Every morning of her adult life, my mother’s mother 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 the other, for mayonnaise always was something to be made in the morning of each day.
She made mayonnaise in a very old fashioned way, using no machine, only her arm and a fork. She took a plate, one with an appreciable ridge to its edge, laid 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’s best, she said, that the yolk and the oil be at room temperature (which was, in her home in rural Belgium, much cooler than the norm hereabouts) and that the plate be also.
As for oil, my grandmother used a plain oil, an olive oil of medial heritage, neither too fruity, nor industrially dreary. In her opinion, a fresh egg and a fair oil made the best marriage. People prepared 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, that’s all—well, salt and a little white pepper; no mustard or vinegar—because she felt that mayonnaise was simply and beautifully the amalgam of an egg’s yolk and enough oil to give it a gown.
After she had creamed the yolk, she took her oil jug—it was like a miniature version of the one in The Wizard of Oz, shiny pewter with a long neck—and let drip a few drops onto the plate. At first, only a few drops.
Biggest mistake to make, she said, is to pour on too much oil at the beginning. It is a natural impulse, sure, 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, the yolk dripped with 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 à la russe, vegetables such as diced potato, petits pois, haricots verts, 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, and placed them 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.
Whole poached salmon with cucumber “scales”
This recipe for an entire slow-poached salmon comes from the UK’s BBC food site and is by The Hairy Bikers, “David Myers and Simon King, two northern blokes with a passion for cooking and food.” Half of its appeal is its presentation, with thin slices of cucumber acting as “scales” and piped-on mayonnaise, made according to my grandmother’s very simple mayonnaise recipe. Serves 8-10
1 5-6 pound whole salmon, scaled and gutted
1 lemon, halved
2 teaspoons black peppercorns
2 bay leaves
2 cucumbers A few handfuls salad leaves
Mayonnaise, for piping
Place the salmon into a large roasting tin or a fish kettle and cover with water. Squeeze in the lemon juice and add the rinds to the tin, then add the peppercorns and bay leaves. Bring to the boil, then remove from the heat immediately. Set aside for the salmon to slowly poach in the residual heat for about 30 minutes, or until cooked through (the flesh should be opaque all the way through).
Using a fish slice (the British term for a large spatula, with slots or holes; two spatulas better than one), carefully remove the salmon from the tin and place onto a large serving platter. Remove the skin from the presentation side, from behind the gills to the tail.
Thinly slice the cucumbers, then halve each slice into little semi-circles. Layer the cucumber slices over the exposed salmon flesh in a pattern to mimic fish scales. Surround the salmon with salad leaves. To serve, pipe the mayonnaise over and around the salmon as desired.
Bill St. John has written and taught about restaurants, food, cooking and wine for more than 40 years, locally for Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post and KCNC-TV Channel 4, nationally for Chicago Tribune Newspapers and Wine & Spirits magazine. The Denver native lives in his hometown. Contact Bill at [email protected]