“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit. ” ~ Julia Child
The more I learn about Julia Child, the more I love her.
I’ve been having a ball rereading her memoir, My Life in France (Knopf, 2005), dipping into her letters with literary mentor Avis DeVoto, fanning myself at the juicy details of her courtship with Paul Child in Noël Riley Fitch’s biography, Appetite for Life (Doubleday, 1997), and marveling anew at both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Knopf, 1961, 1970).
Dear Eater, I can honestly say that although I’d been aware of MTAOFC for years and years — knew it was a classic, groundbreaking masterwork and veritable Bible for American cooks interested in French cuisine — it wasn’t until I made my first recipe from Volume One, La Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba Chocolate and Almond Cake), that I truly realized what a culinary masterpiece it truly is. That the words, “master” and “art” are part of the title says it all. More on the magical cake in a bit.
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♥ The Queen ♥
I first saw Julia on public television long before I picked up any of her cookbooks. I don’t remember her early black and white “French Chef” episodes that well, but sometime in high school I became fascinated with her, not so much because I wanted to cook, but because she was so entertaining.
Who else patted and cajoled raw chickens and geese, guzzled wine (GravyMaster® and water!) at every turn, thwacked giant cleavers with the courage of her convictions? Who else swayed from side to side like a pirate on the high seas, ever gasping for breath, speaking of prime cuts in a voice so flutey-musical and arresting it called all the cows home? Did you see the time she cut up a roast suckling pig with an electric knife? “What an elaborate way to serve an apple — ha ha!”
She wore pearls and long sleeve blouses and sensible shoes. She was funny, endearing, unpretentious, unintimidating, accessible, generous, curious, genuine and real. She encouraged us to be fearless, not to be afraid to make mistakes. She always made her audience comfortable with an earnest desire to teach, reminding us that making good food is one thing, but no meal is complete without meaningful sharing. She wanted to see families around the dinner table every night, and stressed how important it is for everyone to learn the basic techniques of cooking. Once you’ve got those down, you can improvise and adapt and vary as much as you please, not having to depend so much on recipes.
With Julia, we learned the difference between feeding and dining, considering cooking not as a tiresome chore, but a pleasurable art. Behind the jolly good sport hamming it up for the cameras was a driven, highly disciplined perfectionist, an expansive force of nature, a lifelong learner who was genuinely interested in people, the ultimate personification of “joie de vivre.” Her secret to longevity? Red meat and Gordon’s gin. How can you not love a woman who took 8-minute naps and served Pepperidge Farm Goldfish crackers for hors d’oeuvres?
And for the record, she never dropped a chicken or a turkey on the floor. It was a potato pancake that slipped from the pan, thankyouverymuch.
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♥ The Cake ♥
It’s only fitting that for Julia’s 100th Birthday Week, I serve up her favorite chocolate cake. La Reine de Saba was the first French cake Julia tasted after arriving in Paris in the late 40’s. It was prepared by one of her co-authors, Simone Beck (“Simca”), and ever after, Julia never forgot it.
It’s rich and decadent, sure to please any chocolate lover. I love the addition of pulverized almonds and almond extract, truly a beautiful layer of flavor that subtly complements the cacao.
The recipe isn’t difficult, but it does take a little time and several mixing bowls. It was a wonderful exercise in practicing basic skills — separating eggs, whipping egg whites, melting chocolate with coffee, creaming butter and sugar, folding egg whites into the batter, alternating with sifted flour. The recipe doesn’t call for any chemical leavening — no baking powder or baking soda — those foamy egg whites provide all the lightness and volume.
For those who’ve never made a cake from scratch before, MTAOFC guides you through every step with its brilliant 2-column format of listed ingredients and detailed directions. Everything is broken down and no fancy, expensive equipment is required. The recipe refers you to other pages in the book for help with technique if and when you need it. Julia and her co-authors tested and retested these recipes at least a dozen times to ensure they would be foolproof.
Great thing about this cake is that it isn’t so overly sweet that it would immediately induce a sugar coma. The recipe makes a friendly 8-inch round layer and you have the option of dusting it with confectioner’s sugar or frosting it with a simple chocolate butter icing. I opted for adding brewed coffee instead of rum for both the batter and the icing. Underbaking just a touch to keep the middle a little soft is key to a moist, creamy cake.
