October 13, 2009

Out of desperation...

I made my own mayonnaise not because I wanted to broaden my culinary horizon. I made it because I was desperate.

When I was living in the United States, mayo was another staple in the kitchen. There was always a store-bought jar in the fridge. I love mayo on bread, either as a solo spread or as the key element to a satisfyingly toothsome turkey sandwich. Mayo was very affordable, ubiquitous and available in many different brands, making it easy to be taken for granted.

But when I went back to live in Jakarta in early 2008, it was a different story. I was happy to find at least one American brand of mayo (Kraft) in some supermarkets (though not a single sighting of my favorite: Best Foods/Hellmann's). Then about the middle of the year, I found out even that had completely disappeared from the stores. I searched everywhere. Even the most 'exclusive' chains of supermarkets that specialize in imported goods didn't have it. I heard something about the Indonesian government passing a ban on certain kinds of imported foods (another 'victim' was the good ol' Oscar Meyer bacon... *hiks*). The only mayo available here now are the domestic brands, plus a few imported ones from Japan and Korea. I found them to be artificial tasting, cloyingly sweet and/or tart and thin textured (apparently this is the type of mayo that Indonesians/Asians prefer).

I couldn't stand them. At this point I can no longer just 'go buy' the mayo of my preference in any store!

So out of reach now...

I had read and watched from many different sources that homemade mayonnaise was (supposedly) easy to make and its taste was superior than any store-bought stuff. But somehow the prospect of making my own mayo seemed so intimidating. There's no 'in-between' results: you either end up with a deliciously creamy concoction, or just a runny, 'broken' mess.

Mayonnaise is basically an emulsion of ingredients easily found in any kitchen: egg yolks, cooking oil, lemon juice/vinegar, salt. You can vary the flavors by adding seasonings such as garlic, herbs, white wine, mustards, etc.

I settled on using Michael Ruhlman's mayo recipe because I already had all the ingredients and also because he's one of my favorite food writers (the 'trust' factor is important to me :) ). In place of the stated vegetable oil, I used palm oil (the most common cooking oil in Indonesia and the only one I had at hand, and it's 'vegetable', right?). Well, this proved to be a significant factor, but more on that later. Most of the other recipes require mustard or white wine, I had neither one and I didn't want to buy a jar/bottle just to use a few tablespoons of each. And because I was still a bit spooked by the hand-whipping technique, I decided to use the immersion/stick blender, 'learning' how to do it via (what else?) a YouTube video.

It looked simple enough in the video: dump all the ingredients in a tall container, dip the blender to the bottom, whip it up and voilà: mayo in under one minute!

Not in my case. I whipped and whipped, but it just wasn't happening. It never changed from a runny, 'broken' mess. (I tweeted Ruhlman about using a stick blender for his recipe, he actually answered me back and said there shouldn't be a problem. I'm not sure what went wrong, maybe the container wasn't narrow enough? Too much oil?)

Not accepting defeat, several hours later I decided to try again. This time I faced my 'fear' and did it manually: a balloon whisk powered by my arm. (The photos that accompanied the recipe on Ruhlman's blog egged me on. Ha.). Starting with the yolk, lemon juice and salt, I whipped as fast as I could, then added the oil bit by bit. And less than 10 minutes later, I successfully whipped up my first ever batch of homemade mayo! It was thick, smooth and creamy, with just enough tang from the lemon juice.

My (slightly) sore arm was worth it.

I immediately smeared some on a piece of bread and savored every bite. Finally.

I stored the rest in the fridge as I eagerly looked forward to enjoy my mayo for many more days ahead.

But the next morning when I took it out, what greeted me was a sad, solid lump. Just like cold butter. I tried spreading it on bread, but the thawed mayo just separated into a yucky, oily smear.

Okay, remember the palm oil? I suspected it was the culprit and after I did some Googling, my suspicion was confirmed: palm oil solidifies in the fridge, thus mayo made from it will also. (I never stored palm oil in the fridge, I didn't know it would congeal like that!).

Anyway, I'm not too disappointed because I gained a new culinary technique (and confidence) out of this. Next time I'll make sure to use the right oil(s), and maybe try to make some aïoli... mmmmm....

PS: Just as I was finishing this post, this article on Serious Eats caught my attention: mayo from animal fat! Baconnaise, anyone? (Ahhh, but I have to find great bacon first! It's not an easy task here ... Or should I make my own bacon? Maybe I'll tweet Ruhlman again, this time for tips on curing bacon in the humid tropics...).

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