Julie Powell, who wrote the book Julie and Julia about her project to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which eventually became a movie of the same name (Julie Powell’s book, not Julia’s, but actually that’s not quite true since the Julia Child portion of the movie is based another of her books, My Life in France), died in October 2022. I watch the movie almost every summer since it is in the cottage DVD collection and there isn’t enough internet juice to provide any other video entertainment. I also watch it because it is a good movie.
Anyhow, about five years ago I acquired my own copy of MTAOFC. I bought it more for my summer reading list than to actually cook from it, being the type of person that reads cookbooks for fun. I brought it back and forth from cottage to home several times, but aside from its biannual car trips, it mostly languished on the cookbook shelf, spine intact. But when the news of Julie Powell’s premature death came out, I decided to crack the cover with more intention.
If you have seen the movie, you may remember that MTAOFC’s recipes are divided into categories, starting with soups and progressing through sauces (50 pages!), eggs (only 25 pages), luncheon dishes, etc. until it culminates in desserts and cakes (100 pages!). There are master recipes and then endless variations and derivations, especially where sauces are concerned. And there are many, many sauces concerned. This is French cooking after all, but Julia does emphasize that while sauces are essential, there should never be more than one to a meal. Thank goodness for that.
I must note that I am no stranger to making sauces, just not with the intricacy encouraged (or maybe more correctly demanded) by MTAOFC. For my initial foray into Julia’s world, I chose supremes de volaille aux champignons, which you will of course know is a variation on supremes de volaille a blanc. Just to mess the cook up, the sauce that delicately laps the chicken breasts in this instance is not one of the “mother” sauces per se, but a riff on a velouté (are you still following the bouncing ball?). Also, there is no room for “set it and forget it” in Julia’s universe. Even something that seems like it should sort of look after itself, like the famous boeuf a la bourguignon, requires starting a day or two in advance of dinner.
The boneless chicken (instructions for boning take up another ten pages), pounded to uniform thickness (or actually thinness), gets rubbed with lemon juice, sprinkled with salt and pepper, placed in a pan with some mushrooms and four tablespoons of butter, then gently simmered for precisely six minutes. The chicken gets removed to a plate to keep warm (good luck with that) while the sauce gets dealt with. For the sauce, you assemble ¼ cup chicken stock, ¼ cup white vermouth, and one cup of whipping cream (yup – 35% fat). Julia advises working quickly to add the wine and stock to the butter and mushrooms and boil it down until syrupy. She doesn’t say how long this should take, but on my stove it needs at least five minutes. After that, the cream goes in for another boil (don’t let it burn!). Finally the sauce gets formally introduced to the supremes (comment allez-vous?) et voila, dinner is served. Oh, except Julia says the chicken should be accompanied with creamed spinach and a good risotto cooked in chicken stock and white Burgundy. I hope you remembered to get that sorted out before starting on the a la minute chicken. The meal was beyond delicious (sans risotto and creamed spinach). And do you know why? Butter and cream.
Julie Powell died at 49 from cardiac arrest. Julia, on the other hand, lived to the ripe age of 91. I think I’ll take my chances. Up next: moulded mousses.