She Taught Me About Mayonnaise & That’s No Small Thing

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

This is a story that would take pages and pages to tell properly. Instead, I’ll just pull out the most important points and hope to leave you with just a fraction of the feeling it leaves with me.

It’s about a woman named Patty. She is the one who taught me about mayonnaise. And of course, it’s a little about Julia Child…

Patty died last week, too young. Even though I hadn’t seen her in years, I’ve been flooded with clear memories of her bright spirit, particularly in the way it manifested itself in the kitchen. Patty holds a special place in my life because it was around the time I was getting really interested in food — I mean a deep interest beyond an affection for eating — that I stumbled across her one day in her kitchen making mayonnaise.

As a life-long avid mayonnaise-hater, I was skeptical. Why would someone take all this extra time and effort to make something by hand that you can get in a jar, especially when said item is such a stomach-turner? Watching her methodically whisk the sauce on her spotless white counter-top, she invited me to put a finger in to sample, and I started to understand why you should take time and effort with some things.

Patty did it the way Julia did… slow and steady. Like Julia, she got a thrill out of feeding people. It’s one of the things that made me so fond of her.

Now is the perfect time to make this sauce: slather it on a high-summer tomato BLT, top a piece of grilled fish with it, dip in your homemade french fries, or just dip a finger. Get fancy by stirring in blanched fresh herbs (Julia says this will keep them from souring the mayo, and of course brighten the color.)

In honor of Patty, whose brightness lured me into her kitchen and got me to start using mine more, here is Julia’s method for mayonnaise. May your journey be peaceful, dear Patty. Thank you, and your muse Julia, for giving me this petite yet vital gift.

Hand-beaten Mayonnaise
makes 2-2 3/4 cups
Adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck (Knopf, 1961)

You’ll need a round-bottomed, 2 1/2 to 3-quart glazed pottery, glass or stainless steel mixing bowl. Set it in a heavy casserole or saucepan to keep it from slipping. You’ll also need a large metal wire whisk.

3 egg yolks
1 tablespoon wine vinegar or lemon juice (more drops as needed)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon dry or prepared mustard
1 1/2 – 2 1/4 cups of olive oil, salad oil or a mixture of each. If the oil is cold, heat it to tepid; and if you are a novice, use the minimum amount
2 tablespoons boiling water

Warm the bowl in hot water; dry it. Add the egg yolks and beat for 1 to 2 minutes until they are thick and sticky.

Add the vinegar or lemon juice, salt and mustard. Beat for 30 seconds more.

The egg yolks are now ready to receive the oil. While it goes in, drop by drop, you must not stop beating until the sauce has thickened. A speed of 2 strokes per second is fast enough. You can switch hands or switch directions, as long as you beat constantly.

Add the drops of oil with a teaspoon, or rest the lip of the bottle on the edge of the bowl. Keep your eye on the oil rather than on the sauce. Stop pouring and continue beating every 10 seconds or so, to be sure the egg yolks are absorbing the oil.

After 1/3 to 1/2 cup of oil has been incorporated, the sauce will thicken into a very heavy cream and the crisis of potential curdling is over. The beating arm may rest a moment. Then, beat in the remaining oil by 1 to 2 tablespoon dollops, blending it thoroughly after each addition.

When the sauce becomes too thick and stiff, beat in drops of vinegar or lemon juice to thin it out. Then continue with the oil.

Beat the boiling water into the sauce. This is an anti-curdling insurance. Season to taste.

If the sauce is not used immediately, scrape it into a small bowl and cover it tightly so a skin will not form on its surface.

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