I love to host the holidays. Nothing gives me more pleasure than planning, marketing, preparing, and entertaining for these special times, and I have established a tradition of going a little over the top for the occasion.
I also loved the books Julie and Julia as well as My Life in France. Both inspired me to swipe my mom’s old copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and happily start practicing. That was 2 or 3 years ago, and my appetite was rewet when I heard the film was coming out this summer. It inspired me to begin planning Le Marais, or an all Julia Child tribute to Rosh Hashanah.
In many ways the planning was consistent with other themes in my life. For example, we live in a very small place, so much so that for every item we bring in, another needs to move out. It’s a real house of cards and sometimes frustrates me to no end. But there is a wonderful economy that comes from living like this. We are bound by our limitations, and so when we go furniture shopping, we have to look high and low for something sized within reach. I can’t just purchase that cute little serving dish that caught my eye because there is no where to put it and I am not ready to sacrifice what I already have. It seems that having fewer options leads to better choices, as well as less wasted time spent searching. The entire Le Marais exercise echoed this bit of wisdom.
So now that you know I like to be challenged by boundaries, here were my self imposed rules:
1) We don’t keep kosher Per Se, but we do try to keep a Jewish home. I do not mix milk with meat, nor do I cook seafood or pork in my home.
2) The main dish would be meat and needed to have apples listed in the ingredients.
3) There had to be enough food for at least 6 – 8 people, with room for an additional 2 if necessary.
4) There had to be a kid friendly option on the table.
5) At least one baked desert was required, because I am a masochist mental case.
6) All food had to be based on Julia Child’s recipes.
Now, all of those rules are daunting to even the most fearless cook, but by far the most challenging was number one. JC is all about dairy. To wit, I usually make challah bread once a week using a stand by recipe that has worked for years. Like most challah recipes, it has only parve (not dairy, not meat) ingredients like eggs, oil, and flour. Julia Child has a lovely challah recipe from in Baking with Julia, but it calls for unsalted butter, more unsalted butter, whole milk, and cream. ‘Can’t she just call it a brioche and a ^&$&% day’, I muttered under my breath as I tried to reconcile with my rules. I reread the recipe, and while I could not use it verbatim, I was able to glean from her Method and improve the challah, especially by double egg washing the loaves while baking. And so I learned how to make a better bread, as well as manage the rules of the game.
After the bread planning, I decided to start by searching for a main dish recipe that met my requirements, knowing I would pair everything else accordingly. Rule 1 eliminated more than 90% of the recipes in Mastering The Art of French Cooking (MtAoFC) volumes I and II. Rule 2 left me with a single wonderful option from MtAoFC vol I (p 275), Caneton Roti a l’Alsacienne or Roast Duck with sausage and apple stuffing. I had made the master recipe before with great success, but the apple and sausage stuffing were just over the top. I used a chicken and apple sausage that beautifully complimented the apples, sage, cognac, and port. Two ducks took under two hours, made a wonderful main dish, and my house smell like heaven on earth.
Once I had nailed down the main event, I tackled the next challenge…stuffed cabbage. Now stuffed cabbage is a Rosh Hashanah tradition that goes back to my grand-mother Esther Steinberg-Levy, who handed me her recipe when I was in high school and went to her grave trying to help me get it right. She made it sweet and sour with apples and lemons, and it is a family favorite. Julia Child has an eight page recipe for Chou Farci in MtAoFC vol II (p 379), complete with sausage and ham for the stuffing and several methods. The gist of the primary approach is to dismember an entire cabbage, reconstruct it in a pan with layers of stuffing, and present it ‘whole’ for family and friends. Unfortunately, this requires the dish to be served as soon as it is cooked, eliminating the convenience of cooking the cabbage in advance. I get crazy right an hour or two before the guests arrive; the last thing I needed is some last minute cabbage debacle to unhinge me completely. Therefore I stuck to Nana’s recipe, but used Julia’s alternative method. First of all, I am always getting a savoy cabbage from now on..what a difference. Never again will I boil a whole head of domestic cabbage and burn my first three layers of skin while peeling it. Also, her wrapping technique which is beautifully illustrated, made for a much tighter roll. Maybe next year I will try the mold.
To satisfy rule four, there was apple and honey on the table, as well as her Risotto/Pilaf/Pilau recipe (MtAoFC vol I, p 532). Substituting oil for butter did not detract from the wonderful taste, and to boot I molded it into a rice ring per her suggestion. To serve, I placed the stuffing from the duck on the center and garnished with parsley – fabulous, and my daughter ate it with gusto.
Petites Oignons Aigre-Doux/Sweet and Sour Onions Braised with Raisins from MtAoFC vol II (p 410) paired beautifully with the duck and met my unspoken rule of making little pearl onions that my husband loves so much. The flavor of the vegetable is enhanced by dry mustard, white wine vinegar, tomato, thyme, and bay leaf. And I knocked out rule 5 with a gem from MtAoFC vol I (p 671), Gateau a l’Orange/Orange Sponge Cake. A very simple dessert that has NO DAIRY whatsoever – no substitutions required. I topped it with JC’s apricot glaze, and then rounded it out with almond bits on the side. I could have put it in a box and sold it at Carlo’s Bakery for twenty bucks.
It was a wonderful dinner, with great food and company. Everyone, including me, was impressed with the fare. At one point though, one of my guests remarked about how time consuming it was to cook JC’s recipes, how complicated they were. Hilda is my sister in law’s grand-mother, a shrewd woman with a terrific sense of humor. We love having her in the family, and she always brings something to the table. When she heard about the menu she told us a story about her JC experience.
“I remember it took all day to make those recipes.” she told us in her thick Germanic accent, “When it was done, it was delicious. And I thought ‘Never again’! ”
This is one of the few times where Hilda and I will disagree; while it was time consuming, I cooked 5 recipes in a single day and everything came out wonderfully. This is in part attributable to my wonderful husband, a quiet hero who who took charge of cleaning and watching the kids while I focussed on the food. But help aside, I was able to do a lot in a limited period of time, and for that I thank the author. I love the simplicity of Julia Child, especially compared to her more contemporary peers. There are no excessive ingredients or mysterious techniques; everything is laid out in a way so that the cook feels confident, like Julia is rooting for you. I understand why Julie Powell was so taken by her, and how the entire world loved her so very much. My guests should expect more events like this, and I suspect that they will happily come back for more. Next time I will wear my pearls.
Note: This piece was originally posted on my blog at cheznoonie.blogspot.com