Top | First Person

My inner Child

(article, Charlotte Freeman)

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p(blue). Editor's note: This essay was included in the 2010 edition of [%amazonProductLink "Best Food Writing" asin=0738213810].

Last summer — nearly half a century after its initial publication — Julia Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking hit the top of the national bestseller charts. The phenomenon was, of course, driven by the late-summer (and now video) release of the movie '"Julie which I confess I have not yet seen, although I was an early and ardent supporter of Julie Powell’s blog, the Julie/Julia Project. 

A flurry of articles immediately ensued: about how difficult it is to cook out of Mastering, and about the panic ensuing among ordinary cooks when confronted with the amounts of butter and cream called for in Child's classic French recipes. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Croquembouche is about mastery."] On the one hand, Regina Schrambling warned Slate readers not to buy the book, because “you’ll never cook from it.” 

On the other hand, the very New York Times article in which Child’s bestseller status was announced also quoted a Florida woman who, horrified by the inclusion of salt pork in the famous boeuf bourguignonne recipe, decided that a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of French onion soup, and a can of red wine were acceptable substitutes. 

“Yes, Julia Child rolled over in her grave when I opened the cream of mushroom soup,” Melissah Bruce-Weiner told the paper. “But you know what? That’s our world.”

Perhaps. But it’s also a world in which everyone seems to be missing the point of both Mastering the Art of French Cooking and of the Julie/Julia Project. Both were about mastery, not about everyday ease. 

Child set out to not only master the art of French cooking for herself, but to translate that precise tradition for an audience of “servantless American cooks” who had only the grim supermarkets of the 1950s from which to shop. 

Two generations later, Powell set out to save herself from despair, not by inventing “30-Minute Meals” but by daring herself to cook each and every recipe in Child’s exacting and daunting book. 

These are not tasks taken on by women who are seeking to make their lives easier. These are tasks taken on by women seeking to test themselves, to see whether they can create something beautiful and delicious while hewing to a set of exacting standards. 

Sometimes, the only way to save yourself is to take on a project, and for some of us, the projects by which we seek to do that involve cooking. I know, because it was four years ago that I set out to survive the first horrifyingly lonely Christmas after my brother died by cooking an enormous, elaborate croquembouche. 

It was my first Christmas at home after Patrick was killed in a car wreck, and since I had no one to cook for any more, I decided I needed an elaborate cooking project to take with me to the several parties to which I’d been invited. 

I needed something difficult. I needed something delicious. I needed something very, very festive. And a croquembouche — a tower of cream-filled puff pastries shellacked in hot caramel, traditionally served in France as a wedding cake — fit all those bills. 

I think I must have seen a rerun of that hilarious Martha Stewart episode in which she and Child make dueling croquembouches. Stewart’s is all tidy and neatly stacked, while Child’s is sort of a festive pile. 

“Ooh,” says Child in her warbly voice, as she flings hot caramel strands in the direction of her dessert, “I like yours.” 

A croquembouche seemed right for Patrick. For several years running, he had made the Paris-Brest pastry out of a Jacques Pepin cookbook. The first time he’d piped out the pâte à choux for it, he thought it didn't look right, and so he threw it out. When he followed the recipe a second time, only to get the exact same result, he put it in the oven despite his doubts. 

“I should have believed Jacques,” he told me when I came home from Christmas shopping. “Look! It’s gorgeous!” 

And Patrick had loved Julia Child. As a very small child, her show was his favorite thing to watch on TV. He was so devoted to the original "The French Chef" that we used to tease him that he could make a perfect bûche de Noël by the time he was five. 

It was Patrick who discovered that Pepin and Child would be in San Francisco, signing copies of their latest cookbook, and who insisted we go into town and get copies. There we were, the youngest people in the line by at least 15 years, and there Child was, pooh-poohing our hero worship, signing away while Pepin ushered clusters of star-struck ladies behind her for snapshots.

It was a lovely afternoon. Patrick's copy of that book was one of the things I made sure to keep when I had to clean out his things. 

And so, the croquembouche. It took three days. On the first day, I made the cream puffs — dozens and dozens of cream puffs. Ninety-six, I believe. Then I made two flavors of pastry cream — Grand Marnier and chocolate. On the second day, I filled all the cream puffs. Finally, on the third day I made the caramel and started to assemble the thing. 

The caramel was kind of scary; it’s very hot and you need to keep a big bowl of ice water nearby in case of burns. And the directions said to dip the cream puffs in the caramel, which was also sort of daunting. But little by little, the thing started to set up. 

I’d bought some of those pretty little silver balls to decorate it with, but the caramel set up so quickly that they mostly just skittered all over my kitchen. And I had a near-disaster toward the top. The first couple of caramel batches went pretty well, but as they started to thicken up, I thought I could lighten it by adding some of the sugar syrup that had melted but hadn’t yet caramelized.

This was not a good idea. It looked like shiny brown caramel, but when it cooled on the cream puffs, it looked like the opaque, matte, dried sugar solution it was. 

I was horrified. It was four o’clock, and the Christmas Eve open house was starting at six, and I hadn’t made any plans for a backup dessert.

This is when I remembered Julia Child on Martha Stewart’s show. What Would Julia Do? I cleaned out my saucepan and started a fresh batch of caramel. I was patient. I waited for that wonderful toasty smell, and then I carefully swirled the caramel until it was a clear medium-brown.

Then, still following the spirit of Julia Child, I dripped the new caramel all over the top of the croquembouche. As the caramel started to set up, I tried pulling strings of caramel out, so it’d get that nice spun-sugar kind of look. 

It was still a little lumpy, and there weren’t as many stringy glistening strands as I would have liked, but overall, it was beautiful. It was a beautiful croquembouche.

It was also nearly three feet tall and weighed close to 30 pounds. I had to get it out into the car, then drive across town, and then maneuver it past the sweets-loving, 125-pound golden retriever at the door. 

All of which I managed. I’d finished my project. I hadn’t cried all day. I had arrived at a party like a person who can survive disaster with aplomb. I’d called on my inner Julia Child, and she hadn’t let me down. 

That’s what Mastering the Art of French Cooking is really all about. It’s about poaching your salt pork for precisely the right amount of time it takes for American salt pork to resemble French lardons. 

And that’s what Julie Powell’s project was about. It was about being determined enough to figure out how to split a marrow bone, or kill a lobster, or learn to make a perfect pâte brisée.

It’s not about easy. Triumph never is. 

I can only hope that all those new copies of Mastering will not go home and languish on cookbook shelves. But even if they do, there’s another generation coming up, one who might, as my generation did, pull their mothers’ copies off the shelf, start paging through, and discover the deep joy that comes from following Child’s exacting directions in order to produce something delicious, and elegant, and — as the French would say — correct. 

p(bio). The author of the novel [%bookLink code=0312254075 "Place Last Seen"],_ Charlotte Freeman blogs at LivingSmall. She lives in Livingston, Montana, where she hikes and gardens and is learning to put up as much of her own food as possible. 

p(bio). We thank Kimberley Slobodian of sum.ptuo.us for the use of her photo.


reference-image, l