When you make a basic Hollandaise, but add the flavors of fresh tarragon, shallot, tarragon vinegar, a pinch of black pepper and maybe even a bit of spicy cayenne pepper, the sauce turns from rich-but-tame to rich-but- piquant.
Béarnaise sauce is often used as a topping for filet mignon or grilled lamb. But, it's also delicious and decadent on top of poached eggs. Use in place of Hollandaise for eggs Benedict, for instance. Or, put it on poached or roasted salmon or sliced duck breast.
The recipe that follows is adapted from French chef Anne Willan's recipe for Hollandaise sauce, in her book "Cook it Right" (Reader's Digest, $29.95).
1 cup butter (2 sticks)
1/2 cup tarragon vinegar or white wine vinegar (or mixture of the two)
1 tablespoon fresh chopped tarragon plus 1 teaspoon, divided use
2 teaspoons minced fresh shallot
4 egg yolks
Pinch black pepper
Juice of half a lemon
Pinch red (cayenne) pepper, if desired
Put butter in a small, heavy-bottomed pan to melt on the stove slowly. Skim off the white foam that collects on top and discard.
In another small pan put the tarragon vinegar, 1 tablespoon of the fresh chopped tarragon and the shallot. Turn the heat on medium-low and let the liquid reduce by about half. Strain this mixture, reserving 4 tablespoons of the seasoned vinegar. If you don't have 4 tablespoons of liquid, add some water to it.
Set the melted, clarified butter off to the side of the stove and put a ladle into it. Next to the butter, on the counter, put a thick dishtowel.
Put a pan of water on the stove and bring to a simmer.
In a steel bowl that will fit just a little ways down into the pot of water, whisk together the 4 egg yolks with the 4 tablespoons of the tarragon vinegar liquid until the eggs are frothy and light in color. Now, put the bowl over the simmering water in the pot, and whisk vigorously to form a mousse that is creamy and thick enough to hold a ribbon train for 3 seconds. Just 3-4 minutes or so, no more. Don't let the bottom of the bowl touch the hot water, or the eggs will cook too quickly.
When the eggs are thick, but not curdling, take the bowl off the water bath and put it on the dishtowel to steady it while you whisk in the butter. Pour the butter in with the ladle, slowly, a little at a time, whisking the sauce as you go. When the sauce is incorporated into the eggs, add the lemon juice along with the rest of the chopped fresh chopped tarragon and pinch of cayenne, if you wish, and whisk some more.
Set aside in a warm place for a few minutes, but use as soon as you can.
Makes 1 1/2 cups sauce.
Adapted from Anne Willan, "Cook it Right"