Usually when I see eggs Benedict on a menu my eye skips to the next item. Brunch is where clichés go to molder, and this is one of the weariest: a dish allegedly invented to alleviate a hangover, inevitably hash-slung by cooks battling their own hangovers.
At its most traditional it's uninspiring; taken to poorly executed extremes it can induce what the French describe as crise de foie, that singular liver stress brought on by the likes of a stick of butter converted into hollandaise atop poached eggs on bacon on a buttered English muffin. To put it more concisely: boring, with fries.
So when I saw the phrase "Irish Benedict" on a menu recently, followed by "corned beef/Swiss/poached egg/Thousand Island hollandaise," I had to order it. An obvious knockoff of a Reuben sandwich would surely involve not just creativity, but acidity to counter the richness. And it convinced me that eggs Benedict is one classic made to be reinterpreted at home. Swap in chorizo and lime hollandaise, or cremini mushrooms and red pepper hollandaise, and it's a whole new brunch.
Since my happy encounter with the Irish in Pittsburgh, at a restaurant called Meat & Potatoes, I've been seeing all manner of variations. Richard Deshantz, the chef there, said he has developed no fewer than 30 of them, always taking "old familiar things people can relate to and reinventing them."
But his riff on a Reuben became the menu standby.
Another restaurant in the same city offered a slow-roasted pork Benedict, a smoked salmon Benedict and a soy sausage Benedict, covering every base for carnivores and vegetarians and anyone in between.
I've since come across versions online made with crab cakes, with pork belly, with spinach and tomato, even with steak, and with hollandaise alternatives including an over-the-top sausage gravy.
The muffin is not always a muffin, English or otherwise; a potato pancake might pop up.
A recent Forbes.com list reminded me you can go too far with eggs Benedict.
This is where a home kitchen is best at inspiring and reining in a cook.
Eggs Benedict is almost kitchen Legos; there are so many ways to put it together yourself. The hollandaise is crucial, but the only tricky part is making it and not breaking it.
I'm the timid type, so I do it in an improvised double-boiler, with a stainless-steel bowl set over barely bubbling water in a saucepan. It's a matter of blending a room-temperature egg yolk with lemon or lime juice until the egg starts to cook, then whisking in melted butter off the heat until the sauce emulsifies.
Most recipes yield oceans of hollandaise, but it's possible to whip up enough for a mere two or four servings.
For my knockoff of the Irish/Reuben Benedict, I added ketchup, Sriracha sauce, Worcestershire sauce, mustard and relish. For a meaty yet meatless mushroom Benedict, I mixed in diced, roasted red pepper.
As the base for any Benedict, an English muffin does an ideal job of capturing oozy eggs and buttery sauce. But you can make nice, absorbent corn muffins or biscuits fast from scratch. For the Reuben, though, rye bread is key against the corned beef and Swiss.
And then there are the all-important poached eggs. The technique is straightforward: Add about 3 inches of water to a saucepan or skillet and bring it to a boil. Pour in half a teaspoon or so of cider vinegar or white vinegar; this helps quickly firm up the egg white. Reduce the heat so the water is barely bubbling. Gently break fresh eggs into individual teacups, custard cups or ramekins to make them easier to handle.
Water that's moving a bit makes eggs cook better, so I swirl it a couple of times with a wooden spoon. Then hold the side of each egg container as close as possible to the surface of the water and slide the egg in.
Use the spoon to "shape" the white around the yolk. Cook two to four minutes, depending on how runny you like your yolks. Remove with a slotted spoon onto a paper towel.
The eggs may look a little sloppy around the edges, but any threads can be trimmed before serving. Or you can hope the hollandaise hides all sins.