Monday, 7 September 2009

Julia Child's Reine de Saba

They don't make them like Julia Child anymore

Yep, I'm officially on the bandwagon of Julia enthusiasts. Spank me with a spatula but I grew up reading cookbooks from the 60's so Julia was a familiar figure in our family - my Mother's vintage edition of that other doyenne of American cookery Fanny Farmer sat alongside the Great Scandinavian Cookbook - an ersatz Larousse with some gravlax and smoked sheep heads thrown in - and a signed copy of the Ballymaloe Cookbook (OK, not from the 60's but from the 70's) summers spent in New England meant we accumulated quite a few classic American cookbooks, but Child really was in a league of her own

Patrician, francophile and in possession of an extraordinary voice that bordered on comical, Julia Child was a salt-of-the-earth sort of woman, that breed of tough cookies who were unconventional and ever so slightly eccentric. I like Child for what she represented: a smart, self-assured woman who was didactic and a true enthusiast for all things French, her integrity as a cookery writer lay in her singular dedication to a craft and perfecting the techniques inherent in classic French cooking. This is rather quaint in our age of instant gratification, in which food is entertainment and we're constantly bombarded with bland cookery books and banal TV programmes

A lesser woman would have accepted being placed in a class of bored housewives at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, but Child aimed higher and evinced a diligence and work ethic in the professionals' class that paid off - her determination meant she literally did master all the skills integral to French cooking, and eventually she wrote her magnum opus "Mastering the Art of French cooking" a book now in probably it's 200th re-print

So when Niamh of the blog Eat Like A Girl emailed the London Food and Drink Bloggers last week asking if anyone was interested in attending a screening of the forthcoming film 'Julie & Julia' I jumped at the chance. You can read plenty of reviews about Nora Ephron's film about blogger Julia Powell re-creating every recipe from Julia Child's masterpiece, my only comment on this otherwise well-executed film is why did Julia Child's life not merit a film in itself? Why did it take a simpering, narcissist blogger desperate for a book deal to resurrect the unfashionable, warbling Julia? Meryl Streep stole the show as Child and I suspect that's not merely down to her skill as an actor. Child is the compelling character in this film, and I have to admit that despite my enjoyment of the film as a whole I left the screening with a sense of disappointment that this formidable woman wasn't the main focus

Anyway, enough eulogising about Julia Child. You can read more about her in the following features: AA Gill's piece here in the Sunday Times, Michael Pollan's New York Times article and another Times article on the business of cookbooks finally this piece in last month's Vanity Fair is well worth a read. If you're a keen bean have a look at Child's cookery programmes on YouTube

Without further ado, here's a recipe from 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking' for her favourite chocolate cake: the Reine de Saba or Queen of Sheba...a cake as robust and full of character as the 6ft 1" Child was

  • 110g (4 oz) butter, softened
  • 110g caster sugar or light brown sugar
  • 110g dark chocolate (70% or higher)
  • 55g plain flour
  • 55g ground almonds
  • 3 medium eggs, separated
  • 2 tbsp strong coffee, rum or brandy
  • pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 180 C. Lightly oil and dust with flour a 20cm diameter cake tin

Place the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, allow to melt and cool

In a large bowl cream the butter and add the sugar, creaming until light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Then add the melted chocolate and coffee/rum/or brandy. In a separate bowl whisk the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff peaks form, then add a spoonful of sugar and whisk to stuff peak again. Add a spoonful of the egg white to the chocolate mixture to break it up and then add the flour and ground almonds. Add the remainder of the egg white mixture to the large bowl, stirring through with either a large spatula, a la Child's method, or with a large metal spoon. Use figure of eight motions and fold in the eggwhite to the cake mixture with a gentle motion. If you're heavy-handed you'll knock all the air out. Better to have some pockets of flour or egg mixture dotted through the mixture then to be over-zealous about distributing all the ingredients

Pour this into your cake tin and bake on the middle oven shelf for 25-30 minutes. The cake is ready when it's spongy to the touch, doesn't wobble anymore and a skewer inserted comes out clean

Let the cake cool on a wire rack, then decorate as you wish. Child made a rich chocolate and butter icing which goes well, but I just dusted some cocoa powder on top

* If you're gluten-intolerant simply substitute the flour with the same quantity ground almonds, or about 40g gluten-free flour

Julia Child's "My life in France" published in the UK by Duckworth 2009