With a name like Jules (actually my real name is Julie but I really hate it – so don’t tell anyone), and a food blog, AND a passion for all things French, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t strongly identify with the story of Julie and Julia. What can I say, I LOVED the movie and since then I seem to have become a bit of a Julie and Julia stalker. Well in the literary arena at least.
This year I’ve managed to read Julie Powell’s story of her year of cooking (and blogging) dangerously, Julia Child’s autobiography that focuses on the years of her life that she lived in France – or La Belle F – as she called it. And most recently I’ve been wading through the enormous body of work that is Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking – Volume 1.
While it’s about as far from minimalist cooking as one can get, I’ve still loved Julia’s approach to food and cooking. It’s hard to resist her obvious passion. And so I thought I’d share with you a few of the pearls of wisdom I’ve learned from both Julie and Julia. And while we’re at it my new favourite, Julia-inspired dinner party dessert as well – chocolate clafoutis – so simple with only 5 ingredients and seriously good.
lessons from mastering the art of french cooking
you are never too old to learn to cook
Julia Child was 37 when she first enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school and got serious about learning to cook. And while I know 37 isn’t that ancient, it’s pretty inspiring that she went on to have such an amazing career as a cookbook author and TV presenter.
there are 3 secrets to sauteeing
i. the fat or oil must be very hot
ii. the food must be dry – otherwise a layer of steam forms that prevents browning and searing
iii. the pan must not be crowded – again to avoid steaming
sour cream cannot be substituted for creme fraiche
According to Julia, creme fraiche has been naturally fermented to produce a nutty rather than sour product that doesn’t curdle when boiled.
To make your own creme fraiche, mix together 1 teaspoon buttermilk with 1 cup whipping cream. Keep between 15C – 30C (60F – 85F) for about 8 hours then refrigerate.
classical french cooking doesn’t use olive oil
Apparently the olive oil flavour is too strong, so neutral oils from peanuts or corn are favoured.
canned truffles can be improved
Apparently adding maderia, to half fill the can an hour before using the truffles improves their flavour. I’m yet to try this but I know from experience that many things are improved by the addition of fortified wine. Oh and if you happen to have an excess of said truffles, they can be frozen.
a food mill is better than a blender or food processor for pureeing soups
Apparently the food mill sieves any fibrous parts where as a processor doesn’t remove them.
diluted clam juice can be substituted for fish stock
Not that I know where to buy clam juice – but interesting none the less.
you can improve on canned (or tetra pack) chicken or beef stock
Just simmer 2 cups for 30 minutes with 2 tablespoons each of sliced onion, celery & carrot. I haven’t tried this either but will file it away for a stock emergency.
a splitting or curdling hollondaise sauce can be rescued
Just remove from the heat and whisk through a tablespoon cold water.
the secret to perfect poached eggs is FRESH eggs
Or if egg poaching scares you, substitute in soft boiled, peeled eggs. Simmer for 6 minutes (7 if straight from the fridge). Drain and cool under running water.
learning to make a good omelette is all about practice
a pinch of cream of tartar stabilises whisked egg whites
Also, whites at room temperature will increase in volume and hold more air significantly more than cold whites
the most important aspect of chicken cooking is procuring a good & flavoursome bird
Julia goes on to compare the flavour of a cheap chook to the taste of teddy bear stuffing – who knew?
stuffing warning (!)
Julia advises to avoid stuffing a chicken in advance as it can go sour – not really a new lesson but love that she calls it a ‘stuffing warning’.
french people eat hamburgers
although it’s more the beef patty served with a red wine reduction sauce and some vegegtables rather than on a burger bun.
the best way to cook kidneys
is to saute whole in butter then slice to serve. No plans to use this information any time soon – but never say never.
the french are interested in the flavour of vegetables rather than their nutritive content
which is why their veg tend to taste so good
do not keep cooked green vegetables warm for more than a moment
because otherwise they loose their colour
a well cooked green bean should be tender but retain the slightest suggestion of crunch
it’s OK to use frozen brussels sprouts and broccoli
to cook them, thaw just enough so they can be separated. For 10oz (250g), simmer in 1/2 cup water with a tablespoon butter for 6-8 minutes or until tender.
there are 3 different ways to cook buttered peas,
depending on how fresh and tender your peas are
frozen peas can be improved
just simmer them in a similar way to frozen brussels sprouts or broccoli (details above)
spinach picks up a metallic taste if cooked in iron or aluminium
lettuce and celery can be braised
and apparently they taste great if cooked slowly with stock and herbs
cucumbers can be baked
gratin dauphinois uses milk and cheese
And all this time I thought it was cream. Must try Julia’s version of this wonderful scalloped potato dish.
cream whips better when it is very cold
Julia recommends whipping by hand in a bowl that is sitting inside another bowl containing an ice slurry. Interesting.
you can cream butter and sugar by hand
Apparently if the butter is at room temperature and soft enough it’s easy to whisk until pale and creamy by hand.
metal moulds are better for caramel- lined desserts
Apparently the famous creme-caramel is easier to unmould and has move even caramel distribution if metal moulds are used. Given how frustrating it can be to have all your lovely caramel left behind in a ramekin, I’m keen to try this out.
the simplest chocolate icing is butter beaten into melted chocolate.
draining racks are evil
I’ve always hated how draining racks collect icky dishwater underneath them. Now that I’ve read about Julie Powell’s maggot incident, I heartily recommend either being very thorough with your cleaning. Or ditching the rack.
perseverance conquers all
I think the most important lesson from both Julia Child’s story and the Julie & Julia project is to never ever give up.
[5 ingredients | simple baking]
I love a recipe that can easily be multiplied or divided. You can even make this for 1 if you feel the need for something sweet but don’t want a heap of tempting leftovers hanging around.
Most clafoutis are fruit based, certainly all the ones in Julia’s book are. Julia notes that clafoutis are a simple peasant dessert that looks like a tart and is usually eaten hot or warm.
If chocolate isn’t your thing or you feel like something a little more virtuous feel free to play around with cherries, berries, apples, quince, even dates or prunes.
These make a great dinner party dessert because you can prepare the batter in the moulds ahead of time. Just pop them in the oven to cook while you’re eating your main course – too simple.
I did try making these with milk but found them less satisfyingly custardy than the cream version, but by all means substitute in light cream or half-and-half if you’d prefer a more waistline friendly dessert.
These are desserts just made to be served with vanilla ice cream but a simple sprinkling of icing (powdered) sugar would also be lovely.
40g (1 1/2oz) plain (all-purpose) flour
40g (1 1/2oz) brown sugar
1 cup whipping cream (35% milk fat)
50g (1 3/4oz) dark chocolate (I used Lindt 70% cocoa solids)
Preheat oven to 200C (400F).
Grease 2 x 1 cup capacity ramekins or cups with butter or oil.
Combine sugar and flour in a mixing bowl. Add eggs and cream and whisk until combined. Pour batter into the prepared ramekins. Divide chocolate between ramekins.
Bake for 25 – 30 minutes or until clafoutis are puffy and risen like a souffle and deep golden brown.
Serve hot or warm with vanilla icecream.
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