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When the Julie/Julia project began, the idea behind it was that if Julie Powell can do it, you can do. Working as a secretary and living in a crappy Queens apartment, Powell decided out of sheer boredom to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking-- and even more surprising, she did it.
When I saw the movie that has been made of Powell's book about the experience, Julie & Julia, I walked out of it hungry, like everyone else did. But did I go home to try to replicate the lovingly photographed boeuf bourguignon and filet of soleI'd seen onscreen? Of course not! Because Julia Child's recipes are archaic, they're fattening, they've got 30 steps to them and are impossible to make in a crappy New York kitchen.
That attitude, of course, is missing the entire point of what Powell did, which proved that anyone with the right ingredients and enough patience can fashion even the craziest of Julia Child's timeless dishes. So I figured, enough is enough. I flipped through the pages of Mastering the Art to find three dishes that wouldn't require 8 hours cooking time and probably wouldn't kill the four friends I'd invited over should I do them incorrectly.
Armed with promotional reusable shopping bags (thanks, Sony and Focus!), I hit the store and gathered everything I'd need, which ranged from an entire raw chicken to a Pyrex baking dish. And on a 90-degree day in Manhattan, in my completely un-air-conditioned apartment with a window that faces a brick wall, I began.
Dish #1: Chicken with Bacon, Potatoes and Onions
As the recipe that would take the longest to cook, and the centerpiece of the meal, I started on this one before anyone had even arrived to photograph. I'd wanted to make boeuf bourginon, the dish that acts as kind of a through line in Julie & Julia, but that one requires for cooking for like 4 hours. No wonder Julie Powell screwed up the first time she made it.
Why does raw bacon look so delicious? You'd think that would be an evolutionary problem.
I boiled the bacon, onions and potatoes for a little bit. (Yes, boiled bacon. The French are weird).
Then I got to cook the boiled bacon IN BUTTER. BACON COOKED IN BUTTER. I take it back, the French are great.
The whole, raw chicken got sauteed in the bacon-butter mixture for a while, and it was at that moment that my friend Andrew showed up and said it smelled delicious. Unfortunately he had no idea how far away dinner was at that point.
Once the chicken was nice and brown on the outside (but still raw on the inside), I tossed all the veggies in and mixed them all in the buttery goodness at the bottom of the dish.
I'd like to point out that this gorgeous Le Creuset dutch oven comes courtesy of my boyfriend, who got the dish from his mom, who had owned it since the 70s. He had no idea it was so valuable until I told him, and I had no idea how heavy it was until I carried it over to my place on foot.
The whole mess of meat and vegetables went into the oven for about 45 minutes, and once in a while we got to baste it with the butter at the bottom of the pan. Basting is very fun. Everyone wanted to try.
Dish #2: Garlic Soup.
Even though it was the appetizer, I saved this one for second because it was simpler, and I figured had less potential for being screwed up. Oh how wrong I turned out to be.
It starts off easy, though-- you boil an entire head of garlic cloves in a pot of water with a bunch of herbs. It's so easy there weren't even photos taken, though above you see a google image search picture of garlic cloves, just to keep you happy. (We didn't actually use that much, though in retrospect, I would totally eat a soup with that much garlic in it).
The next part-- the trickier part-- starts with separating egg yolks from their whites.
This is also the fun part, since your hands get super-gross and you can pretend you're in a monster movie.
The egg yolks are mixed with olive oil to create what's effectively the mayonnaise base of the soup. I enlisted the newly arrived Rachel to help me with this phase. Rachel, being a foodie, has all kinds of good ideas for how to make these recipes work.
Like tilting the pan to make whisking easier. Brilliant!
The disaster part came in later, and happened because we were all too busy with the souffle to notice the lonely egg and oil mixture, ignored on the stove. And yeah, we didn't get any pictures of it. But basically due to neglect (and a stove that should not have been on), the eggs and oil hardened into what was effectively scrambled eggs. But Rachel saved it! More on that later.
Dish #3: Chocolate Souffle.
I have no idea why I thought this was a good idea-- souffles are notoriously difficult to make, and I didn't even have the proper souffle dish to make it with. I settled for a square Pyrex baking dish, which, to be fair, Julia said in the recipe would be OK. And since the dish doesn't involve making pastry or gelatin, and does involve melted chocolate, I figured it couldn't be all bad.
Look how delicious it starts off. We melted chunks of baking chocolate with a little bit of coffee in an improvised double boiler. There's water in the pot below it, see? It proved a little tricky to remove the water without destroying the chocolate, but eh, we managed it.
Meanwhile, Andrew went to the "dining room" (also the living room/entryway/my roommate's office-- it's a tiny apartment) to create the buttered aluminum collar that surrounds the dish, helping keep the souffle's shape as it rises.
Looks like a space dish, right? The aluminum collar would prove to serve more of a decorative purpose than a useful one, but we'll get to that later.
