Contrary to popular belief, mayonnaise is not a food group. This may be the key to the simplest bun in history.
There’s no worse feeling than realizing you forgot an important ingredient for your party table, but with a little ingenuity, most mistakes are recoverable. Buns, however, require hours of kneading and rising. Is there hope for a lightning-fast, pantry-based replacement when the turkey is ready and the stores are closed? I came across this recipe in two different recipe sharing groups last week. It sounds too good to be true, but it reminds me of Depression and wartime cake recipes when basic ingredients were often in short supply, like wacky cake or mayonnaise cake. These recipes look awful but yield great, thrifty results. Does this one take the cake?
There are a few issues with the recipe as written. It does not specify that it requires personal increase flour for the sourdough, and the cooking temperature seems abnormally low. It also doesn’t give advice on shaping or whether to grease the pan. Let’s see if we can manage and get something worthy of Turkey Day.
The ingredients for 12 buns couldn’t be simpler: 2 cups self-rising flour, 1 cup milk, and 4 tablespoons mayonnaise. For this test batch, I halved the recipe with no problem. No self-rising flour on hand? Simply add 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1½ teaspoons baking powder per cup of all-purpose flour. The instructions didn’t say anything about making a well in the blur or mixing wet ingredients separately, so against my better judgment I just threw it all in there.
Like any quick bread without yeast, it’s best not to stir too much or your dough will end up tough and your yeast will flatten out. You will get a very sticky and lumpy batter, with bubbles forming right away.
The original recipe calls for pouring the batter into muffin tins, and I tried a few, but I also tried a buttered madeleine tin to see if I could get something a little more polished, in principle. I put half a knob of butter in each well as I knew sticking would otherwise be a problem, and put the pan in the oven for a few minutes to melt it before filling it.
This paste defies shaping, so I used a method technically called “blopping”. You take a spoonful of the paste and scrape it up with a second spoon so that it blops in the well, then you leave it there. I tried patting the tops of some of them with wet fingers to smooth them out like you might with macaron batter, but as you’ll see it didn’t make much of a difference. I also brushed one of them with butter to see if that helped with the browning.
I started with the oven at 350 F as instructed, but it quickly became clear that there was no way they would brown at that low temperature in 15 minutes. I turned the oven on to 450 F as directed in other recipes with a similar batter texture, and it did the trick. If you start at 450 F from scratch, it may only take about 12 minutes, especially in metal pans. Silicone ones like the muffin tin I used take longer to brown.
The ones I patted on look a little more refined, but the more jagged and rustic ones look great too, in my opinion. They all browned nicely – the butter brushing didn’t do much aesthetically, and they’re already buttery on the bottom, so consider that an unnecessary step. The shaped pan is also useless; all those cute little bubbles obscure the whimsical decoration. My silicone muffin pan came out perfect cylinders, but traditional angled muffin sides would look just as good. In fact, the pictures don’t do them justice. They have an almost translucent cap, with lots of crispy bubbles and a crunchy but delicate crust.
Inside they are soft, well cooked and not at all greasy. They smelled like mayonnaise right out of the oven, but you’d never know because of the flavor. It’s a little flat, but a dab of extra salt would fix that, and there’s no weird mayonnaise flavor at all. They would be the perfect neutral foil for everything from sausage sauce to tomato soup, and I bet some cheddar and garlic would make a convincing Red Lobster Cheddar Bay Biscuit dupe.
I really like these, and the ease of preparation can’t be beat. However, “roll” is a misnomer. There is no yeast flavor and very little chewy gluten. These are cookies, not buns. Still, if you forgot the Thanksgiving rolls, these would work great with the turkey gravy. It’s a winner on many levels.
So where has this recipe been all my life?
When I went digging I found several alternate versions, and that usually means it’s been a while. Beloved Southern condiment brand, Duke’s, has its own version with (surprise!) double the mayonnaise (and they’re more aptly called “drop cookies”). Some add a little sugar or more milk. A quick glance at TikTok led me to Caitlyn Maas of Tennessee, personal chef, cookbook author, and Southern cooking maven. Her blog, Geraldine + Virginia, is named after her grandmothers, and she told me it was her Virginia Grammy that taught her this recipe. His family has been using it for decades, adding things like herbs, cheese, and even chocolate chips! But Maas had no more details about his ultimate origin.
Enter Douglas Mack, food historian and author of the always fascinating Snack Stack newsletter. The first mention he and his legendary research skills could find was in 1964, in the News and Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina.
“Note that the author says the recipe ‘does the trick’,” he tells me, “indicating that it was all the rage among local bakers. The same recipe, or very similar recipes, have appeared in newspapers in Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee over the next four years. From there, he found, it began to appear in church cookbooks, passed from person to person , and it spread all over the South. “Old-fashioned viral recipes! Oh my!” Maas said. “She was from that area (and) an avid clipper and recipe collector, so that makes sense!”
This kind of epic recipe journey through the ages is what I live for. Looking at all these versions, I wondered which was the best, so I tried a lot more, changing the ratios.
I tried Duke’s recipe with double the mayo, shown top left, and it was probably the best looking. It is heavier, however, with an almost greasy texture. Top right is the 1964 recipe that Mack found, with half the mayonnaise. This version is a little drier, slightly chewy, but almost as good as the first batch, so don’t worry if you only have a tablespoon of mayonnaise on hand or want to cut a few calories. Some recipes (like Maas’ Grammy Virginia’s) call for 2/3 cup of milk per cup of self-rising flour. This one, middle left in the photo, doesn’t rise as much, but is very moist without being greasy, and the top is effortlessly even. In the middle right is a baked without oiling pewter. With the silicone wells, it didn’t stick, but it certainly did in a metal pan, and it rose unevenly. It also lacked the buttery crunch of the other versions. On the bottom left, there’s one made with all-purpose flour instead of self-rising, because the original recipe I found didn’t specify that. I didn’t think this would work, and it definitely doesn’t. It is the only bitter failure of the lot. Bottom right is topped with cheddar cheese and herbs, and as I suspect, it’s the easiest substitute for Red Lobster’s Cheddar Bay cookies I’ve ever had the pleasure of inhaling while standing standing in the kitchen in my bathrobe.
The relative success of this crazy pre-internet viral spread recipe has me wondering what’s next for the condiment-based holiday recipe rescue. Mustard Green Bean Casserole? Ketchup and pickle stuffing? Barbecue sauce gelatin mold ?
Oh sure, you can laugh, but that last one? It already exists. Maybe not all vintage recipes are worth keeping.