all of the other ingredients that we would need for tonight’s menu. He put scalloped potatoes in the oven and put wild rice on the stove to cook. Then he turned out the duck liver terrine that I had made the day before and set up his own line. I was filleting two beautiful fresh King Salmons. They were the first ones of the season and they shone silver and felt and sounded solid when I flopped them down onto my worktable. These fellows were perfect, fresh with a clean sweet fish smell. They were big guys. About fifteen pounds each. I filleted, skinned and boned both salmon, and cut the fillets into eight-ounce portions, sliced on a bias so that they would be thin enough to poach rapidly. I chopped the heads and spines into chunks and put them in a deep hotel pan with six inches of water on the stove to simmer with some chopped up onions and lemons, white peppercorns, bay leaves and some cilantro because it was sitting there looking for something to do.
I don't remember the whole menu from that night, but of course there was Roast Beef and a steak, maybe a rib eye with sautéed wild mushrooms and shallots, there was duck with a raspberry sauce I think, we had veal scaloppini aux duxelles, some kind of stuffed chicken breast and some seafood that wasn't sautéed: maybe grilled scallops. I know we had sautéed lamb loin and greens with an amontillado and fresh mint demi glace and a dollop of Hollandaise to make it irresistible. And I will never forget that we had poached King Salmon with Hollandaise sauce.
I was very fortunate to be the chef at this wonderful restaurant and I look back on it with longing and with regret for not having applied myself better, for not having been a better person to the owner and the rest of the staff. I owe something to that restaurant that I cannot now repay. The owner died and the building was sold and is still a great place, but the restaurant where I worked was a living, breathing being that expired and followed its owner into reaches that are unknown to us until we follow them on that long one-way journey.
But that Saturday night, as I looked around at my friends move with focused energy, I knew that I was particularly fortunate to be the chef of this wonderful place. I had freedom to create something new for every meal because the owner allowed me to write a daily menu. Every day I wrote new Carte for lunch and for dinner. I was told to never have more than ten items on the menu, and never less than eight. I was to always serve Roast Prime Rib of Beef au jus which was a tradition that the owners had brought from Pennsylvania years before. I had to have at least one poultry dish, at least one fish dish and at least one steak. The rest of the menu was up to me. What joy! What creative liberty! I tried all sorts of preparations and strange combinations. Whenever a purveyor had a fish I’d never heard of or some new exotic fruit or vegetable I would immediately buy it and try to divine some way to put its particular characteristics in a good light.
Of course I worked my butt off. All chefs do. I took two days off per month. Most days I worked from eight thirty in the morning until closing at ten or so. On Mondays I only worked until lunch was served, then I took the evening off. I drank a lot, way too much. I drank at work all afternoon and evening and somehow no one but the bartender and my sous chef knew. I fed the bartender very well and he kept his own counsel. After lunch each day I would fill an empty plastic sour cream bucket with ice and then pour in white wine to the rim. At dinnertime I would get a refill.
So back to the hot line. Rob took two roasts out of the oven, one very rare and the other medium rare. I got all of my sauté ingredients ready in the refrigerated drawers on my end of the line. I checked the flavour of the poaching liquid for the salmon, and as we saw the first waiters head out to the dining rooms with pitchers of water I started the Hollandaise Sauce.
So we are finally getting to the point. Why did we have to tour the kitchen and hear about the night’s menu and fillet the salmon and worry about the roots of alcoholism? I think I brought you in through the kitchen door so that you get into the rhythm, so you could begin to feel the mojo of cooking. Try to feel the heat on the line from the big broiler and three ovens and eight feet of flattop. Hear the jingle of silverware, the thundershower inside the dishwasher and the conversations of the staff. Smell the ducks and the dinner rolls fresh out of the oven. And feel the energy and purpose of Saturday night in a great restaurant. The atmosphere helps a chef to cook well.
Hollandaise: Before anything else I walked over to the baker’s station and washed my hands thoroughly with soap. A good chef washes his hands all the time. Your hands are the most versatile tools in the kitchen, but they must be clean. Back on the hot line, I took out two pounds of butter from my reach-in and put them on the flat top in a saucepan on medium heat to melt. I wanted that butter to be melted and hot enough to start developing a hint of toasted flavor and aroma for when the time came to incorporate it into the egg yolks and lemon. I got out a piano wire whip, it needs to be at least 10” long and it needs to have thin wires, if possible without the wire curlicue at the round end that holds the wires together. That stupid curlicue doesn’t let your whip scrape the sides of the bowl clean. I made sure that I had a full kettle of hot water on the stove and I slid it to the hot side of the stove so that it would boil. I got out a can of cayenne pepper from under the counter and a bottle of Worcestershire sauce. I got out three lemons and a flat of eggs, then I got an empty sour cream bucket, just like my wine vessel that had recently been topped off, I set it the empty bucket on my wooden counter next to a big stainless mixing bowl and I started to separate the eggs.
