To me, the best egg salad is a refined egg salad. In the realm of protein-“salad” fillings, chunky is fine with chicken, turkey, lobster or even tuna. But with egg salad, chunky seems clunky to me. A lightly-textured egg salad, on the other hand–one made with ultra-smooth whipped yolks, riced hard-cooked whites, home-made mayonnaise, very-finely minced herbs & pickle, and home-baked pain de mie bread—now that is a thing of beauty.
I imagine my preferences were borne of good memories of refreshments at countless Ladies Aid functions (I was a churchy kid,) plus innumerable engagement parties, birthdays and baby showers all including some form of egg-filled finger sandwiches, deviled eggs, or both. These snacks were served a lot because eggs are both economical, and stretchy—a little bit goes a long way. Anyway, after some hundred bite-sized snacks or so, the line between deviled egg and finger sandwich sort of blurred for me. With both, it was the smooth, tangy/spicy/piquant yolk filling that drew me, not the bland, bald-slipperiness of flabby whites.
With that in mind, figuring out how to make the perfect egg salad sandwich meant coming up with the right ingredient combination for that yolk mash, and then putting it together with the best ratio of finely-chopped egg white, best bread and best contrast-providing vegetables. My research was a combination of gut instinct, and vintage-cookbook diving. About 150 cookbooks later, I learned a few things. Historically, egg salad morphed over the decades from an actual salad of sliced, hard-cooked eggs and other ingredients, dressed and served over watercress, tomato or greens, to become a popular picnic food, piped into hard cooked eggs and wrapped bon-bon like in twists of waxed paper, or, spread on bread as a sandwich.
While egg-salad works on a variety of breads, white bread—especially pain de mie, is optimal. This beautiful soft-textured, fine-grained white bread baked in a square, Pullman pan goes back to the early 18th century Europe when it was the bread of choice for everything from croutons, and canapes, to sandwiches and toast served with tea. In America its square shape (no dome to the bread) made it a tea-sandwich favorite, easy to trim & shape for hors d’oeuvres and finger sandwiches. As the vehicle for a lightly-seasoned, herby egg spread, it’s also perfect because it doesn’t overwhelm the simplicity of the filling.
So about those fillings! To begin, you’ll probably have to unlearn how you’ve typically hard cooked eggs. I say “hard cooked” rather than “hard boiled,” because you shouldn’t actually boil the eggs to doneness. Boiling the eggs will discolor the yolks (that icky greenish gray thing) and will give them that unpleasant sulfurous smell. Instead? Place the uncooked eggs in their shells in a heavy-gauge pot and fill it with 2 quarts of water. Heat the water until it just begins to boil. Immediately remove the pan from heat, cover and allow the eggs to sit in the water for 11 minutes. Drain water, then cover the eggs with very cold water. One more method is to heat 2 quarts water to a rolling boil over high heat. Place eggs in a steamer basket. Reduce heat to medium low. Place steamer basket over the hot water, cover and cook for 13 minutes. Remove from heat. Drain water. Plunge eggs into very cold water. Refrigerate.
Once you have your hard cooked eggs, you can experiment with coloring them to celebrate Spring (see my post on making natural dyes for coloring eggs!) Then, it’s time to make the fillings. First, you’ll want to mash or blend the eggs to smoothness. Early renditions from the 20s, directed cooks to mash the hard cooked yolks with melted butter, cream or vinegar. Boiled dressings were another mix-in favorite. But eventually, mayonnaise took precedence in the cookbooks, first scratch-made, and then, store-bought. ( I did a taste test comparing 8 store-bought varieties of mayonnaise with home-made, and frankly, the taste of home made mayonnaise is SO much better!)
My best ratio of yolk to whites includes more yolks (6) than whites (4). Once you’ve created a smooth paste with the yolks and mayonnaise, either finely mince, or “rice” the whites using a potato ricer. Because of the awkward irregularity of their shapes, I find pressing the whites through potato ricer is easier, and has a more uniform result, then mincing.
To decide on the remaining ingredients, your taste buds will steer you toward a saltier or sweeter finish. Thinking Spring, my preference was toward a light, herbal blend somewhere in the middle (not too sweet; not too salty.) Also, to ensure no one flavor dominated over another, I chose chives (rather than chopped onion) very finely diced mild baby pickles (not garlic or super sour cornichon), and a small amount of dill. I also included a pinch of celery salt, rather than adding diced celery. Other popular inclusions in many of the egg salads I found included: finely diced onion, pickle relish, Worcestershire sauce, prepared mustard, finely-diced green or red pepper, pimiento, or diced green olives. And there are several books full of better-left-lost egg-salads with unfortunate inclusions such as canned pineapple, mashed sardines and crushed cheese crackers. (Oh, and I have a slough of molded egg-salad recipes that float combinations of eggs, mayo, pickles, catsup, green olives and peppers in plain, lemon or chicken-stock fortified gelatin. In case you want them : )
Building the finished sandwich, I spread bread slices with a small bit of the mayonnaise, then a bit of the egg salad, then slices of crispy cucumber for crunch, frills of lettuce for color and texture, and more egg salad. Be sure to assemble sandwiches right before you serve them to keep the salad from discoloring, and the bread from becoming soggy.
