The most traditional food associated with the Kentucky Derby is a “hot brown sandwich,” classically prepared on toasted brioche, with roasted turkey, tomatoes, bacon and an elegant Mornay sauce. Like every recipe, there are thousands of versions out there. Mine is a little bit of a twist, in that I’ve transformed it into one of my favorite brunch options—a Benedict.
Here’s something else I want to share: last week, my aunt offered to send me some of the Depression glass and vintage dishes that my grandmother owned before she passed away last summer. The dishes arrived just in time for my Kentucky Derby preview party, and that makes this all the more special to me.
Let’s Get Cooking!
Straight up, I’ll admit this is kind of a fussy recipe, not for the faint of heart in the kitchen. But if you love the journey of delivering up a photo-worthy dish, I hope you’ll pour some champagne (or a Sparkly Britches Cucumber Lemonade) and give it a try. My egg poaching skills aren’t top-notch, but I’m going to teach you an easy way to “cheat” through it for an end result that’s every bit as pretty. And don’t let the “Mornay” scare you—honestly, it’s just a fancy way to say “cheese sauce,” and it’s very easy to make. Read through the instructions before you begin. This recipe makes two individual Benedicts.
Ingredients – The Mornay
1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour
½ cup milk
2 oz. grated or shredded Gruyere cheese (or substitute Swiss)
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg (or about 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg)
Ingredients – The Benedict
1 English muffin, fork split*
2 slices bacon, cut in half
1 Roma tomato, cut crosswise into 6 slices (about 1/4” thick)
2 Tbsp. chopped sweet onion
2 oz. very thinly sliced deli turkey—about 1/3 cup packed, cut into shredded pieces
2 large free-range eggs
Snipped fresh chives for garnish
*not a fan of English muffins? Throw caution to the wind and serve this on a fluffy Southern biscuit!
Microplane (optional, for grating nutmeg)
Cheese grater (or use microplane)
Skillet for cooking bacon
Additional skillet (optional)
Spatula or turner
2 custard cups (or small teacups) for separating eggs
Small mesh strainer (optional)
Small (7”) non-stick skillet with tight (preferably glass) lid
Additional small lid for keeping eggs warm
Instructions – The Mornay
In a small saucepan, heat 1 Tbsp. salted butter until melted and bubbly at edges. Add 1 Tbsp. flour and whisk to combine. Cook until mixture changes appearance and bubbles throughout. Add milk and whisk until fully blended. Keep over medium heat until bubbling and thickened. Grate fresh nutmeg into the sauce, then add grated gruyere cheese and a pinch of salt, whisking until smooth. Turn heat to warm setting while you prepare the other items.
Instructions – The Benedict
Cook the bacon strips to desired doneness and set aside on paper towels. Load your English muffin halves into the toaster so it’s ready to go at plating time.
Pour off bacon grease and wipe skillet clean to use for the next step. Or, heat a second cast-iron pan or griddle over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add about 1 Tbsp. olive oil and add onions, tossing to caramelize. Pile the onions into the middle of the skillet, and place the tomato slices around the outside. Cook the tomatoes until both sides show signs of caramelization (those gorgeous little charred spots is what you’re going for here).
Move the tomatoes to a plate or cutting board to avoid burning them. Add the chopped deli turkey to the onions and toss to warm and caramelize the edges. Turn off the heat and set aside for plating. It’s about to get fussy in here.
If you already have a preferred way to cook poached eggs—well, you’re my new hero! Although I completely love poached eggs on any restaurant brunch menu, making them at home wears my patience pretty thin. I’m going to show you my “cheat” method of steam-poaching eggs, and it works great for me. Do what works for you.
First, turn on the heat under your tea kettle, or run some very hot tap water into a measuring cup with a pour spout. You’re going to need hot water for this process.
Crack one egg into a custard cup. Place a small mesh strainer over a second cup and gently roll the egg into the strainer, allowing some of the egg white to drain through to the extra cup. An egg white actually has two distinct parts—the firm white, which is the pretty part, and the loose and runny white, which leaves unappealing shaggy edges on a poached or fried egg. We’re getting rid of the runny white part so the egg steams more cleanly. If you don’t have a mesh strainer, or if you’re not a stickler for a pretty plate, you can skip this step. But this is a fancy-schmancy brunch dish we’re making, so I’m doing it. Besides, I can burn more calories later if I have a sink full of dirty dishes.
Discard the runny white, then do the same with the second egg, keeping each egg in its own cup.
Drop the English muffin to toast it. Whisk the Mornay. Sip champagne. Breathe.
Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Carefully pour about 1/4 cup hot water directly into the empty skillet. It will sputter and perhaps even seem to boil, and this is good! Gently slip the first egg onto the boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid. Allow the egg to cook for about 1 minute, and watch for a light film to form over the yolk. With a rubber spatula or wide spoon, gently remove the egg to a plate lined with a paper towel. Cover with another lid to keep it warm while you prepare the second egg.
Place a small spoonful of the Mornay in the center of each serving plate, to help keep the muffins from sliding around. Next, smear about 1 Tbsp. of sauce over the top of each toasted muffin half, then top each with the turkey-onion mixture, the tomato slices, a generous drape of Mornay sauce and a poached egg. Sprinkle with snipped chives and top with the cooked bacon slices, placing them cross-wise for optimal image to impress your guest.
This Benedict looks fit for a millionaire! If you listen closely, you might be able to hear Gram say, “Well, isn’t that elegant?”