My mother, although multi-talented, had an aversion to the kitchen and has often said that I learned to cook at an early age “out of self-defense.” When she made chicken à l'orange by smearing a chicken with powdered Tang, I quickly developed a necessary passion for creating tasty things to eat. Somewhere in the family photograph album is a picture of me at the stove, age ten, happily stirring marinara sauce.

I developed a lifelong fascination with food; good food. There was even a foray of working as a chef’s assistant at a French restaurant during my mid twenties, just for fun. I had always loved watching Julia Child and knew that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was to be revered. It wasn’t until I read her biography (long before the Julie & Julia movie) that I really became fascinated with her work. From that book, I decided to prepare her recipe for mayonnaise.

Upon tasting it, I wept. . . .

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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Bavarois á L'Orange - Orange Bavarian Cream

In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia usually begins with a "master" recipe and then offers two or three variations on the theme. So far, I've made all the variations of Bavarian creams but have neglected the master recipe -- until now.

Actually, I've recently learned that it was Julia's co-author who was solely responsible for the Bavarian creams in Mastering. So, kudos to Simone Beck.

First, a trip down a Bavarian memory lane. Here's the voluptuous Bavarois aux Fruits (Strawberry Bavarian Cream):

 And her handsome cousin, the almond praline Bavarian cream:

Bavarois á L'Orange is a molded dessert in which egg whites and whipped cream are folded into an egg custard that is flavored, and into which gelatin is added. As I've mentioned before, I've never really enjoyed desserts or sweets very much, but these Bavarian creams have truly made me a convert.

What's really remarkable about the orange Bavarian cream -- and I didn't notice this until I tasted it -- is that you get a full-on orange experience with this ochreous puppy. Orange is highlighted in this recipe in four different ways: The custard is flavored with orange juice, grated orange peel and orange liqueur (I used Grand Marnier). Then, orange segments that have been marinated in Grand Marnier and sugar top the dessert and also serve as a side sauce.

But it's not all orange-orange-orange-orange. It's all involved in that eggy-rich custard as well. (The recipe calls for seven egg yolks.) Due to the massive and recent egg recall, and being that I try to avoid poisoning my guests, I played it safe. I used organic, free-range, pasteurized eggs from chickens that were into natural healing, meditation and yoga.

Yes, with these Bavarian creams, you'll need to make an investment of time and effort but the orange variety requires the least. (The almond praline Bavarian cream is, by far, the most labor-intensive but it's also my favorite.)

Julia writes: We have concluded that this particular masterpiece cannot be achieved in seconds; a cooked custard, well-dissolved gelatin, stiffly beaten egg whites, properly whipped cream, perfect flavoring, and then the right blending of one element into another at the right time seem to be the requisites for a true Bavarian cream. 

Do not be daunted. Once you make this masterpiece, it becomes considerably easier each and every time from there on out. That's not to say I've made mistakes along the way. I've had custard split from overheating it. One time, I poured the cream into my KitchenAid to whip, left it unattended for a moment, and soon returned to a whirling mass of butter and whey. (It only calls for a half cup of cream to be whipped -- best to crank that out by hand and forgo the heavy machinery.)

The best part is, it can be made a day in advance and takes seconds to assemble. Your guests will already, no doubt, be impressed with your meal. You can slip away into the kitchen and with careless ease, magically re-appear with your masterpiece at hand.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Beurre Blanc

While re-reading Julia’s autobiography, My Life in France, I found myself captivated by her discovery of the classic sauce, beurre blanc. “Captivated” meant that I had to make it.

The origins of beurre blanc (meaning “white butter”) appear somewhat obscure but most sources claim it was derived by an inconspicuous chef in the Loire Valley during the early 20th century. By the time Julia was on the Parisian scene in the early 1950s, beurre blanc seemed to have become a culinary urban legend.

Snooping it out, Julia and her friends found a tiny restaurant in Paris whose chef had mastered the sauce. After sampling it and sweet-talking the chef, Julia was invited into the kitchen and the technique was demonstrated.

