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Although crêpes are often thought of as the province of the French, similar pancakes abound in countries as diverse as Greece and Iceland. Crêpes were a staple in my household when I was growing up. We knew them as palancinka, the paper think pancake ubiquitous in the countries formerly belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire. We would have them as a simple dessert on weekends, smothering them with jam or preserves, cinnamon, or cottage cheese and sugar.
Crêpes were the first thing I ever successfully made in the kitchen without a recipe. I would mix together an egg with some milk, throw in some flour and a pinch of salt and voila! the perfect little pancakes. I had no idea how I did it, but they were always delicious. I’d whip up stacks of them for my friends, who would look at me as if I were Julia Child incarnate.
Then somehow I stopped.
Years went by without my making a single crêpe. I cannot now fathom the reason. Perhaps I was busy with school and work and trying to create a life for myself. My twenties are a crêpeless blur.
Then one night, facing an empty fridge and an intense craving for something doughy and sweet, I decided to revisit my old friend.
The results were disastrous. The crêpes were rubbery. They stuck to the pan and tasted plain awful. What had I done wrong? Had I not once been the crêpe master?
I turned to the only person whom I knew could help me out of this mess.
One of her books, aptly named Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, contained a simple, master recipe that you can use for both sweet and savory crêpes. Although some recipes for sweet crêpes call for sugar, I find that this makes them stick to the pan.
Be sure to allow the batter to refrigerate for at least half an hour, to allow the flour particles to absorb the liquid, which will give you a tender crêpe. Instant-blending or all-purpose flour may be used, although the former will need less time in the fridge. You may have to experiment with the temperature of your range to get the heat right; the crepes must cook through to a golden color without burning,
If you are not using them right away, cool the crêpes thoroughly, stack and refrigerate for two days, or freeze them for several weeks.
This recipe makes about twenty 5-inch crepes or ten 8-inch crepes.
Julia Child’s Master Crêpe Recipe
1 cup flour
2/3 cup cold milk
2/3 cup cold water
3 large eggs
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for brushing on pan
1) Mix all ingredients until smooth in a blender or with a whisk. Refrigerate.
2) Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Brush with melted butter.
3) Pour in 2 to 3 tablespoons of batter into the center of the pan and then tilt the pan in all directions to cover the bottom evenly. Cook about 1 minute, or until browned on the bottom. Turn and cook briefly on the other side.
4) Cool on a rack or plate as you finish making the rest. Serve as desired.
I find the more I cook and immerse myself in the world of food via various magazines and food blogs, the more I come to understand that there is so much I don’t know. This year I set out to become a food and travel writer and have achieved some success, but I realize that there is so much I’m going to have to learn about food if I want to have a career in this field. Since I think all of life is a learning curve, I don’t mind admitting my foibles in this regard. I have never eaten an artichoke and have no idea how to cook one. I love food but am a picky eater; although there are few foods that I dislike intensely, there are many that I don’t love and I feel life is too short to spend eating them. I would love to review restaurants, but I don’t think I could be objective enough to comment on organ meats or other such fare that is standard at some of these fine establishments that I read about yet have not gone to. Sadly, I will never be a restaurant critic for the New York Times, donning disguises and dining at Lutece.
Another curiosity: my favorite food is French, but until my trip to France last year, I had scarcely eaten it. My idea of French food was limited to quiche, onion soup, and potato gratin. Rather ironic considering I now regularly write about French restaurants in my hometown for some well-known online publications. Until I bought my copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I didn’t even know what clafouti was. I looked it up online, hoping to find a picture of this dessert which wasn’t a cake or a pancake, or a custard, but a combination of all three.
In fact, the first time I made a clafouti I expected a very cake-like texture and thought I had not baked it long enough. I made a mistake by not cooking some of batter before topping it with cherries and another layer of batter. I thought this was why the texture was so custard-like. I had no idea that it was supposed to be that way. Now that I’ve been set straight, I love to whip up a clafouti when I want something easy–something with fruit. I like to have it for breakfast on a weekend morning, instead of pancakes, sprinkled with icing sugar.
