Every morning of her adult life, my maternal grandmother sat at the corner of her kitchen table, cracked an egg, found its yolk and made mayonnaise.
She may not have used the mayonnaise on a given day, but she made it nonetheless. So too, she never saved mayonnaise from one day to another, for mayonnaise was always to be made in the morning of each day.
She made it in a very old-fashioned way. She took a plate, one with an appreciable ridge to its edge, lay it at an angle on her lap and set the yolk there, in the rim, and smashed it with the flat of the fork, swooping up the yellow into the whole of the plate until the egg creamed and became ready for its oil.
She said the fresher the egg, the better. She said the yolk of a fresh egg was “fier” — she spoke French: the yolk sat up “proudly” – and would take up oil more efficiently than the humble yolks of older eggs.
It was best, she said, that the yolk and the oil be at room temperature (which was, in her home in rural Belgium, much less than the norm in America) and that the plate be as well.
She used a plain oil, an olive oil of medial heritage, neither too fruity nor industrially dreary. In her opinion, a good egg and a fair oil were the best amalgam. People made mayonnaise with petticoat oils, she said, and, in the end, the egg cowered under the strong flavor of the oil — and that was not right.
She seasoned her mayonnaise with lemon juice, salt and a little white pepper. No mustard, because she felt that mayonnaise was simply and beautifully the marriage of an egg’s yolk and enough oil to give it a gown.
The biggest mistake, she said, is to pour on too much oil at the beginning. It’s a natural impulse because making mayonnaise is slow business and you’ve got the yolk ready and you know it’s just an emulsion of egg and oil, so why not simply get the two of them in bed right away.
No, she sat there taking the yolk up and up again with her fork into the plane of the plate, a drip of oil, then three or four drips, then a wee stream – as patient and methodical as a turtle to its dinner – until the two became one, a jelly, a pudding, an ointment, the most delicious sauce that I loved to taste.
Typically, she used her mayonnaise to fashion what the French call “une salade a la russe” with vegetables such as diced potato, petits pois, haricots verts and julienned carrots, and wee sausages or rolled up cold cuts, all piled into cake-like arrangements for which the mayonnaise was both mortar and “frosting.”
She let the salad set up, then cut it into wedges, like slices of cake placed on leaves of lettuce. These were delicious salads, all crunch and smoosh and different flavors with every bite.
But the salient feature of my grandmother’s salads was their mayonnaise: an ever-so-slightly piquant matrimony of egg yolk and oil, waxen white and glossy, and made by hand that very day.
My Grandmother’s Homemade Mayonnaise
Makes 1/2 to 3/4 cup
- 1 large egg yolk, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 3/4 cup canola, safflower or pure olive oil (not extra virgin cold-pressed oil)
On a room temperature plate, smash and stir the egg with a fork until creamed. Add a tiny amount of oil at a time and blend. Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Contact Bill St John at email@example.com