Rushing home, Julia practiced and perfected the sauce which consists of a reduction of white wine, wine vinegar, shallots, into which a vast amount of chilled butter is incorporated. The acid reacts with the fat in the butter, suspends it almost by magic, which results in a tangy, complex, extremely appealing emulsion; just about the best of all sauces. Legendary.

She typed up the detailed recipe and mailed it to her sister in California in order to verify that her instructions would result in a successful beurre blanc.

Here is a copy of Julia’s typewritten page to her sister. I love how Julia marked it “Top Secret”, no doubt, evidence of her training in the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA).
(Double-click on it. It embiggenates nicely)

Seeing Julia’s typewritten instructions dated Nov. 7, 1952, I feel as though I’m looking at something holy, to be revered; a signed letter from St. Paul to the Corinthians or Handel's autographed manuscript of the Messiah.

Begin by cutting two sticks of unsalted butter into half-inch cubes. Place them on a plate and chill in the fridge. (It’s important that the butter be cold, so you might as well get this done first.)

Mince one tablespoon of shallot, add it to 3 tbs of white wine vinegar and ¼ cup dry white wine. Also add 1/8 tsp pepper and salt. Reduce this over high heat until a mere ½ Tb of liquid remains. Now, begin whisking in the butter, piece by piece over very low heat. Once each piece melts and becomes creamy, add another piece until all of it is used. (Yes, two sticks of butter.)

It should result in a thick and creamy sauce. Taste for salt and serve right away.

I invited my dear friend, Carla, over for dinner. Knowing she adores scallops, I served this sauce over scallops and asparagus. Grape tomatoes from a friend’s garden and pan-roasted baby Yukon gold potatoes completed the meal. (She blogged about it here.)

How good was this sauce? We ate every drop. Once the scallops were gone, the saucepan was brought to the table and we practically dove in with spoons. And that’s no joke.

One should really have Handel’s Messiah playing when Julia’s beurre blanc is served. And, again, that’s no joke.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Tranches de Jambon à la Crème; Sautéed Ham in Fresh Cream Sauce

It's no secret that Julia enjoyed butter, cream and booze; all three get used in this recipe for ham.
In unabated abundance.

Incidentally, this recipe would be a fantastic way to use that leftover Christmas ham. That, I imagine, is how this creation came to be.

Let me begin by saying that I've never been much of a ham fan. It's just always seemed like a salty, gristly thing to me. The only way I really enjoyed it was to chuck the ham bone into a pot of split peas and discard it a couple hours later after it had manifested its ham destiny.

Until now.

Although it's a quickie, it's just about the richest recipe of hers I've come across so far. Begin by sautéeing smoked ham in butter until browned. Not a bad beginning.

After it's removed, shallots (or scallions in this case) get the same treatment.

Now for the booze: Two-thirds cup of Madeira along with 3 Tbs of Cognac deglaze the pan and reduced until only about 3 or 4 tablespoons remain.

Now for the cream: You'd think that adding one whole cup of heavy cream would be over-doing a good thing. Julia didn't think so. She calls for two cups of heavy cream. Got that?

It gets reduced. After all, you might as well concentrate that much rich butterfat.

We're not done yet. Meanwhile, whisk together 2 Tbs of cream, 2 Tbs of Dijon mustard and 1 Tbs of tomato paste.

That gets added to the cream-n-booze reduction.

Return the ham and simmer. Serve over spinach that's been braised in chicken broth (and butter).

As mentioned before, this is an incredibly rich entree. It reminded me of Pork Chops with Mustard, Cream, and Tomato Sauce (Côtes de Porc Sauce Nénette) that I had prepared a couple of months ago. However, the sauce with the previous pork recipe was considerably milder: no booze reduction and less mustard.

At first, I thought perhaps the two sauces should be switched. This more robust, pronounced sauce might zhoozh up the mild pork chops basted in butter, while the more subtle Sauce Nénette might let the smokey, salty ham play a leading role.

In actuality, this sauce is perfect for the ham. You'll enjoy the boozy, creamy, mustardiness playing with hickory of the ham. Served over a mound of hearty, ferrous spinach and you'll have an entree that your guests will remember for a very long time.