In MtAoFC, Julia has a master recipe for Cherry Clafouti, and then a list of variations. I chose to make the Clafouti aux Pruneaux because it’s the perfect time of year for plums. In this variation, she asks you to drop them in boiling water and peel them. I found the prospect of this too tedious, so I simply cut the plums in half (I used small ones) and sprinkled them with sugar. Otherwise I followed the master recipe, which I include here with my one little tweak. Instead of plums, you can also use sliced apple or pear instead of plums. Clafouti can be a perfect summer or winter dessert, depending on the fruit you use. Now that is what I call versatile.
Julia Child’s Plum Clafouti
Serves 6 to 8 people
1 pound firm, ripe plums
1 1/4 cup milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup flour
1/3 extra cup sugar
icing sugar for dusting
1) Preheat oven to 350F. Cut plums in half and sprinkle with some sugar. Set aside.
2)Place all of the ingredients except the last 1/3 cup sugar in a blender in the order they are listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute.
3) Pour a 1/4-inch layer of the batter in a buttered fireproof baking dish or pyrex pie plate about 1 1/2 inches deep. Place in the oven for about 5 minutes–until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish.
4) Spread the plums over the batter with the skins facing up. Sprinkle with the extra 1/3 cup sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter.
5) Bake in the middle position of the oven for about an hour, until the clafouti has puffed and browned and a toothpick or knife plunged into its center comes out clean. Sprinkle the clafouti with icing sugar before serving.
If you would like to follow Julia’s recipe exactly as printed, drop the plums in boiling water for exactly ten seconds. Peel them before slicing. Soak in 1/4 cup of orange liqueur, kirsch or cognac and let stand for one hour. Substitute this liquid for part of the milk called for in the recipe and omit the last 1/3 cup sugar called for in the recipe. The apple and pear variations call for the same method; use 1 1/4 pounds of apples or 3 cups of pears, peeled, cored, and sliced.
I am convinced that to be a true foodie, you have to be the obsessive sort. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of this–at least in the dim recesses of my mind. It’s all because of Walter.
Walter was my Dad’s best friend while I was growing up. He was a cabinet maker who ran his own business by day. After work, he would come home and make dinner for his wife and kids. He was a great cook, and he enjoyed cooking very much. Doubtlessly, he enjoyed eating even more. Walter knew everything there was to know about food and he knew all the best places to get it. Every Saturday he drove thirty kilometers into the city from his home in the suburbs and spent hours going from shop to shop, acquiring his favorite sausages and cuts of meats and raw milk cheeses from Quebec. He was a man after my own heart, that Walter.
I, too, am similarly obsessed. I have sat in gridlocked bridge traffic for a croissant from Thomas Haas, spent hours walking around Paris looking for Poliâne, the world famous boulangerie. Ask me specifics about the art and architecture of the great European cities I have visited, I may draw a blank. But I can recount in excruciating detail what I ate there.
So it’s no surprise that since I have started cooking from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking that I have been cooking from it compulsively. Now, I had this cookbook before all this hullabaloo about the Julie and Julia movie. It was the first book I bought when I decided I wanted to become a food writer and get serious about cooking. The idea of cooking from it, however, was intimidating enough that it sat on my bookshelf, gathering dust, until I joined some food bloggers in a MtAoFC challenge. Everything I have made turned out better than I expected, and though I haven’t made anything terribly complicated, what I have made has been absolutely delicious.
This Sauté de Boeuf à la Parisienne from MtAoFC Volume I is a fine choice if you need an impressive dish in a hurry. It calls for beef filet; the tenderloin butt and the tail of the beef are often used. It can be cooked in advance but requires care when reheating so as not to overcook the meat.
Sauté de Boeuf à la Parisienne
for 6 people
1/2 pound fresh mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon good cooking oil
3 tablespoons minced shallots
1/4 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper
2 1/2 pounds filet of beef
2 tablespoons butter and 1 tablespoon cooking oil, more if needed
1/4 cup Madeira or dry white vermouth
3/4 cup beef stock
1 cup whipping cream
2 tablespoons cornstarch blended with 1 tablespoon of the cream
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons softened butter
1) Sauté the mushrooms in the first amount given of butter and oil for about five minutes, or until lightly browned. Stir in the shallots and cook for a minute longer. Season the mushrooms and scrape them into a side dish.
