Everything you need to know about the wd~50 Eggs Benedict.
The New York City restaurant synonymous with trailblazing and boundary-pushing cuisine wd~50 closed its doors on November 30, 2014 after 11 remarkable years. In looking back through the catalog of remarkable dishes served at wd~50, the Eggs Benedict stands out as one of chef/owner Wylie Dufresne's best-known.
Dufresne doesn't quite remember the exact moment he added the dish to the menu — he thinks it was 2005 "or thereabout" — and he doesn't remember the first night he served it, but he does remember the response. "It was very quickly well-received," he recalls. "It took off — I don't want to say like wildfire. It became a very popular dish very quickly, and then it became an iconic dish and we left it on the menu. We took it off briefly, which was wd~50's style to keep moving forward, and there was a public outcry." Dufresne has often referred to the dish as wd~50's "Stairway to Heaven." "It's the song people come to hear."
"There's nobody you can call and say, 'So can you maybe send me your formula for frying Hollandaise?'"
It's not just for its popularity that the dish stands out amongst the many that wd~50 produced. The Eggs Benedict is also a study in the wd~50 creative process. The first glimmers of the dish could be found in the famous pickled beef tongue that was served with fried mayonnaise. From frying mayonnaise came the inspiration to solve the challenge of frying Hollandaise sauce. "There's nobody you can call and say, 'So can you maybe send me your formula for frying Hollandaise?' because to the best of my knowledge it didn't exist before we did it." Dufresne estimates that it took about three months of research, with steps, variables, and results of each experiment thoroughly recorded to get the fried Hollandaise recipe right. Dufresne says this research process was typical of dish development at his restaurant. But there wasn't an end goal yet. "We spent so much time trying to figure out how to fry the Hollandaise, we were not thinking exactly about what we would do with it."
Dufresne's team had also been working on cooking eggs and egg yolks in plastic sleeves. It's no secret that Dufresne loves eggs, and there was often an egg dish on the wd~50 menu. They had the Hollandaise. They had the eggs. They could figure out the English muffins and the bacon. And so, the wd~50 Eggs Benedict was born. Like so many other dishes at wd~50, it was a surprising twist on something familiar, a classic made new in spirit and technique. "We were able to bring together a dish that doesn't necessarily look like the Eggs Benedict of your youth, but it can certainly, we believe, tap the same memories."
Below, the elements of the wd~50 Eggs Benedict:
1. The Egg yolk
Perhaps the most easily identifiable components of wd~50's take on Eggs Benedict are the egg yolks. Dufresne explains that wd~50 bought its eggs from New York state-based Knoll Krest Farm via the Union Square Greenmarket. "We like their egg," he explains. "It's a good egg, it's large." It's also extremely consistent, which was important to Dufresne when his restaurant was going through as many as four cases with 30 dozen eggs per case a week at times.
The execution is where things get a bit more intricate, and Dufresne says that it took some "playing around with the sleeves to create the fudgey, cheesey-type texture" he was ultimately aiming for. Put simply, the process "is kind of like an icy pop sleeve from your childhood, filled with egg yolks that are seasoned with salt and cayenne that are cooked at a specific temperature for a specific amount of time." Here's what Dufresne is talking about: A cook fills a plastic sleeve with seasoned egg yolk. (The sleeves are cut in house, so it requires precision.) After storing the sleeve vertically overnight to allow for air to rise to the top of the sleeve and out of the yolk, the sleeves are cooked standing up in a water bath. The cook time and cook temperature dictate the final texture. After the yolks are finished cooking, they are cooled down and portioned.
2. the bacon
As with a traditional Eggs Benedict, Dufresne's version offers bacon. But of course, this isn't the bacon of your local diner. The members of the wd~50 team would spend several days (at least two) creating Canadian bacon wisps. They'd start with Canadian bacon produced by Schaller & Webber that Dufresne would buy from New York City's fames butcher Pat LaFrieda. The bacon would get frozen, sliced, and baked. It might sound easy, but as Dufresne says: "That's a lot of prep ... It's highly labor intensive."
3. The hollandaise
An icon in its own right, the fried Hollandaise cube is the pièce de résistance of wd~50's Eggs Benedict. It picks up where Dufresne's equally-famous fried mayonnaise left off. But while the fried mayonnaise was eggless, Dufresne and his team had to figure out how to get eggs back into the picture. "I don't think of eggs as being fundamental to the flavor of mayonnaise," says Dufresne, "but they are to Hollandaise." There were two key questions that Dufresne needed to answer in his technique: How do you come up with a way to portion the Hollandaise and how can you make the sauce withstand the "violent environs of a fryer"?
Dufresne explains that the answer to the first question was adding gelatin — you could add gelatin so that when the sauce cooled down it could be portioned. But the second question needed more research. "We looked at other high-heated egg sauces, and we noticed pastry cream — egg, sugar, butter, cornstarch — that was brought to a boil for several minutes. So how can you boil it for so long without it curdling or scrambling?Dufresne found the answer in the starch. "[The starch] acts like a down jacket that protects the yolk from the severe heat," Dufresne explains before quickly correcting himself. "That's an oversimplified explanation." From there, the team "worked backwards," putting starch and another gum with high heat tolerance into the mix. "Other than that it's a straightforward Hollandaise," with eggs, butter, lemon juice, salt, and cayenne. But also: gelatin, Hexaphosphate, citric acid, gellan gum, and modified starch.
After the sauce is made and sets, it is chilled for at least eight hours or overnight. The next day, it is portioned. "We have fried things in cubes, historically," says Dufresene of his decision to cut the Hollandaise in that shape. "We tried bars of Hollandaise, we tried different shapes, but it ultimately seemed like the cube was the right shape." And not just for the looks: "It's also the most efficient. There's very little waste." The Hollandaise cubes are then breaded. But again, there's a twist.
Traditional Eggs Benedict comes served atop an English muffin, and Dufresne's take transforms that muffin from a base to a crumb. He uses classic Thomas' brand English muffins, though he had experimented with making his own. "We messed with it briefly, but I think that's one of things somebody else invariably does better so let's let them do that ... I think it would be kind of silly to make your own English muffin and then dry it and grind it into a powder. That seems like a lot of work when you're not going to be able to see the difference, ultimately, between your English muffin and Thomas'." It's a matter of being inefficient, says Dufresne, who isn't writing off trying to make his own again if there's a dish where it will be a more prominently featured ingredient. After the cubes are breaded in flour and Thomas' English muffin crumbs, they go into the deep fryer and are fried in canola oil to order.
4. the plating
"We realized that the components we had were never going to look like a traditional Eggs Benedict, so we were just trying to have a little bit of fun," says Dufresne of the way the finished dish looks. When it comes to plating, he says "wd~50 has a history of dragging and schmearing things around the plate, and the yolks are supremely spreadable so we felt that we should emphasize that."
A unique feature of the yolks, spreadable as they are, is that they also have what Dufresne calls "sharp corners." "The idea that you could see something that has a very sharp corner and then when you go to touch it it's incredibly soft is a fun play there." The plating is all about textures and temperatures, with three pieces of yolk (warmed in a low oven), cubes of freshly-fried Hollandaise, and wisps of Canadian bacon. The final touch: a sprinkle of black sea salt and chive points. Dufresne says: "I don't know what Eggs Benedict means for a given individual, but my hope and belief is when you eat this dish you can be transported, reminded of your personal Eggs Benedict moment."