 A word of advice: Modest portions are in order. Remember, we're dealing with salty pork and concentrated cream here. You might do well to have a defibrillator at hand should any guests be dining with a pre-existing cardiac condition.

What a great recipe. The Christmas ham will pale in comparison to a second incarnation such as this.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Julia's Kitchen

Can you remember those afternoons when you got to be by yourself, nothing was pressing, and you were able to just "get fetal" with a good book?

This afternoon was one of those times. I was re-reading My Life in France, probably the most delightful and appealing publication ever written about Julia Child. It's absolutely charming and truly captures the essence of what made Julia Julia Child.

I was longing to be like her. She was an extrovert, adored people, loved precise measurements and exact techniques, while I -- well, I love theoretical anything, creativity, and am rejuvenated by my time alone while reposed in solitude. I am truly glad there are people like Julia in this world who make up for the people like me. 

I had also just canceled my appointment to apply for a 60-week night program at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school here in Chicago. I told them, "I'm too old to do that." They called back wanting to know if the (rather large) fee was too much. Good lord, no. But my feet hurt and I only want my plantar fasciitis to go away. Now leave me alone.  
Boo hoo-hoo!

I was fully immersed in my Julia-envy / tragic me-mode when the phone beeped; a nasty, electronic, invasion of my melancholic solitude.

It was my friends, Jack and Steve while on a business trip to Washington DC. They had taken a side-trip to the Smithsonian and were instantly squeak-twirping photos to me from the Julia Child exhibit via their dual iPhones.

I hopped onto my PC and began downloading their photos.
Of Julia's kitchen.
Right when I was feeling so self-absorbed and longing to have in life what she had.

Then the photos began pouring in. . . Thanks to their iPhones, I was getting to see her kitchen right then and there.

And then, there was a quote by Julia Child about her kitchen: "If we ever get into the money, I am going to have a kitchen where everything is my height, and none of this pigmy stuff."

Well, I was at least able to get my kitchen to accommodate my 6' 3" height, all because of Julia's idea, and what a joy that has been. And, yes, I love my day-care-center color scheme of primary colors. I'm about to order a midnight-blue refrigerator. After all, what else would you do with those screeching-yellow 1963 metal cabinets? Get rid of them? No, they're incredibly rare. I challenge you to find anything like that online.

My own Batterie de Cuisine

I love my kitchen  -- and the fact that she made it possible to experience the results of her work.

I think it was St. Thérèse of Lisieux who said something like, "When we are able to find joy in the talents of others, we then possess those talents more than they."

I've always thought that was so very profound -- or that she just knew a bit of sneaky phenomenology.

I'll not experience the success or notoriety that Julia knew, but then, she never knew the unalloyed pleasure of discovering her work like we have.

". . . we then possess those talents more than they."

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Julia Quote

"The measure of achievement is not winning awards. It's doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile. I think of my strawberry souffle. I did that at least twenty-eight times before I finally conquered it."

 - Julia Child

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


It was 1967 and I was eight years old when I learned about nutmeg.

My maternal grandparents were driving me and my brother to my paternal grandmother's house from Goliad, Texas northwest to Nixon, Texas. I persuaded my grandfather into taking a back road, Highway 108 because I thought it might be more interesting than taking the usual Highway 119 to Nixon.

Along the way, we passed through the tiny community of Nopal, Texas, (pop. 25). The only thing indicating Nopal's existence was a little general store and I wanted to stop there and see it. I also had to pee really badly, so my grandfather pulled over and I hurried into the old, wooden establishment.

All the counter-tops in there was so aged and I could tell that this establishment was something out of the ordinary.

An elderly woman met me at the counter and showed me through to the outdoor privy behind the building. Having grown up in rural Texas, I was not unfamiliar with negotiating such facilities. However, the dirt pathway was tightly encroached by waist-high cacti on both sides. I carefully made my way to the little wooden booth-sized outhouse.

