JC 100th Birthday Week: the queen of cuisine and her favorite chocolate cake

“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

photo by Jim Scherer via Smithsonian.com

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.

Julia with co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle by Paul Child (courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University).

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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?

by Paul Child (courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University)

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
(Chocolate-butter Icing)

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 decorating her Reine de Saba on “The French Chef,” Episode 100, 1965 (courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University).
Et voilà! (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University)

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♥ Julia’s Wisdom ♥

Julia, 1952 (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University)

“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.”

Exhibit of Julia’s Cambridge kitchen at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History (click to enlarge).

♥ More about Julia’s kitchen and accomplishments in this Smithsonian video:

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Just Released!

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 ♥

Tuesday: Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat with creators Susanna Reich and Amy Bates

Wednesday: Bon Appétit!: The Delicious Life of Julia Child with creator Jessie Hartland

Thursday: Julia’s Cherry Clafouti and a Side of Ham

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!

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**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.

29 thoughts on “JC 100th Birthday Week: the queen of cuisine and her favorite chocolate cake

  1. This is a truly lovely post today filled with a passion for a wonderful American cook. Cooking is when you show your love for those you are preparing the meal. It is joyful and Julia paved the way. This post is most certainly going in my favorites and I have a few more Julia books to add to my list. I love Minette’s Feast and posted about it on my blog today. Thank you, Jama.

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    1. So glad you enjoyed the post, Margie. You nailed it: cooking is really about showing love for others, and Julia definitely paved the way.

      Off to read your MF review!! meow . . .

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  2. I know I’m going to enjoy this week, Jama, because I know so little about Julia Child. I must admit that my basic info comes from the book Julia & Julia, & then the movie. So I loved what you shared today, video too, & look forward to more. Thank you!

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    1. I learned lots of surprising and interesting things about her during my July hiatus. My appreciation for her and her accomplishments has increased a hundred-fold.🙂

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  3. I came late to falling in love with Julia Child, but my husband, Bob, has always been a fan, recalling watching her episodes of The French Chef as a child. I recently read My Life In France and was fascinated by her adventurous and courageous spirit! I bought Bob the DVD set of The French Chef for Christmas one year and we recently watched a slew of episodes. Wow! And of course he owns the cookbooks.😉 YAY you for featuring this amazing woman and for trying her recipe! Looks so YUMMY that I may have to try making that! xo

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    1. I love My Life in France — never tire of reading it again. Her enthusiasm is contaigious; she taught not only how to cook, but how to live! I hope you try making this cake sometime — it’s truly yummy but the real reward is in making it and channeling Julia🙂.

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  4. >>funny, endearing, unpretentious, unintimidating, accessible, generous, curious, genuine and real<<

    That is, I think, the best EVER description.
    It still pains me that in the UK no one knew who she was, so my chatter about her was met with polite bewilderment. It salves my soul, though, to know I can watch her on Youtube all day if I want. That saved me in the UK where there no reruns of any of her shows with Jacque Pepin.

    What a gorgeous cake, Jama-james.

    ::sigh::

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    1. Thank goodness for YouTube! I think it would be nice to own a set of her classic French Chef episodes — they were about teaching and learning and sharing good food — none of the celebrity-obsessed high-stakes competitions we see on cable these days.

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  5. Oh Jama, what a beautiful beautiful tribute you have going on here. I must confess that this is my absolute favorite because of the *oopsie* chocolate cake. Sinful but oh soooo devilishly delicious-looking, I am positively salivating! I loved the video and noting Julia’s wisdom as well – this is the one that has stood out for me:
    “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.” – couldn’t agree more.

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  6. Awesome post! I reviewed a children’s book about Julia this week (I jsut added the link to Weekend Cooking) that really captures her fun and spirited nature. My mom bought her MAFC when it first came out, so we’ve been Julia fans forever. I think I have almost all of her books… she is absolutely a national treasure. I just picked up Dearie and can’t wait to get reading. Oh and My Life in France was one of my favorites!

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    1. Just commented on your Jessie Hartland review which I saw the other day — so excited to see you feature it! You’re right — Bon Appétit really captures Julia’s fun, spirited and unstoppable personality. I’ve just started reading Dearie; Julia was even “naughtier” than I realized when she was growing up🙂. I never tire of rereading My Life in France. Another masterwork!

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  7. Very informative post on Julia Child🙂 I confess to not knowing much about her. As a vegetarian I am a little intimidated by her French cooking style (as the French are not known for their many vegetarian delicacies). Your blog post has inspired me to pick up at least one of her books. She is someone who influenced cooking in a big way, after all.

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    1. You’re bound to find some vegetarian friendly recipes you’ll like in some of her many cookbooks. MTAOFC is great for learning various cooking techniques, whether you’re into French cuisine or not. Of course if you don’t eat dairy products it will be a little trickier. Butter and cream are plentiful when it comes to the baked treats.

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    1. I feel the same — the more I learn, the more I want to know. I think lots of people feel this way because when it comes to Julia, it wasn’t only about her cooking and teaching, but the way she lived her life — embracing it wholly and whole-heartedly throughout her almost 92 years.

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    1. If I don’t get to see it in the next week or so, I’ll wait till November, when it will be part of a larger food exhibit planned by the Smithsonian🙂. Thanks for reading, Diane!

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