Having saved the leftover egg whites from the soup, I proceed to whip them to the point that they form "soft peaks," which means they have the right amount of air whisked into them to get that souffle texture.
See the peaks?
How about now?
OK, fine-- the peaks never formed. We've got all kinds of theories about why, from leaving the whites sitting out too long to the insane, swamp-like humidity in the kitchen at that point. We went ahead and added the sugar, which was supposed to form "hard, shining peaks"-- and of course that didn't happen either. Figuring that anything containing butter, chocolate, milk and eggs couldn't be all bad, we went ahead and added the chocolate anyway.
Ooooh... look at the swirls...
There was some bowl-licking after this, but I'll spare you the image.
Andrew's aluminum collar came in at last, as Rachel poured the chocolaty goodness into the pan, and we stood back and hoped that the damn thing, somehow, would rise. Mostly, though, we were too hungry to even think about it. Time to eat!
Time for soup!
By the time we were ready for the first course, we were joined by my boyfriend Michael, who was armed with beer and accoutrements for dessert. As for the soup disaster, Rachel gently suggested that it might be better just to start over again with the egg and oil mixture to make the base of the soup, and my was that a good idea. The soup turned out delicious and creamy and softly garlicky-- the cloves were removed just before serving, leaving behind a rich, warm flavor that wasn't at all overwhelming.
We grated Parmesan in it and served it with French bread, so even though the soup was effectively a creamy broth, it felt filling. I'm not really used to eating such a simple soup; they seem like a relic of a more aristocratic time, in which three-course meals were the norm. But as a starter for a big meal, it was hard to beat-- something warm I was actually willing to eat on a night that hot.
Time for chicken!
Halfway through the soup we were joined by my friend Dana, who had just finished running something like 9 miles in training for a half-marathon and therefore didn't need to bring anything but herself up the five flights to my apartment.
Rachel looks ready to faceplant in the chicken. I think we all would have. The combined allure of chicken and bacon is pretty hard to deny.
Andrew takes a photo as we deny ourselves bacon for one more moment.
Served with the potatoes on the side, the bacon laid on top and the combined chicken and bacon grease drizzled on top, the dish is pretty spectacular comfort food. The chicken is so tender that it's melting in our mouths, and after we're done with our servings we spend some time picking the remaining meat off the bones.
Yeah. It wasn't pretty. And neither was the dish, really, with just that little green of parsley on top. Julia says you don't need to serve any vegetables alongside it as a main course, but I'm pretty sure potatoes aren't a vegetable, and a side salad probably would have made this feel like a more justifiable meal. That, and half the butter. But that's not how Julia would have done it!
Time for souffle... or how about slouffe?
Now it was the moment of truth-- had the souffle risen? Had we somehow pulled this off, with our nonexistent soft peaks and slightly waterlogged chocolate?
Not really. Andrew's tenderly crafted aluminum collar was not needed at all in the end, as the souffle rose no higher than a brownie mix would have. Still-- when was the last time you saw a dish of brownies that looked more delicious than this "failed" dessert?
And with the vanilla ice cream that Michael brought, the souffle was still pretty tasty, with a texture somewhere between mousse and ganache, and tasting just as rich. We dubbed it "slouffe," since a souffle it was most definitely not. But as we predicted, this combination of ingredients can't go wrong no matter what-- but next time I'll keep the egg whites extra-cold, just in case.
This is what the kitchen looked like halfway through the cooking process, and if you add an entire sinkful of dirty dishes, you'll get the picture. Luckily I have excellent friends who managed the dishes in turns while we sat at the table and drank wine far too late, talking about nothing and pretending we had nothing to do the next morning.
I've long been a believer in the power and joy of cooking that's celebrated so strongly in Julie & Julia-- throwing a dinner party is probably my favorite activity, and this project was mostly a good excuse to do it on a weeknight. And while in the film Julie & Julia I felt less connected to Julie Powell, preferring to focus on Julia's fabulous life in Paris, I definitely thought about my fellow New Yorker as I sweated over my stove. When Julie Powell cooked all 524 of those recipes she struck a chord in people because we all recognized the challenge as worthwhile, even if it wasn't something we'd choose. Even for something as mundane and everyday as cooking, there's always a new way to surpass yourself.
I will definitely cook that chicken again, and make the garlic soup when I'm feeling particularly old-timey; I'll even get on the souffle horse again. Julia Child's recipes are infinitely more complicated and buttery than what I'd normally cook, but in them lies their appeal-- they come from another time, when basic ingredients were all you had and time was worth spending in the kitchen. My dinner party wasn't quite the twinkling-light, rooftop affair that Julie had at the end of Julie & Julia, but it too was a gathering of friends facilitated by food, the great equalizer. If nothing else, it's a great way to get people to come drink wine with you on a weeknight.
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