We were going to put hollandaise on the fish, a bit on the lamb and also over the vegetables on some of the plates. That was going to take a lot of sauce so I figured on about ten egg yolks. My calculation is that for good taste, smoothness and holding ability, five yolks per pound of butter is about right. You will need the juice of two big lemons, if they aren’t soft, use three, as they won’t give so much juice.
The best way to separate eggs is to use your hand. You can use the shells of course, but if you are in a hurry, you can easily break a yolk and one drop of yolk in the whites will infuriate the baker tomorrow when he gets out the bucket of egg whites to make meringue. You can also use any one of the myriad ridiculous little gizmos that are sold to housewives, but why? The world’s best egg separator is right there at the end of you arm. Good grief, but people complicate things. Crack an egg into your hand that you are suspending over the receptacle that will house the whites for some other use tomorrow. Your hand should be cupped so that the egg does not slide off, yolk and all into the clean egg whites below. Then open your fingers a little bit until the white starts to slide through. As the yolk threatens to follow the white through your fingers, squeeze them shut. That will cut the hanging whites off and they will plop into the bucket. If the yolk is still accompanied by too much white, just open up your fingers again and let the rest of the egg white slide through. When all you are holding is yolk, drop it into the mixing bowl.
So I separated ten eggs in one short jiffy, rinsed off my hands, cut the lemons in half and squeezed the juice into the bowl with the yolks, carefully straining out the seeds with the same tool (my hand) that I had used to separate the yolks. I pitched the seeds in the trash and rinsed off my hands again. Then I added a couple of shakes of cayenne and about six squirts of Worcestershire. The cayenne is important, you can use Tabasco or Asian chili paste if you don’t have cayenne, but good Hollandaise needs a little spice to intensify the other, more subtle flavors. It makes a big difference and you should put in more than you are using now, enough so that people can almost notice that it’s spicy. I also added a little less than a quarter cup of cold water. The water is very important.
Before you start cooking the yolks, make sure that you have your mise en place ready. You are going to need a wet side towel to set the mixing bowl on so that you can pour butter with one hand while whipping with the other without your bowl spinning around out of control. You will need to have the butter melted, a little separated and the milk solids should be a little browned. Most recipes will tell you to use clarified unsalted butter and then they will tell you to add salt. That doesn’t make sense to me. First, you don’t want clarified butter because the milk solids, lightly browned and a little nutty add a great flavour to the sauce and second, why are you going to use unsalted butter and then add salt? I suppose it is so that you can adjust the salt perfectly, but after years as a chef and hundreds of batches of Hollandaise, I believe that the salt in the butter is just right. No adjustment needed, thank you very much. You will also need to have a kettle of boiling water at hand to fix the consistency of your sauce. If you don’t have it ready and at hand, you will ruin your sauce.
Permit me to digress again. I think that boiling water should always be on hand. You need it to peel tomatoes, you need it to fix sauces, or to blast steam through sautéing vegetables. You always need a kettle of boiling water, but in modern America we don’t know that anymore. I had the good fortune to grow up in the north woods and to live in the woods way down south in Chile where it is cold and rains all winter. In both places people still cook with wood stoves. A wood stove is without a doubt a better apparatus for cooking food than any of the gas or electric contraptions that sit incongruously and machine-like in our kitchens. A wood stove cooks like a flattop. You don’t adjust the flame; you just move your pan to the place where the temperature is what you are looking for. A kitchen with a wood stove burning is the essence of home. When you have a wood stove in the kitchen, that is where everyone congregates. In Chile the stove is always away from the wall, out towards the center of room so that there is room for a long bench with a cushion on it behind the stove. A person comes in cold and wet and sits on the bench to warm his bones. A cup of tea is produced immediately because there is always a kettle of boiling water on the stove. Get in the habit of having a kettle of water on the stove when you cook.
OK, lets get back to business. We now have ten egg yolks, lemon juice, seasonings and cold water in the stainless steel bowl. All the recipes will tell you to heat the bowl over hot water. Take all the recipes and throw them in the trash, then take the stainless bowl and put it on the cooler part of the flattop. You probably don’t have a flattop, but you probably do have a cast iron frying pan. The cast iron pan is now your wood stove, your flattop. Set it on your stove at about medium heat with nothing in it. When it gets hot you will set your stainless steel bowl on the bottom of the hot cast iron pan. The reason that I don’t like the bain-marie approach is that it heats up not only the bottom of the bowl, but the sides as well. It is hard to keep the mixture from coagulating on the sides as you whip. With the flattop – woodstove – cast iron pan method, the mixture is only heated on the bottom of the bowl.