Len, the furry kitchen helpers and I savored every bite (Len goes around the house imitating Julia all the time). I tried to imagine Julia’s first taste all those years ago. Likely she came out with an enthusiastic, “yum yum!” I can see why she loved this cake so much. A queen of a cake for the Queen of Cuisine!
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La Reine de Saba
(Chocolate and Almond Cake)
for an 8-inch cake serving 6 to 8 people.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
4 oz. or 4 squares semi-sweet chocolate
2 Tbsp. rum or brewed coffee
1/2 cup (1 stick) softened butter
2/3 cup granulated sugar
3 egg yolks
3 egg whites
Pinch of salt
1 Tbsp. sugar
1/3 cup pulverized almonds
1/4 tsp. almond extract
1/2 cup cake flour, scooped and leveled
Butter and flour an 8-inch round pan. Set the chocolate and rum or coffee in a small pan and place off heat in a larger pan of almost simmering water; let melt while you proceed with the recipe.
Cream the butter and sugar together for several minutes until they form a pale yellow, fluffy mixture. Beat in the egg yolks until well blended.
Beat the egg whites and salt in a separate bowl until soft peaks are formed; sprinkle on the sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed.
With a rubber spatula, blend the melted chocolate into the butter and sugar mixture, then stir in the almonds, and almond extract. Immediately stir in 1/4 of the beaten egg whites to lighten up the batter. Delicately fold in a third of the remaining whites and when partially blended, sift in one third of the flour and continue folding. Alternate rapidly with more egg whites and more flour until all the egg whites and flour are incorporated.
Turn the batter into the cake pan, pushing the batter up to its rim with a rubber spatula. Bake in the middle level of preheated oven for about 25 min. Cake is done when it has puffed and 2- 1/2 to 3 inches around the circumference are set so that a needle plunged into the area comes out clean; the center should move slightly if the pan is shaken and a needle comes out oily.
Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 min. Run a knife around the edge of the pan and reverse cake on a rack. Allow it to cool for an hour or two; it must be thoroughly cold if it is to be iced.
Glaçage Au Chocolat
for an 8-inch cake
2 oz. (2 squares) semi-sweet baking chocolate
2 Tbsp. rum or coffee
5-6 Tbsp. unsalted butter, softened
a bowl with a tray of ice cubes and water to cover them
Place the chocolate and rum or coffee in the small pan, cover and set in the larger pan of almost simmering water. Remove pans from the heat and let the chocolate melt for 5 min. or so, until perfectly smooth. Lift the chocolate pan out of the hot water and beat in the butter a tablespoon at a time with a wooden spoon. Then beat over ice and water until chocolate mixture has cooled to spreading consistency. At once spread it over your cake with a spatula or knife.
**Recipes adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Volume One (Knopf, 1961).
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♥ Julia’s Wisdom ♥
“Remember, ‘No one’s more important than people’! In other words, friendship is the most important thing–not career or housework, or one’s fatigue–and it needs to be tended and nurtured.”
“You never forget a beautiful thing that you have made,” [Chef Bugnard] said. ‘Even after you eat it, it stays with you – always.’”
“This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook- try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”
“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
“Everything in moderation… including moderation.”
“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.”
“Life itself is the proper binge.”
“I don’t think about whether people will remember me or not. I’ve been an okay person. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve taught people a thing or two. That’s what’s important. Sooner or later the public will forget you, the memory of you will fade. What’s important are the individuals you’ve influenced along the way.”
♥ More about Julia’s kitchen and accomplishments in this Smithsonian video:
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♥ Click here for a chance to win a copy of Dearie in Alphabet Soup’s 5th Birthday Giveaway.
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♥ More Julia at Alphabet Soup ♥
Friday: Paul Child’s birthday sonnets
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This post is being linked to Beth Fish Read’s Weekend Cooking, where all are invited to share their food-related posts (recipes, cookbook/fiction/nonfiction/movie reviews, musings and photos, etc.). Put on your bibs and come join the fun!
**Special thanks to The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts and the Schlesinger Library for permission to post archival photos.
Copyright © 2012 Jama Rattigan of Jama’s Alphabet Soup. All rights reserved.