2) Trim off the surrounding fat and filament from the beef and cut into 2-ounce pieces, about 2 inches across and 1/2-inch thick. Dry thoroughly on paper towels.
3) Place butter and oil in the skillet and set over moderately high heat. When the butter foam begins to subside, sauté the beef, a few pieces at a time, for 2-3 minutes on each side to brown the exterior but keep the interior rosy red. Set the beef on a side dish and discard the fat.
4) Pour the wine and stock into the skillet and boil it down rapidly, scraping up the coagulated cooking juices, until liquid is reduced to about 1/3 cup. Beat in the cream, then the cornstarch mixture. Simmer a minute. Add the mushrooms and simmer a minute more. The sauce should be lightly thickened. Correct seasonings.
5) Season the beef lightly with salt and pepper and return it to the skillet along with any juices which may have escaped. Baste the beef with the sauce and mushrooms, or transfer everything to a serving casserole.
6) When you are ready to serve, cover the skillet or casserole and heat to below the simmer for 3-4 minutes, being very careful not to overdo it or the pieces of filet will be well done rather than rare. Off heat and just before serving, tilt casserole, add butter to sauce a bit at a time while basting the meat until the butter has absorbed. Decorate with parsley and serve at once.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for the last week know that I am cooking with Julia these days and that all of my posts will be focused on recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking–at least until the release of the long-anticipated movie Julie & Julia.
Now I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I own more cookbooks than I would want to count, have stacks and stacks of back issues of cooking magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and binders overflowing with recipes that I have printed off the Internet, MTAOFC was not a part of my library until a couple of months ago. I have other cookbooks by Julia, other books on French cooking. So why was I missing a classic that started a revolution in home cooking when it first came out in 1961?
I have no real answer except that it was always a book that seemed intimidating to me. Until my first trip to Paris, I had focused on Italian cooking, not French. I am also most attracted to cookbooks with glossy, mouth-watering pictures; Julia’s book with its illustrations and strange recipe layout would just make things more complicated than they needed to be, I reasoned. And wasn’t French cooking already too complicated? Who has the time to spent the whole day making puff pastry and wrapping it around a duck?
Which brings me back to Julie & Julia. Before it became a movie, it was a book; a memoir written by Julie Powell, who cooked her way through all 524 recipes in MTAOFC within the space of a year. There has been widespread criticism of Julie Powell in foodie circles for some of her opinions, her writing style and penchant for cursing, which is really too bad. Because when you come right down to it, what she did was an astonishing feat.
Many of the recipes in MTAOFC are complicated. They do take time. Very few people have the time or inclination to cook this way anymore. Putting together a dinner party from this cookbook can take a good couple of days from your life. Julie Powell did this on a daily basis–after coming home from a dead-end secretarial job.
Now this is not to say that every recipe is difficult. Once I started cooking from this book, I realized how accessible a lot of the recipes are. Julia Child walks you through everything in such detail that you cannot fail as long as you follow her instructions. Although I have not yet attempted an aspic or a Canard en Croûte, there are many recipes that don’t take a lot of time. In fact, I put a little dinner together for myself the other night that took no more than half an hour to make: Steak au Poivre, mushrooms in Medeira sauce, and Tomates à la Provençale. It was all so delicious that I wondered why I had waited so long to get this culinary masterpiece.
Julia Child’s Steak au Poivre
Pepper Steak with Brandy Sauce
Serves 4-6 people
2 tablespons mixed or white peppercorns
2 to 2 1/2 lbs. steak
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons shallots or green onions
1/2 cup stock
1/3 cup cognac
3-4 tablespoons softened butter
1) Place the peppercorms in a mixing bowl and crush them roughly with a pestle or the bottom of a bottle.
2) Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crushed peppercorns into both sides of the meat. Cover with waxed paper. Let stand for at least half an hour; 2 or 3 hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.
3) Sauté the steak in hot oil and butter 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove to a hot platter and season with salt.
4) For the sauce: pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the butter and shallots and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the butter a half-tablespoon at a time.
