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


Catherine said...

I haven't seen the film yet, but I have a feeling that I'm going to agree with the reviewer on IMDB who suggests waiting for the DVD and editing out all the Julie bits will leave a lovely short on Julia. I don't understand why her life didn't merit a full length biopic either, and from reading the book and her blog since, I'm really not expecting to like the Julie of this film any more.

Niamh said...

Well... spank me with a spatula! :) Love it. Too true, I think that the Julia section was superior, and why not a film on its own?

I must try this cake.I don't actually have any of Julia's books but Ballymaloe is one of my favourites.

La Fitz said...

@Catherine - haven't seen the film either, and i know what you mean about the "likeability of Julie". One of the things about the book i found fascinating was how inadvertently clear Julie made it that she was done with her marriage... but wasn't going to end it. Lo and behold - her second book is apparently about her having an affair, and was pushed back to not interfere with the release of the film, because, well, audiences wouldn't like it. Still, given that the universal reaction to the film is pretty much that Julia is strong while Julie is weak, I guess there's only so much you can manipulate peoples' responses...

verity said...

That looks like a wonderful recipe!

Fiona Beckett said...

Great review, Sig. And an excellent distraction from the dissertation ;-)

Signe said...

@Catherine agree it's a real shame Nora Ephron didn't bulldoze Hollywood into making a biopic on Child alone, it's still worth seeing the film for Meryl Streep's performance ;)

@Niamh ahh...Ballymaloe, my spiritual home. I love the old book, have a feeling it's going to be revisited this autumn. the cake is so easy to make and just the hit of chocolate one needs when a mid-afternoon slump occurs

@LaFitz yes had read that they kept the second book on cleavage or cleaving, whatever, back as it didn't exactly paint Julie Powell in a particularly positive light. When are you next in London dude? We shall have to convene over, you guessed it, cake and tea!

@Verity and Fiona you can thank the inimitable Julia for that beauty, and yes it is a perfect distraction from the beastly dissertation. I mean, the brain needs fuel right? Might as well get the endorphin rush from chocolate while you're marooned indoors all day ;)

Thank you all for your comments, keep 'em coming

Lunch Monkey said...

Ooh Sig that looks delicious! I might have a go at that over the weekend here in sunny Muscat!

Hope all's well with you. I'm now getting into the world of blogging and am loving what I'm reading - the last week seems to have flown by in a whirlwind of different blogs while I find my way around... hmmm, I have a lot of time on my hands now I've left Turnham Green :-( but am loving married life in Muscat and am spending a lot more time playing in the kitchen so all is good!

Sally said...

For any of you who have not seen the movie "Julie and Julia", you do not know what you are missing and certainly should not criticize it or an actress. The movie is fabulous, from the very beginning of the movie with scenery of Paris, to the very last recipe. Meryl Streep should win a grammy for her performance.
You probably will have to wait for DVD now.
But don't miss it.
Serve it with Reine de Saba cake and Champagne with some of your closest girlfriends and you'll talk about it for months.
You will certainly enjoy it all.
Bon Appe'tit