- Egg Salad Sandwich Filling
- 6 large eggs in their shells (Once hard-cooked, you will keep all 6 cooked yolks, but only four of the cooked whites)
- ½ cup mayonnaise (recipe follows)
- 1/8 tsp mustard powder
- ¼ tsp celery salt
- 1/2 cup finely diced mildly-flavored baby pickles
- Dash pickle juice
- 1 Tablespoon very finely diced chives
- 1 Tablespoon very finely diced parsley
- 2 teaspoons finely snipped dill
- Freshly cracked black pepper to taste
- Green leaf lettuce
- 2 small Persian cucumbers, peeled and sliced into thin planks
- six slices of Pain de Mie sandwich bread, fresh or lightly toasted (recipe follows)
- Pain de Mie Bread
- 13-inch Pullman (pain de mie) loaf pan, with lid
- 1 large potato, diced
- 2 cups water
- 2/3 cup whole milk, warmed to room temperature
- 2 teaspoons (1 packet) instant yeast granules
- 2 ¼ teaspoons salt
- 3 Tablespoons sugar
- 6 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- ½ cup nonfat dry milk flakes
- 1/3 cup mashed potato (made from the reserved cooked potato)
- 4 ¾ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- (Makes 2 ½ cups)
- 2 large eggs (use pasteurized for food safety)
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 Tablespoon sugar
- 1 ¼ teaspoons mustard powder
- ½ teaspoon paprika
- pinch of celery salt
- 1/8 teaspoon white pepper
- 1/3 cup white vinegar
- 2 cups vegetable oil, divided
- Make bread: Place potato in small pan with 2 cups water. Heat to boiling. Lower heat and simmer potato until soft. Pour through a strainer to reserve 1 cup of the potato water. Mash enough of the diced cooked potato to make 1/3 cup. Reserve remaining potato for another use.
- While the potato water cools a bit, sprinkle yeast over the room-temperature milk and allow to bloom for 2 minutes. Combine 1/3 cup of the mashed potato, the 1 cup tepid potato water and the 2/3 cup milk with yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer, add the sugar and stir, using the dough hook. Add the salt, melted butter, dry milk flakes and flour. Mix/knead until you have a soft dough. Remove dough to a greased deep bowl. Lightly cover with plastic wrap or towel and let rise for 1 ½ hours until almost doubled in bulk. Punch down the dough. On your work surface, shape dough into a rectangle. Roll into a log. Lightly grease the 13-inch Pullman pan; place dough log into pan. Lightly cover with plastic wrap or a towel and allow to rise for 45 minutes. During the last 15 minutes of rising time, preheat oven to 350. Slide the lid onto the Pullman pan. Place in the center of the oven and bake for 25 minutes. Remove lid. Bake for another 20 minutes. Remove bread to a cooling rack.
- Make mayonnaise: In a 1 quart container, combine all ingredients except the oil. Add ¼ cup of the oil. Using an immersion blender, blender or food processor blend this mixture for three minutes. Slowly add remaining oil in a steady stream until the mayonnaise has whipped into fluffy consistency. Refrigerate.
- Make egg-salad filling: Peel the hard cooked eggs. Discard shells. Place the six yolks in a medium-sized bowl and 4 of the whites (discard two whites) in another bowl. Using an immersion blender or fork, blend the yolks with mayonnaise, mustard powder and salt until very smooth. Press the whites of four of the eggs through a potato ricer. Mix the riced whites with the smooth yolk mixture. Add finely diced pickle, chive, parsley and dill. Season with a few grinds of black pepper.
- Adjust seasonings by adding some pickle juice, salt or pepper, and if needed, a bit more mayonnaise (Yolks will vary in size and depending on how you cooked them, may be a bit more or less dry.) Assemble sandwich: Spread bread slices with thin layer of homemade mayonnaise. Top with small amount of egg salad. Top with lettuce leaves. Layer with planks of cucumber. Top with more egg salad. Top with top layer of bread. Slice sandwich on the diagonal to make two triangular halves. Serve immediately.