I have many memories of my trip to Paris. Taking a boat ride along the Seine river, touring the cobblestone streets of the Marais, sitting in the pew of the Sacre Coeur on Easter. I’m not much of a diarist but during my trip to Paris I recorded every detail so as not to forget all those moments that seemed so significant at the time but are already fading like the edges of an old piece of vellum. You can’t choose what you want to remember; as my first glimpse at the Mona Lisa slowly recedes from my mind, the memories of what I ate in Paris will remain. To my mind, food and memory are inextricably linked. Strange to some people, perhaps, but I think it makes perfect sense. If you are to truly experience a culture, you must experience its food. A nation’s cuisine is a confluence of centuries–sometimes even millennia–of tradition and history. It bears witness to whether a nation lives in wealth or poverty, whether it has been well endowed by nature. Culinary traditions teach us about a nation’s cultural level, about how people cultivated their fields and grazed their livestock, and about whether the land was crossed by main trade routes bringing in other nationalities, customs, foods, and spices. In other words, to eat a country’s food is to glimpse into its past.
Although food historians surmise that the precursor to modern pastry was the Mediterranean paper-thin phyllo brought to medieval Europe by way of the crusaders, it was the Renaissance chefs who are crediting for developing puff and choux pastries. For me, the tart is the crown jewel of pastries, and none as quintessentially French as the tarte aux pommes.
You only have to be in Paris for a very short time to realize that there is a pâtisserie on every streetcorner, the windows displaying a variety of tarts and tartelets, each crafted with tradition and the utmost care. I spent many a day in Paris with my nose pressed up to the glass of a pastry shop, trying to figure out which one beckoned the most. They all seemed too pretty to eat.
Although I have never been much of a baker, when I returned home I was determined to master the tart. No more Tenderflake crusts with all their bad fats for me. I wanted the real thing, and I wanted to be able to make it myself. Your first attempts at pastry hardly ever turn out the way you want them to, but it doesn’t take long to master a good sweet short paste. And what can be easier than filling it with some sliced apples, sugar, and a coating of apricot jam?
Which brings me to Julia Child’s tarte aux pommes. This week I continue to cook with Julia from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in anticipation of Julie & Julia, written and directed by Nora Ephron of Sleepless in Seattle fame and highly awaited by foodies everywhere. This classic French apple tart is, well–forgive the pun–easy as pie.
Tarte aux Pommes
from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child
10-inch partially cooked pastry shell
4 pounds cooking apples (Golden Delicious)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/3 cup apricot jam/preserves
1/3 cup Calvados, rum or cognac (or 1 tablespoon vanilla)
2/3 cup granualted sugar for topping
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1) Preheat oven to 375F. Quarter, core, and peel the apples. Cut enough to make 3 cups into 1/8-inch lengthwise slices and toss them in a bowl with the lemon juice and sugar. Reserve them for the top of the tart.
2) Cut the rest of the apples into rough slices. You should have about 8 cups. Place in a pan and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until tender.
3) Beat in apricot jam, Calvados, sugar, butter, and cinnamon. Raise heat and boil, stirring, until applesauce is thick enough to hold in a mass in the spoon.
4) Spread the applesauce in the pastry shell. Cover with a neat, closely overlapping layer of sliced apples arranged in concentric circles, as illustrated below:
5) Bake in upper third of preheated oven for about 30 minutes, or until the apples have browned lightly and are tender. Slide the tart onto a serving dish and paint over it with a light coating of apricot glaze. Serve warm or cold with whipping cream or a scoop of ice cream.
1/2 cup apricot preserves, forced through a sieve
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
Stir the strained apricot preserves and sugar over moderately high heat until thick enough to coat the spoon with a light film, and the last drops are sticky as they fall from the spoon (225-228 degrees on a candy thermometer). Do not boil past this point or the glaze will become brittle as it cools.
Apply the glaze while it is still warm. Unused glaze will keep indefinitely in a screw-top jar.