Upon returning to the counter, I noticed several containers of various spices on hand such as pepper, salt, garlic powder and. . .

. . . whole nutmeg.

Such a funny, cute word. After my grandmother explained what they were, I was just amazed at the fact that anyone could come to the general store in Nopal, Texas, (pop. 25) and purchase whole nutmeg if they really needed them.

Yet, my little eight-year-old mind wondered at how often the residents of such a tiny community would actually require whole nutmeg. Was there an actual need of nutmeg in a community this size? Could this population actually justify that their general store carry whole nutmeg in order for it to be profitable?

These were questions I thought of back in 1967.

Moreover . . .

If Mrs. Johnston down the road was making bread pudding and suddenly found that she was out of nutmeg with which to flavor it, could she send her 16-year-old son in an old pick-up truck to the general store with a dollar, from which he'd be able to return with the purchased nutmeg?

The answer was, a resounding, 'yes.'

Mrs. Johnston would then be able to continue her making of the bread pudding with a whole nutmeg that had, indeed, been purchased at the general store in Nopal, Texas (pop. 25).

Scritch-scritch-scritch . . . .
Scritch-scritch-scritch . . . .

I only bought a five-cent licorice stick at the counter when I was there in 1967. (I didn’t like it.) But somehow, I knew that any Mrs. Johnston would also be able to supply the residents of Nopal, Texas (pop. 25) with any baked good requiring whole, grated nutmeg if it was needed. I was just amazed with that knowledge . . .

- Epilogue -

A few years ago, I was home visiting my folks in Texas. While driving that same route, I decided to take that detour down Highway 108. I took notice as I approached the point where Nopal was.

However, the only evidence of Nopal, Texas (pop. 25), was a weather-stained, decomposing pile of gray lumber on top of a cement foundation among the weeds and mesquite trees.

If anyone in Nopal, Texas (pop. 25) requires whole nutmeg, they can order it online at Amazon.

My rental car continued on, silently ghosting past a mound of decaying lumber that used to be a general store where nutmeg and licorice sticks had once been sold.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Bitokes á La Russe, Hamburger in Cream Sauce

Hamburger patties in Mastering the Art of French Cooking?
You bet.

That’s what drew me to this recipe – I just had to see Julia’s treatment of this lowly “all-American” food item.

Bitokes á la Russe, or "hamburger in the Russian style" calls for a pound-and-a-half of really lean ground beef, but don’t think for a moment we’re heading into low-fat territory. The fat content of the lean beef is oomphed up by the addition of pork fat, beef suet, or butter (your choice).

Markets in downtown Chicago likely didn't carry pork fat and since I had no access to a British butcher in the 19th century, beef suet was out, too. I opted for butter.

Minced onions are sautéed (in butter), added to the ground beef mixture along with an egg, pepper, salt, and thyme.

This mixture gets pattied, dusted with flour and fried (in butter). After they’re removed, beef stock is added to the drippings and reduced. To that, cream is added and reduced again. To that, three tablespoons of butter is whisked in.


Fresh herbage, lemon juice and a scritch-scritch of nutmeg finish the sauce.

The verdict?

I over-salted it. Big time.

When cooking with this much butter, one should really use unsalted butter. I’m able to get this really fresh butter from an Amish farm, I love the stuff, but it only comes in the salted variety. Also, the beef stock I used, Progresso, doesn’t come in a low-salt version. When one is reducing this much sauce, any saltiness is only going to be concentrated. The recipe calls for 1½ teaspoons of salt in the meat mixture. I should have employed a bit of foresight and left that out. Mea culpa.

The first bite presented me with a hefty, saline punch.

Other than that, well, sure, it was scrumptious. Of course, cream and butter are awfully appealing. Coating the patties with flour imparted a crispy texture on the outside and probably kept them juicy. (Butter in the meat mixture certainly didn't hurt.)
I really should try it again and correct the salt problem. This recipe is easy enough and I’ve always got these ingredients on hand. I really think a dollop of mustard in the sauce would improve it, though.

Mustard on hamburger -- who ever heard of such a thing?

I should be ashamed.