WE ate dinner on the back porch four times last week -- only partly because I've been making aioli, though that probably could be considered reason enough.
Essentially, aioli is nothing more than raw garlic pounded with a little salt and a couple egg yolks into a sticky paste, with just enough olive oil beaten in to make it creamy. It is absolutely delicious, in an elemental, breathtaking sort of way that is perhaps best appreciated out of doors.
On its home turf in Provence, aioli is the quintessential summer sauce and the centerpiece of numerous street fairs which, as Richard Olney relates in "Simple French Food," often culminate in an orgiastic \o7aioli\f7 \o7monstre\f7, "the entire population turning out to pile plates high with boiled salt cod, potatoes, carrots, green beans, artichokes, chick-peas, beets, hard-boiled eggs, snails, squid stew and huge globs of garlic mayonnaise, liberally moistened with the local rose."
While everything Olney describes sounds quite delicious, there's a difference between Southern France and Southern California.
And that got me thinking: If I were to make a Californian monster aioli, what would it be like?
Delicious visions danced through my head: Meats, seafood, vegetables -- what wouldn't go well with a really good aioli?
But before I could begin playing with any monster menus, I knew that I had a chore to attend to. I had to learn to make aioli -- a really good aioli, that is.
I've been making aioli for years and every once in a while, when all the stars were in alignment, everything would work according to plan.
I'd pound the garlic to a paste in my big, Thai granite mortar and pestle. Then I'd use the pestle to smear in the egg yolks. Then I'd stir in the oil and lemon juice.
\o7Voila\f7: a golden, creamy mayonnaise, sweet and pungent from garlic and with a slight fruitiness from the olive oil.
More often, though, about halfway through the process I'd wind up with something that looked like badly scrambled eggs. The mayonnaise had broken beyond repair, the eggs and the oil separating into a greasy mess.
When that happened, the only cure was the blender: Whip up a whole egg, then slowly pour the broken mayonnaise into it. This is a sure-fire fix, almost guaranteed.
The only problem is that the high speed of the blender beats in so much air that you wind up with an aioli that is pale and fluffy rather than golden and creamy. The flavor is pretty good, but it lacks the finesse of the handmade. (The same thing can happen if you whisk too vigorously.)
MY first thought was that I must be using the wrong recipes. So I pulled out half a dozen of my most reliable cookbooks that include aioli. Then I made up a little spreadsheet and broke down the recipes into the amounts of garlic, egg, oil and lemon, then compared them.
What I found was that few of my favorite experts agree on anything.
Judy Rodgers, in "The Zuni Cafe Cookbook," makes aioli with only one or two cloves of garlic; Anne Willan, in "French Regional Cooking," uses six to eight to make the same amount of sauce.
Thomas Keller, in his "Bouchon" cookbook, uses confited garlic that has been roasted in olive oil, rather than raw. Some call for fruity olive oil, some call for mild. In the "Chez Panisse Cafe Cookbook," Alice Waters calls for a mixture.
Some add the lemon juice at the beginning, some at the end. Waters and Rodgers don't use lemon juice at all.
Because these are all very good cooks, clearly the secret to a good aioli isn't in some specific formula of ingredients. And if it isn't the ingredients, that means it must be the technique.
Suddenly, I remembered my pie crust days. I once spent an entire summer trying to learn how to make a great pie dough. Then somebody -- I believe it was Nancy Silverton, then the pastry chef at Campanile, or Kim Sklar (her assistant then, now the pastry chef at Literati II) -- pointed out that when I was rolling out the dough I was pushing down too much. If I'd keep my elbows tucked in, I'd stretch the dough rather than smash it. D'oh!
And after half a dozen tries making aioli, what I learned was similarly basic. My problem, it turned out, was not somebody else's recipe, but my own impatience. I was adding the oil too quickly.
Aioli, like mayonnaise, is an emulsion of two usually antagonistic ingredients: oil and water (from the garlic and the yolks). In creating any emulsion, the early stages are trickiest, when the union is at its most fragile.
Because of all that garlic, this is even truer of aioli than mayonnaise. While I can whip up a decent mayonnaise without much thought by beating in a thin stream of oil until it thickens, with aioli you really have to proceed a drop at a time at the beginning. This is a very shaky emulsion, and if you try to go too fast, whoops, you're back to the blender with another mess.