Julia Child’s Birthday + Queen of Sheba Cake

Julia Child

Hi from Beantown! We planned a super-last-minute trip to Boston after Alex got scheduled for a work trip. So I’ve been stumbling over cobblestone, taking pictures of pretty doors and windows with flower boxes, and soaking up every ounce of history I can before we have to go back home.

Before that, though, I’m doing a small virtual celebration post for my girl, Julia Child, whose birthday is today!

A self-confessed late bloomer, I cherish stories of women who did not find their calling until later in life. Factor in a supportive husband and a life that revolves around food… well, Julia Child’s life is my own personal fairy tale.

Julia Child would have been 106 today. Born Julia McWilliams in California to a wealthy family, Child did not cook for herself until she married and, even then, she confessed that she was not a natural. During the second World War, Child worked as a typist for the OSS (Office of Strategic Services). While stationed in Asia, Julia met her future beloved husband Paul Cushing Child. Paul Child was a lover of food, with a refined palate. When he joined the Foreign Service and the couple was sent to live in Paris, Julia experienced the first taste, literally and figuratively, of her future. Later in her life, she described her first meal in France as a life-changing experience.

She attended Le Cordon Bleu, and joined a women’s cooking group where she met a woman named Simone Beck, who was writing a French cookbook for Americans. Along with Beck’s friend Louisette Bertholle, Child began working on the cookbook, which (more than a decade later) would be her first published cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

By this time, Julia and her husband had settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she wrote a column for the Boston Globe, and worked on other cookbooks. Child became a television chef when she appeared on WGBH-TV, after a series of other guests canceled. On live TV, instead of simply discussing how she would follow a recipe, Child flipped an omelette, much to the excitement of the viewers. This led to a television show starring Child called The French Chef that would run for more than 10 years. Other shows and cookbooks would follow; she published almost twenty during her life (and one posthumously, with the help of her nephew). She also continued making cooking shows, sometimes teaming up with her friend and fellow chef, Jacques Pepin.

I’ll admit, my first interest in Julia Child did not come from her cooking, but from her height–she was over six feet tall. I don’t know why that stuck with me. I’m fascinated by tall people, probably because I’m so short. I also appreciated her epic love affair with her husband. He even designed a special kitchen to accommodate her height and make cooking easier for her. Paul died in 1994, but Julia lived in their home in Cambridge until 2001, when she moved into a retirement home in California. Before moving, Child donated her kitchen to the Smithsonian museum, where it is housed today. She died in 2004, three days before her 92nd birthday.

To celebrate Julia’s birthday, I decided to make her Queen of Sheba cake. This recipe appeared in her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, as well as in some of her subsequent cookbooks. It’s a very fancy name for a very simple and elegant dessert, which is essentially a rich chocolate cake.

This was the first cake that Julia had in France and may have ultimately helped Julia fall in love with French cuisine. It might have the same effect on you, because it’s delicious and approachable and everything good.

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Julia Child’s Queen of Sheba Cake

Ingredients:
For cake: 
1/3 cup ground almonds, plus 2 tbsp sugar 
3 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1 oz unsweetened chocolate
2 tbsp strong coffee (or 2 tbsp dark rum)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
3 eggs, separated into whites and yolks
1/4 tsp cream of tartar
1/8 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1/4 tsp almond extract
1/2 cup cake flour

For frosting:
6 oz semi-sweet chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 tsp vanilla

Optional:
Sliced almonds

Instructions:

Grease and line one 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Move the rack to the bottom third of the oven.

Process together 1/3 cup of almonds with 2 tablespoons of sugar. Pour into a small bowl and set aside.

In a small saucepan, combine the coffee or rum and the semi-sweet and unsweetened chocolate and heat until just melted. Set aside.

Cream the butter until completely smooth. Add the 1/2 cup of sugar and beat for another minute. Add the egg yolks and beat together until smooth and light yellow in color.

In another bowl, beat together the egg whites with the cream of tartar and salt. Add the 2 tablespoons of sugar, one tablespoon at a time, beating sugar thoroughly into the egg whites before adding second tablespoon of sugar. Continue to beat the egg mixture until you have stiff, glossy peaks.

Stir the chocolate/coffee mixture, ground almond mixture, and almond extract, into the egg yolk mixture.

Add in a third of the egg white mixture, carefully folding until thoroughly mixed. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture and continue to fold into the mixture. Continue alternating the egg white and flour into the mixture two more times, until completely combined.

Pour mixture into the greased cake pan and bake for 30-35 minutes. Begin checking for doneness at 30 minutes by inserting a toothpick into the center of the cake. When the toothpick comes out clean, the cake is done.

Allow the cake to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn over onto a cooling rack to cool completely.

If adding frosting, put semi-sweet chocolate into a bowl. Heat the heavy cream until it is hot but not boiling. Pour the cream over the chocolate and stir until smooth. Pour over the cake and smooth over the sides. Decorate edges with sliced almonds, if you wish.