She was not an actress, not a singer, not a Kennedy–but a cook. Yet Julia Child remains one of the most iconic and well-loved Americans of the last century. It’s no exaggeration to say that if it weren’t for her and her classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking we’d all be eating boxed potatoes and canned green beans for dinner. There would be no boeuf bourguignon, no sidewalk creperies, no tarte aux pommes. No Martha Stewart or Ina Garten. No Food Network. Perhaps there would be no arugula, five dollar loaves of sourdough bread, or people willing to pay four bucks for a cup of coffee. Julia Child, among James Beard, Alice Waters and a handful of others, began an American culinary revolution that is still in an upswing. She took the grandest and most complicated cuisine in the Western world and made it accessible. “If you can read,” she used to say, “you can cook”. And how true this is, as long as you have Julia at your side.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Julia Child was. I used to watch her on re-runs of The French Chef when I was a kid, fascinated by her stature and that high-pitched warbly voice; I wondered if she was serious. Although she was deft and full of kitchen knowledge, she still made mistakes. Things didn’t always come out perfectly but that was a part of her charm. She made you feel like cooking wasn’t so hard and that if she could learn to do it, you could too. When I first started buying cookbooks, I bought Julia’s. She was the most famous, I reasoned, therefore the most trustworthy. The Way to Cook and Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom became bibles for me. But somehow, I never bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was somewhat intimidated by French cooking, and many of the recipes seemed overly involved and complicated. It took me a long time to realize what I was missing.
Certainly, it can take a good day to make a cassoulet or canard en croute, but there is so much more to this comprehensive and detailed cookbook. There are many simple recipes that don’t require fussy ingredients. Recipes that can take you from fumbling uncertainty in the kitchen to a confidence that you, you too can make French food–and make it well.
Now this is a lot–but there’s more. As much as Julia has been an inspiration in the kitchen, I find her inspiring in another–dare I say even more important–way. Julia Child was a late bloomer. In an age where most women married straight out of high school, she was in her thirties before she met Paul Child, the love of her life and constant companion for fifty years. She was also well into her thirties before she ever picked up a saucepan. She spent ten years working on MTAOFC and didn’t experience her first real achievement in life until she was almost fifty. When success finally shone its light on Julia Child, it shone with all its glory. Whenever I think that I will never find the person who gets me, who will always have my back, I think of Julia. When I feel I haven’t accomplished enough in my life, that I’m not where I want to be–that I should just give up–I think of Julia. She has taught me that it’s never too late, and that if you truly have a passion for something and you work hard enough, success will ultimately come.
On August 7, 2009, Sony Pictures will release Julie & Julia , a movie long-anticipated by foodies everywhere. To celebrate, the lovely Helene from La Cuisine d’Helene came up with the wonderful idea to have a Mastering the Art of French Cooking challenge in which several food bloggers agreed to cook recipes from Julia’s book and post them today.
Check out what some of us are cooking:
Salad Nicoise at La Cuisine d’Helene
Potage Parmentier and Chocolate Mousse at La Fuji Mama
Cherry Clafouti at More Than Burnt Toast
Coquilles St. Jacques a la Provencale and Biscuit au Beurre at Lisa is Cooking
Oeuf a la Bourgiugnonne at Confessions of a Cardamom Addict
Fresh Peach Ginger Peasant Cakes at Passionate about Baking
As for me, I decided to make Rapee Morvandelle, a gratin (of course!) of shredded potatoes with ham, eggs and onions. I thought no egg dish could top my beloved quiche, but this little dish is even better. The potato gives it substance and the ham is a perfect foil for the flavor of the slightly caramelized onions. Dotted with bits of golden butter, it’s like the mostly heavenly of potato pancakes.
Julia Child’s Rapee Morvandelle
1/2 cup finely minced onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup (3 ounces) finely diced cooked ham
1/2 clove crushed garlic
2 tablespoons minced parsley, chevril and/or chives
2/3 cup (3 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
4 tablespoons whipping cream, light cream, or milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 medium potatoes (3 ounces)
an additional 2 1/2 teaspoons butter
1) Preheat the oven to 375F. Cook the onion slowly in the oil and butter until tender but not browned. About 5 minutes.
2) Raise heat slightly. Stir in ham and cook a moment more.
3) Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl with the garlic, herbs, cheese, cream or milk, and seasonings. Then blend in ham and onions.
4) Peel the potatoes and grate them, using large holes of grater. A handful at a time, squeeze out their water. Check seasonings.
5) Heat the butter in an 11-12 inch dish. When foaming, pour in the potato and egg mixture. Dot with butter.
6) Set in the upper third of preheated oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Serve directly from dish.