Most of my childhood memories are firmly tied to a yellow house built in the beginning of twentieth century in the Central European style. It had a double set of marble stairs flanked by a smooth stone handrail and a decorative balustrade. The two porches atop the stairs were connected with a big concrete slab supporting an ornate wrought iron fence that reflected in the living room windows on the other side. The fence was dotted with ceramic pots holding geraniums and azaleas, while the cacti and other green plants sat atop the concrete slab.
We spent interminable hours playing in the yard without any adult supervision. We really could not wander off as the black wrought iron gate was always locked (the mechanism was easy enough for adults to manipulate open, but extremely hard for small, weak fingers). There was a swing suspended from the branch of an old mulberry tree, a couple of lush hydrangea bushes, and a row of elegant roses that Deda Ljubo tended to patiently and lovingly.
The grassy part of the courtyard looked over at the boarding house for the local high school students from out of town and we often saw faces framed by the window looking over at the yard. For some reason, we imagined they were kept there against their will, and often plotted rescue missions, faced by their imploring, and, as it appeared to us, incredibly sad glances. In retrospect, they were probably just homesick kids who missed their families, their siblings, and their yards, and envied our protected little world.
As the oldest and best acquainted with the intricate plots of adventure and action books, I was the fearless leader of our group, always ready to tackle a project, especially if it involved saving someone or something. (This trait would bring Mother numerous hours of anguish as I continued to drag home abandoned kittens, dirty puppies, and birdies still unable to fly that I collected on my meandering way back from school.) I went as far as suggesting a regular feeding schedule for the poor, emaciated souls next door, but our culinary prowess did not prove adequate for such an endeavor.
But we did try. Cooking, that is. We gathered mulberries from the grass and pulled walnuts through the hole in the sack. (The sack was purposely hung above the cellar stairs to allow the breeze to dry out the walnuts still in their shells, and we poked a hole in the burlap to get to the nuts.) There were some dandelion leaves and clover in the grass, but that was the extent of the fresh ingredients we managed to forage. Dissatisfied with the bounty found in nature, I organized forays into the enemy territory which was clearly marked by the two sets of marbled stairs. There were no guards anywhere in sight, but I knew that the hallways were rigged with booby traps and protected by hostile giants.
There are three sisters or three brothers in almost every Serbian fairy tale, and the youngest was always the most courageous. Fitting the stereotype and also being the token male and therefore a protected species, my brother was the usual emissary, the spy, or the thief sent into the great unknown that was the House. Armed only with his innocent, big, dark brown eyes, he braved the immense sprawl of our family home, hiding plastic containers in primary colors behind his back. Left outside, my sister and I were unable to monitor his progress, and the time he spent inside went on forever.
But eventually he emerged, sending us his snaggletoothed smile and offering the loot: salt, flour, sugar, bread crumbs, finely ground Turkish coffee, a few bay leaves, or a vanilla bean, whatever he could reach or swipe from the counter and cram into the dirty plastic containers. On many occasions he left a veritable Hansel and Gretel trail behind, when the corn meal or sugar trickled down from a hole in the cup, but we knew that he would get off easily if caught, exploiting trembling lips and teary eyes as his best defense.
When I look back, our first attempts at cooking were very avant-guarde, always raw and vegan, albeit disgusting and unsanitary. But in our romanticized world, those inedible and dangerous pasty concoctions became golden brown pastries filled with juicy fruits and toasted nuts, filling our lungs with the glorious aroma of exotic vanilla and heady rum, or huge platters of roasted meats with crispy skin, surrounded by sweet carrots and buttery potatoes. We imagined feeding the droves of starving waifs next door and receiving in return not only their eternal gratitude but their souls, all in sync with the fairy tale themes.
The yellow house is no more. The city planners decided that an apartment building would serve the community much better than two houses built at the turn of the century and demolished it, after offering our grandparents another house in exchange. The boarding house is still there, but the kids from the neighborhood play somewhere else, unable to see sad faces framed by the windows. The three of us left the fairy tale world a long time ago, eager to embrace the reality of adulthood, leaving behind the magic we didn’t know we would miss. Being an adult is not an easy job, as the blinking and tearing of big, innocent brown eyes cannot always bring merciful results or absolve you of your wrong-doings.
But the three of us continued to cook and feed our families real food, delicious and nurturing, swapping the fairy dust for earthy ingredients, resigned to receive an occasional grunt instead of eternal gratitude from our not so emaciated subjects. Food is a big part of our lives and our games revolve around kitchen appliances, stoves, and grills, where our imagination can run (almost) as wild as it did back then when we fancied ourselves the savior brigade.
(As it happens from time to time, my words escaped and took off on their own. Instead of shepherding them back into the pen, I let them fly freely, curious to see where they would land. The story has nothing whatsoever to do with making mayonnaise, but it was there, newly hatched, bright and glimmering, begging to be read.)
We never had store-bought mayo when we were children. Making it was such a simple process that it could be done any time, at a moment’s notice, without any preparation. In college I started buying Thomy, a German mayo that came in tubes, and had a wonderful, lemony taste to it. This recipe will give you slightly more than a cup of beautiful, creamy mayonnaise bursting with flavors of Dijon mustard and lemon, taking less than ten minutes of your time and utilizing the ingredients that you probably have available at any given moment.
HOME MADE MAYONNAISE
- 1 egg yolk*
- 1 tsp Dijon mustard (or any mustard that you like and have available)
- ½ tsp coarse salt
- 1 tsp lemon juice
- a pinch of sugar (optional)
- 250 ml (a smidge more than 1 cup) neutral oil (I use sunflower oil as it has no aftertaste); oil should be in an easy to pour vessel with a spout
Place the egg yolk, mustard, salt, lemon juice and sugar (if using) in a big coffee mug or a mason jar. Attach only one whisk to your hand-held mixer and start mixing on medium speed, until it comes together, about 30 seconds. Increase the speed to high and trickle in some oil. When it incorporates, add some more, making sure that itâ€™s added slowly, in a very thin stream. Proceed until all of the oil is used and your mayo is thick and almost gelatinous.
Keep your mayonnaise covered in the fridge up to a week (in our house it never lasts that long).
Just in case it brakes (and sooner or later it happens to everyone, as we know that eggs and emulsions are fickle), there are a few simple methods that will turn the curdled mess into a smooth, creamy mayo. If you rush with addition of the oil, your chances of curdling are much higher, so I must advocate patience.
The first option is to add a few drops of really hot water. If that does not pull it together, beat an egg yolk in another bowl and add a bit of your broken mayonnaise. Mix it as if you were tempering it. Add the rest of the mayo and it should revert to its glorious, shiny self.
Last year at this time: Make-Ahead Cinnamon Rolls (while dreaming of a red Vespa)