I am, amongst other things, a sentimentalist, a writer, a reader, a traveler and a cook, so it makes perfect sense that I would absolutely love My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme, her step-grandson, considering that it:
- is a memoir (which, by nature, must be a bit sentimental, though Julia Child* is not);
- was written, and makes references to letters written to and by Julia Child;
- was read by me;
- is about Ms. Child’s life abroad — and in more places than just France, for the record; and
- focuses on food.
It sounds like a pretty good match, right?
I wanted to get my hands on a copy immediately when it was published in 2006; at the time, Keith and I were about to part with a massive down-payment on a house, and I had cut back on the purchasing of items, particularly and unfortunately hardcover books. For my birthday that year, because he knew how much I wanted to read it, Keith gave it to me this as a part of my gift. It was one of the best books I’d read in a long while — which is really saying something, considering how much I read**. I remember thinking it was honest, and witty, and personal, and full of little anecdotes that made me want to laugh out loud. There’s lost-in-translation stories about communicating with the French, Germans, Norwegians, and family; there’s detailed accounts of the endless hours spent researching recipes; there’s touching glimpses of Child’s love life; and of course, there’s the food. Seriously: the food, which is reason alone to run out and buy the book. Or at least borrow it from your local library.
And that is pretty much what I said when my book club decided they wanted to read it.
So we did, planning a Mastering the Art of French Cooking-themed dinner at Stephanie’s apartment in Jamaica Plain, where we discussed the book last Sunday night. Or, we at least tried to, considering we were busy stuffing ourselves absolutely silly with a truly disgusting amount of food… the majority of which was made with massive amounts of butter. (The morning after dinner, on the phone, I asked Stephanie how much butter she thought we had eaten. “A pound,” she replied. “Let’s not think about it.”)
Because we wanted to be a little organized — our book club is a little free-form, but around food we are not — we coordinated what dishes we would bring to Stephanie’s. Amanda, Heather and Sarah each baked various gratins (potato, Brussels sprouts and zucchini, respectively); Melissa made her own puff pastry, which she filled with anchovies and cheese; Stephanie made Hollandaise and artichokes, as well as a bouillabaisse so delicious I stupidly almost asked for the recipe; and I ended up making (at Melissa’s suggestion) chocolate mousse.
I love chocolate mousse, always have, and so was a bit irritated with myself for not being clever enough to think of making it on my own. My friend Kelly is French, and one of his terribly chic sisters (also French) once served me homemade mousse at their parents’ table in the little stone village of Nissan-lez-Enserune. Not once had it ever occurred to me that I — little ol’ curly-haired me — would ever be able to make something as luscious and lusty as chocolate mousse, but it turns out that this is precisely why we have Julia Child, to get us out of our chairs and into our kitchens to make luscious and lusty things like bouillabaisse and Hollandaise and puff pastry. And thank goodness for that, because this mousse was dee-vine, as they say and if I do say so myself.
I can’t take any of the credit though. It was all Julia. I just was the girl holding the mixer.
Chocolate Mousse, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child
Makes about five cups, which is enough for six to eight portions
4 eggs, separated
¾ cup granulated sugar plus one tablespoon, separated
¼ cup orange liqueur
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
4 tablespoons strong coffee
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup finely chopped candied orange zest (recipe following)
Pinch of salt
A pan of not-quite-simmering water
A basin of ice water
- Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until mixture is thick, pale yellow and falls back upon itself, forming a slowly dissolving ribbon. Beat in the orange liqueur, then set the mixing bowl over the not-quite-simmering water. Continue beating for three to four minutes until the mixture is foamy and too hot for your finger. Then set the mixing bowl in the basin of ice water and continue to beat for another three to four minutes until the mixture is cool and again forms the ribbon. It will have the consistency of mayonnaise. (It really will. It’s a little freaky.) Set aside.
- Place another clean mixing bowl over the basin of not-quite-simmering water, creating a double-boiler. Inside, melt chocolate with coffee, then remove from heat and beat in the butter a bit at a time to make a smooth cream. Beat the chocolate into the egg yolks and sugar, then beat in the orange zest.
- In yet another clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form. Sprinkle in the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form. Stir one-fourth of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the rest.
- Turn into a serving dish, dessert cups or petits pots. Refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight.
Glazed Orange or Lemon Zest
Makes about half a cup
5 lemons of 3 bright-skinned oranges
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Remove the colored part of the lemon or orange skin with a vegetable peeler. Julienne into strip 1 ½ inches long and 1/16 inches wide. Simmer in one quart water for ten to twelve minutes, or until just tender when bitten. Drain and refresh in cold water. Dry on paper towels.
- Boil sugar and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan to the thread stage (230°). Remove from heat. Stir in the drained peel and vanilla. Let the peel stand in the syrup for at least thirty empty. Drain when ready to use. Under refrigeration, the peel will keep in the syrup for several weeks.
* I cannot, for the life of me, bring myself to call Julia Child anything by Julia Child. I don’t know why.
**But you know what they say about quality and quantity, and I have been known to indulge in more than one guilty literary pleasure.