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, February 26, 2012

Mastering the Joy of Julia

Having prepared a multitude of recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I finally decided to tackle the notorious Pâté de Canard en Croûte -- the boned, stuffed duck in pastry that seemed so frighteningly daunting to Julie Powell in the film, Julie and Julia

However, a pâté, no matter how extravagant or daunting, just didn’t seem like it could be the main feature of a meal. I decided to go “over the top” with an all-out Julia extravaganza for this event. After all, Julia always advised, "everything in moderation -- including moderation." So, in the vein of obligatory immoderation, one recipe from Mastering just wouldn’t do; I went for seven.

“Over the top” meant that the famous Pâté de Canard en Croûte would be the appetizer. 

Fortunately, I prepared the pastry the night before. The steps in preparing the pâté seemed to be a never-ending story. Of course, we all know about the “boning of the duck,” so here it is from start to finish. (Many thanks to my friend, Steve, for the video production. The music was performed and recorded by yours truly.)
Vegetarians may want to look away at this point:

Let me just say that ducks are very well-constructed little beasts; much more so than their chicken cousins.

Monsieur duck was now de-boned and ready for the veal and pork pâté -- oh, and it's a pâté that also contains truffles, although Julia writes that they are an “optional extravagance.” Since I was going all-out, I had a jar containing two truffles at hand -- extravagant, indeed. 

Once the pâté was placed inside, it was time to stitch it up. However, my makeshift trussing needle kept catching on the skin of the duck and was in danger of tearing it. It was then that my friend, Steve, gently reminded me that he was quite adept at suturing animals; after all, he is a veterinarian for crying out loud. I happily handed the task at hand over to him. (Hint: Preparation of Pâté de Canard en Croûte requires an actual trussing needle – that, or a veterinarian on standby). 

Armed with a pair of pliers and my makeshift needle, Steve expertly went to work. 

“Someday I’ll get you down to the clinic and have you stitch up a cat,” he said without looking up. 

After the duck was professionally sutured, I was able to truss it using butcher’s knots. Julia didn’t mention that it would resemble a giant larva. 

It was at that precise moment that I realized I had forgotten to include my extravagant truffles! 

Mistakes happen in the kitchen. They certainly happened to Julia and on PBS television to boot. But my truffles? 

“No apologies,” as Julia had often said. I realized this could be a happy mistake. As much as truffles cost, they might as well be noticed rather than diced up in the pâté. I would simply feature a slice or two on each serving later on. Prominently.   

The giant larva was browned, cooled, en-croûted, decorated, and egg-washed.

After baking and letting it cool, here’s a proud guy with his Mastering masterpiece. 

Another friend arrived a couple of hours before the meal. She’s an excellent cook and I was only too happy to have an extra pair of hands on hand. I’m fine with preparing a meal, but last-minute sauces, plating up, and I tend to cower under a table. 

My friend, Steve the veterinarian, also sets a lovely table and for that, I am eternally grateful. 

The meal for eight began with an amuse-bouche of small toasts topped with horseradish sour cream and black caviar accompanied by tiny shots of icy-cold Stolichnaya vodka – a very happy and effective way of amusing the bouches of one’s guests I might add. 

It was time for the pâté. Since the duck-encased pâté is baked in its pastry sarcophagus while trussed, one must de-truss it before serving. Julia instructs us to cut the top of the pastry off, retrieve the trussed pâté, remove the strings, return the pâté to the pastry, return the top of the pastry to its place, present it to the guests and slice it at the table. 

All I have to say is, "Rub a lamp, Julia."

The pâté and the bottom of the pastry had fused and become one. There was no removing of the pâté without destroying the pastry. Guests were waiting. 

The pâté was removed, sliced, adorned with awaiting truffles and served with a dry Italian sparkling red – sans croûte.

After all, the pâté itself was a slice of juicy, porky, ducky heaven. The croute would have been a pasty afterthought.  Again – no apologies.

Next, Soupe à l’oignon. No gratinée or crouton included; just the luscious, oniony soup served along with a dry California chardonnay (2010 Bin 36 Monterey Chardonnay.)

Main event: Sauté de Boeuf à la Parisienne -- beef filet with mushrooms in a port and cream sauce. It’s one of my favorite entrees of Julia’s and, surprisingly, relatively quick and easy to prepare (Nigella Lawson, take note). Served with asparagus with beurre blanc, pommes de terre Parisienne, petit choux au fromage, it was a meal that pretty well epitomized what our Julia was all about. 


 A 2009 Domaine Chêne Bourgogne Pinot Noir was luxurious and just acidic enough to stand up to the cream and butter sauces.

Bavarois Praliné (almond praline Bavarian cream) is my go-to dessert, as much of it can be prepared the day before. 

With all the requisite steps (toasting almonds, making a caramel, beating egg whites, whipping cream, preparing a custard and a Crème Anglaise), one really should prepare it the day before. Trust me. 

Why not end such a meal with a dessert containing twelve egg yolks? Remember, obligatory immoderation.

Sortilège is a maple syrup and whiskey liqueur that has been produced by our Canadian friends for over 300 years and is a favorite of mine that is always kept on hand. It never ceases to invoke ooohs and aaahs from every guest, so of course, it accompanied the Bavarian cream. The expected ooohs and aaahs ensued.  

Laughter among friends poured into the night. My feet and back were sore from day’s preparation, but it’s a small price to pay; the payoff of sharing such a meal with friends one loves is priceless. 

 True, I knew how to cook before encountering Julia Child. However, I’m still happily learning to Master the Joy of Julia. 


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