After nearly 120 years—or is it 150?—people still quibble about the origin of Eggs Benedict: the who, what, when, where, and why. This much is known: Eggs Benedict belongs to 19th–century New York. But who wins bragging rights for creating the dish? Which restaurant was the first to serve it? And who, pray tell, was Benedict? Not Benedict Arnold, as some have implied.
After a century of sleuthing, culinary historians still cannot name with certainty the year, or even decade, Eggs Benedict was created. Some say the early 1860s (unlikely, with the Civil War raging); others say 1894 (more plausible); and at least one respected food writer has inexplicably pushed the date into the 1920s.
Two early, elegant New York restaurants, and in particular their culinary superstars, will forever be associated with Eggs Benedict: Delmonico’s chef du cuisine Charles Ranhofer and the old Waldorf Hotel’s maître d’hôtel Oscar Tschirky. Each has been credited with refining or popularizing Eggs Benedict, if not actually creating it.
Which brings us to three different Benedicts—New Yorkers all, aristocrats all, but not, it seems, kissing kin:
Lemuel Benedict: Profiled by The New Yorker in 1942 as the creator of Eggs Benedict, “Lemmy” was a Wall Street broker by day and dashing man–about–town by night, known for his coonskin coat and hollow cane concealing a booze–filled flask. Early one 1894 morning, after a night of partying, Benedict stumbled into the Waldorf and proceeded to build an open–faced sandwich out of buttered toast, crisply browned bacon, and poached eggs, smothering the lot with hollandaise. Ever attentive, the famous Oscar of the Waldorf quickly refined the combo, substituting English muffins for toast and ham or Canadian bacon for bacon strips. In no time, Eggs Benedict was a Waldorf signature dish, and remains one to this day.
Commodore E. C. Benedict: The claim that this New York banker and yachtsman was the creator of Eggs Benedict surfaced only in 1967—by proxy and posthumously—in a letter to New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne. The letter writer? Edward P. Montgomery, an American expat living in France whose mother’s brother had been a close friend of the commodore. To substantiate his claim, Montgomery sent Claiborne a copy of the commodore’s recipe for Eggs Benedict, which had come down to him through his family. The commodore, it turns out, had died in 1920 at the age of 86.
Mrs. LeGrand Benedict: Claiborne’s 1967 Times column on Commodore Benedict as creator of Eggs Benedict drew fire from Mabel C. Butler of Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts. “The true story,” she wrote, “is well known to the relations of Mrs. LeGrand Benedict” (she herself being one of them). It seems that Mrs. Benedict and her husband were Delmonico’s regulars in the 1890s. Bored with the menu one Saturday, she asked for something different. At this point the maître d’—or perhaps Chef Ranhofer himself—stepped in and asked Mrs. Benedict what she’d like. “Poached eggs on toasted English Muffins with a thin slice of ham, hollandaise sauce, and a truffle on top.” Had she really dreamed this up, or was she, perhaps, remembering something she’d enjoyed at the Waldorf? Who can say?
So what’s fact, and what’s fiction? Does it matter, as long as we have the recipe for Eggs Benedict and can enjoy it as often as we like?
A brunch favorite for more than 100 years, Eggs Benedict has been more often ordered in restaurants than whipped up at home—mostly because the four components (English muffins, Canadian bacon, eggs, and hollandaise sauce) are prepared simultaneously. My streamlined version makes it easy for home cooks.
Makes 4 servings
Active time: 15 min
Total time: 25 mins
INGREDIENTS:8 slices fully cooked Canadian bacon
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon hot red–pepper sauce (such as Tabasco)
1 cup firmly packed thick bottled mayonnaise
4 large pasteurized eggs
2 English muffins, split, toasted, and lightly buttered
BROWN CANADIAN BACON:
- Sauté slices in vegetable oil 1 to 1 1/2 minutes on each side in a large heavy skillet over high heat.
- Remove from heat, cover, and keep warm.
- Melt butter with lemon juice and hot pepper sauce in a small nonreactive saucepan over low heat; remove from heat and keep warm.
- Have mayonnaise ready to whisk in just before serving.
- Bring 1/2 inch water to a boil in a large heavy skillet over moderately high heat.
- Meanwhile, coat four 1–cup (8–ounce) ramekins or custard cups well with nonstick cooking spray and break an egg into each one.
- When water boils, set ramekins in skillet, not touching.
- Adjust heat so water simmers gently, cover skillet, and cook eggs over low heat until whites are softly set and yolks still runny, 4 to 5 minutes.
- Return pan of melted butter mixture to low heat.
- Add mayonnaise and whisk until smooth. Don’t hold sauce more than 1 to 1 1/2 minutes—it may separate. If so, whisk hard until creamy.
ASSEMBLE EGGS BENEDICT:
- Place an English muffin half on each of 4 heated luncheon plates.
- Overlap 2 slices browned Canadian bacon on each muffin.
- Using tongs, jar lifter, or pot holders, lift ramekins to a tray or rimmed baking sheet. Carefully loosen poached eggs by running an oiled, small thin–blade spatula around edge of each ramekin.
- Tilt ramekins and gently slide poached eggs, one by one, onto Canadian bacon on muffins.
- Ladle sauce generously over each portion and serve.
- Choreography is key with Eggs Benedict. Measure all ingredients before you start and also have at hand every piece of equipment you’ll need.
- Why pasteurized eggs? Because the eggs in this recipe are only partially cooked—a bit risky with salmonella an ongoing concern. Many supermarkets and most better groceries now sell pasteurized eggs. The cartons are clearly labeled.
- In order for the poached eggs to slip easily out of their ramekins, the ramekins must be well coated with nonstick cooking spray (buttering the cups is less effective). To spritz the ramekins without spattering everything in sight, open the dishwasher, pull out the bottom rack, then hold the ramekins, one at a time, deep inside the machine, and spritz away, making certain that bottoms, sides, and rims are all well coated.
- To measure mayonnaise accurately, use a dry measure (the type you use for flour and sugar). Pack the mayo into the cup, heaping tablespoon by heaping tablespoon, then level off top with the broad side of a thin–blade spatula.
- To toast the English muffins, a broiler can be used in place of a toaster. Arrange muffin halves on a small baking sheet, set 8 to 9 inches from the broiler unit, and broil 2 1/2 to 3 minutes until lightly browned. Spread each muffin half with about 1 teaspoon softened unsalted butter.
The recipes in this story have not been tested in the Gourmet kitchens.
An award–winning food and travel journalist, Jean Anderson is a member of the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame. Her latest book, Falling off the Bone, was published by Wiley last fall.