I picked up my whip and beat the mixture before putting it on the stove for a moment and then put it on the hot surface. I started by holding the whip more or less vertically over the bowl, whipping back and forth across the bottom, making sure to clean the hot surface with the whip strokes and not let any egg yolk curdle. The rapid back and forth whipping made froth start to form on top of the mixture. That froth made the sauce light and fluffy when the yolks began to cook, so I whipped continuously while the sauce slowly heated. I whipped hard and patiently, watching as the mixture gradually got lighter in color and more watery as it got warm. After about three minutes I changed the stroke to a push stroke that also beats a lot of air into the mixture because my arm started to complain. The mixture began to thicken and I whipped rapidly in circles always being careful to clean the bottom of the bowl with each stroke. The mixture became glossy and I whipped as much air into it as I could, I slid down to a cooler part of the stove to lighten the mixture as much as possible before it cooked completely. The mixture had now expanded in volume by three or four times. It was quite glossy, lemon yellow and becoming a bit translucent and getting thick fast.
I took the bowl off of the stove and set it on the moist side towel on my cutting board. I grabbed the pan of butter in my left hand and the kettle in my right. I set the kettle down and began to slowly pour the hot butter into the sauce as I whipped. If you pour too fast you can separate the sauce, so pour steadily so that the butter incorporates quickly as you beat. I saw that the sauce was getting too stiff so I set down the butter and picked up the kettle and poured a very thin stream of boiling water into the sauce. No more than three tablespoons was whipped in when the sauce loosened and lightened considerable in color. I started with the butter again and as I got to the end, I dumped it into the bowl whipping all the time. The milky residue at the bottom of the butter pan was poured in last. I found the consistency still a little too thick so I whipped in a couple more tablespoons of boiling water. Done.
With a rubber spatula I scraped the sides of the bowl clean and set it at the back of the stove on an unlit burner, leaving the spatula in the sauce to serve it with. I took a spoon out of my drawer and tried it. It had turned out perfect, lemony, buttery, aromatic and silky.
The orders started to come in a couple at a time. I dropped a portion of salmon into the fumé, set three scallops of veal into a hot sauté pan and put one of the little lamb loins whole into a sauté pan and browned it on all sides, threw in some garlic and put it into a hot oven for two minutes. Meanwhile I turned the veal and threw a big spoonful of duxelles into the pan and shook it around. Then I pulled the pan of lamb out of the oven and back onto the stove, a little more garlic and a shot of amontillado, let it flame. A shot of cognac into the veal, let it flame as well. Another order in, a big table, so set out three more sauté pans and drop another two salmon into the poaching liquid. Rob put two ducks in the oven to finish, a couple of steaks and an order of scallops on the grill and put some asparagus in the steamer. Now add mushroom juice into the veal and a dollop of heavy cream, a shake of salt and onto the cooler part of the stove until the cream melds into the duxelles to finish the sauce. Add a handful of spinach and arugula into the pan of lamb toss a couple of times and pull the greens out with tongs and set them up on a dinner plate, drop in a sprig of fresh mint, another little splash of sherry, flame it and pour a small ladle of demiglace into the lamb pan, swirl it all around and pull it to the cooler part of the stove. Start two more pans of lamb and another veal. Turn around, pull one Prime Rib out of the steam table and slice one order medium rare, plate it and move it down to Rob. Pull out the lamb, slice the loin on an angle into five pieces that show the rare centers and set them on top of the demiglace, up right alongside the greens, garnish with mint leaves. Pull the first salmon and dry it a bit with a paper towel, plate it and finish with a dollop of hollandaise and some dill sprigs and a lemon crown. A small line of hollandaise across the greens with the lamb and down to Rob for garnishes, vegetables and starch. Turn around and start the next set.
The night went like a dance, the two of us working smooth and fast, no wasted movements at all. I downed wine like water and the food went out hot, cooked just right, beautifully presented and no one had to wait. At one point the whole flattop was covered with sauté pans. My friend the Cuban dishwasher was hustling, sweating just like us to keep up with the pans I was using. It was a magical night. Somewhere in the middle of the rush some people came back to give their complements, but we couldn’t stop, we were in the groove.
“Yeah thanks a lot” turn my back to them to attend sauté “ come back later if you like, but we’re on the cam right now”
And Rob added “That’s right, baby! Like a fine – tuned – machine” and he set two plates up under the lights.
So the night wound down, I got another bucket of wine and started to feel the buzz. Finally the last order came in and went out and we were confronted with an impressive mess. The dish station was buried and plates, glasses, bowls kept coming back.
“Now what were you saying there buttlick? Something about us getting buried tonight? Here gimme your bucket” and I filled him up with Mondavi house white.
We were both pretty well in the bag now and the cleanup looked daunting and then the people who had come back to the kitchen earlier returned, or maybe it was other people, by now I had no idea.
“I want to thank for the best meal we’ve ever had. The salmon was superb and I would love it if you could you give me the recipe for your delicious Hollandaise sauce?”
I answered probably slurring a little, “No, ma’am, I’m afraid I can’t. The recipe isn’t important, it’s the method that makes it good. I’d have to show you the method, don’t think I could write it down.”
“Well, here’s my name and number. If you have time, please write it down and give me a call, I’ll run right up here and get it.”
“OK ma’am, I’ll try to do that for you. And thanks for the compliments”
Well, twenty-five years later, I have finally finished writing the method down. Now if only I could find the matchbook with the lady’s name and phone number on it….