How making Hollandaise is like writing

Reading time: Less than 3 minutes

Does writing scare you? Maybe the problem is you don’t have a system for writing. I faced the same challenge with Hollandaise sauce, recently….

Cooking doesn’t usually scare me. I’ve made soufflé, mousse, bread without a machine and turkey dinner for 22 without turning a hair grey. But for some reason, hollandaise sauce has always intimidated me.

Maybe it was the stories of what could go wrong— curdling, splitting or being too thin. Perhaps it was the risk of salmonella poisoning in the so-called “easy” versions. Or maybe it was the thought of all that butter. But I’d never even tried Hollandaise, and it was starting to bug me.

When my kids recently celebrated their 20th birthday and we couldn’t do dinner (my opera-singing son was neck-deep in evening rehearsals), we decided on lunch. And I vowed to produce Eggs Florentine. With real hollandaise — not the Mornay sauce I typically make. So how did it go?

Making Hollandaise is a lot like writing, it turns out. Here’s how:

1)   Make a plan: My audience? That, at least, was straightforward: my children and some extended family. My goal? A sauce that wasn’t going to curdle or poison.

2)   Research: I watched a YouTube video. This scared me more than it helped so I decided to consult my favourite cookbook in the entire world: CookWise by Shirley O. Corriher.  A biochemist who believes that scientific insights can be applied to traditional cooking, Corriher has had the distinction of problem-solving for the late Julia Child. That said, she never lets science get in the way of cooking and I appreciated that her recipe didn’t require me to balance a thermometer in a double boiler while whisking!

3)  Think and re-think: I couldn’t do a mindmap for a recipe, but I did think about whether I really wanted to stress myself out by making hollandaise in front of six other people in our open-concept house. Ultimately, I decided I would be unhappier if I didn’t give it a try. (This, for me, is a surprisingly helpful way of making decisions. Failing is almost never as bad as failing to try. Think of this the next time you’re procrastinating about writing.)

4)  Find your lede (beginning): This was way easier than writing, actually. All I had to do was put a pot of water on the stove to simmer and set the butter to melt in the microwave. Corriher’s recipe did not call for the butter to be clarified.

5)  Write/cook: I placed the eggs, salt and lemon juice in the bowl and then put the bowl on top of the pot of boiling water, ensuring the water didn’t touch the bottom of the bowl. Then I started whisking in the melted butter, my arm operating with the speed of Lance Armstrong’s cycle wheels, only no steroids. As soon as the sauce started to thicken, I removed the bowl from the pot and threw in four ice-cubes (into the pot — not the egg mixture!) as per Corriher’s instructions. At this point I could see the sauce threatening to separate so I whipped harder and more furiously. In the end, I didn’t need to return it to the pot.

6)   Let it incubate: The sauce sat for about eight minutes while I poached 14 eggs.

7)   Revise: I tasted the sauce and added a little more salt and a dash of Tabasco sauce.

8)   Copy edit: When I served the sauce on the eggs, I added a sprinkling of fresh chives to make it look pretty.

The verdict? Success! Still, I know how easily it could all have gone wrong. Just like writing, cooking depends on doing a specific number of steps — and doing them in the right order. These same steps are all presented in my book, 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better, along with detailed  guidelines on how succeed with each one. And while I may not be able to teach you how to make a perfect Hollandaise, I can certainly show you how to write an article about one. Or about almost anything else.

PS: If you were wondering about the mysterious half step, it’s reading — something all writers should do every day.

Do you have any tasks you do that follow the same orderly progression as writing? What do they teach you? We can all help each other so please share your thoughts with my readers and me. If you comment on my blog by April 30, 2014 I’ll put your name in a draw for a copy of the autobiography Open by Andre Agassi. (I’m not even interested in tennis and I loved this book!) If you don’t see the comments box, click here and then scroll to the end.

(Thanks to Casey Hibbard for suggesting I turn this story into a post.)