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There you have it. It takes a few bowls to accomplish, but not too much fuss beyond that (unless you find egg whites fussy, which some do). Alex usually makes the same simple request when I try out a new recipe: “Can you add chocolate?” But he was finally satisfied with this recipe. It’s rich, almost like a brownie, but not too sweet, and you get a hint of the almond, which is what does it for me. And you don’t even need a specially designed kitchen for it. Happy birthday, Julia!

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Cherry Clafoutis for Bastille Day

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Try as I might the rest of the year, summer is perhaps the only time I get even close to an appropriate amount of fruits and vegetables. July is especially wonderful, because it just seems like everything is ripe, juicy, and delicious. Everyday, I pack leftover Talenti jars to the top with whatever fruits and veggies we have on hand, just to snack on. I think already this summer I’ve eaten more than my weight in cantaloupe, cucumbers, and cherries. Back when I made sweet cherry pie, I promised the world and myself that I would make tart cherry pie this summer. And I just saw Local Foods, a grocery store in Chicago that specifically sources from farmers and vendors in the Midwest, post a pic of their tart cherries on Insta, so I’m about to get on that.

But today I’m taking advantage of the overabundance of sweet cherries to make clafoutis to celebrate France’s national holiday, Bastille day! Is that a thing that Americans can celebrate? Did we get that right revoked when we started calling French fries, “Freedom fries”? I know that New Orleans has celebrations for Bastille Day, but those people, you know, have French last names.

I’ll be honest, until I was researching this post, I mostly associated Bastille Day with a Portlandia episode. Genealogically speaking, much of my family hails from England, so I’ve always been more Anglophile than Francophile. Sure, I had heard of Bastille Day. I knew that it is France’s national independence day. However, even as a student of history, I didn’t know how destroying a prison related to French independence.

Bastille Day (which is what English speakers call it–in France, it’s just the 14th of July, or the National Celebration), commemorates the storming of the Bastille. The Bastille was a fortress and political prison in Paris, used primarily by French monarchs to detain any number of prisoners, for any number of crimes. Because France was an absolute monarchy, meaning the King was in complete control of the government, prisoners sent to the Bastille could be kept there secretly and indefinitely without proper judicial process. The misuse of the Bastille became a symbol of Royal authority and tyrannical power. By 1789, revolution was being openly discussed by the French people and, in July, a group of 900 commoners gathered outside the nearly empty prison, to demand the release of guns and ammunition that had been stored there a few days earlier. After demands were not met and negotiations dragged on, the crowds stormed into the courtyard, and after hours of gunfire, a cease-fire was called, the doors were opened, and the crowd surged in.

The King at the time was Louis XVI, whose wife was Marie Antoinette. A few years after the Bastille was stormed, Louis would be established as a constitutional monarch, which would limit his power. In 1893, the French monarchy was dismantled altogether and Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and many of those close to them were tried and executed for treason.

The storming of the Bastille is considered a turning point in the Revolution which directly led to the establishment of France as a republic. There’s your very brief history lesson.

Cherry Clafoutis

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Cherry Clafoutis

Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup whole milk
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp almond extract (can substitute another 1/2 tsp of vanilla)
3 large eggs
1/2 cup flour
2 tbsp unsalted butter
1 1/2 cups cherries (stone fruit or berries work well, too), pitted
Powdered sugar for serving, optional

Instructions:

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a bowl, mix together the sugar and salt. Add the milk and the vanilla and almond extract. Beat in the three eggs. Finally, sift in the flour, whisking it as you pour. You can also do this in a blender or food processor. You want the mixture to be smooth and foamy.

Liberally grease a 10-inch skillet or dish with the butter.

Add the fruit to the bottom of the skillet or dish and pour the batter over the top.

Bake for about 30 minutes, until the middle is set and the top is golden brown.

Cool for a few minutes, dust with powdered sugar, and serve in wedges.

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If you’ve never had clafoutis before, you’re in for a treat. It’s very similar in texture and taste to a Dutch Baby. It’s less airy and more substantive, which is perfect, because sometimes Dutch Babies aren’t quite filling enough, even just for the two of us. Also, easiness level is high, especially if you have a cherry pitter on hand.

And, if you don’t have cherries on hand, use any kind of berry or stone fruit for this dish and it will turn out great. (If you want to be “that guy”, here’s a fun fact: When any other fruit besides cherries are used, it’s called a flaugnarde, not clafoutis.)

Also, traditionally the cherries in clafoutis would not be pitted. The pits of the cherries are supposed to give the dish a slight almond flavor. I pitted my cherries and just added some almond extract. However, if you don’t have it on hand, vanilla works great. This is one of those recipes that, if you do any home baking at all, you probably have the ingredients on hand right now.

Bonne fête nationale!

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