Berkeley, September 1964: I placed my hands in a bowl of butter and flour with the intention of rubbing them together until they resembled flakes of oatmeal. Mother had never used anything but a fork to mix her dough, but I was following Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And Mastering the Art strictly maintained that “a necessary part of learning how to cook is to get the feel of the dough in your fingers.”
I didn’t mind getting my fingers all gummy with the dough because, in my imagination, this messy procedure completely divorced my venture into baking from my mother’s pastry practices—and from the sorrows of my relationship to her. No pie crust here! I was mixing “sweet short paste,” which called for a quarter-pound of butter and only three tablespoons of shortening—in clear opposition to my mother’s Basic Pie Crust recipe, with its cup of Crisco, half-cube of margarine, and secret pinch of baking powder.
I used my hand, as instructed, to mix cold water into the flakes and to gather the stiffening mass into a ragged ball. Then, nervously, I laid the dough on a floured board and tentatively smeared it into a series of skid marks using the heel of my hand. Mastering the Art called this the fraisage. It was meant to mix the flour and fat more evenly, but it seemed an oddly brutal treatment for a substance that, when baked, was supposed to become light and flaky. I chilled the dough for an hour and then tried to roll it into a large, pie-shaped round, thereby initiating a long and depressing struggle, during which the dough tore itself to pieces at every chance. After much patching, I coaxed a wildly uneven circle into a white enamel pan. I filled the crust with the classic apples, sugar, and cinnamon, much as Mother had done, except that I also poured a custard, made with French apple brandy, over the top. Voila! I had created a Tarte Normande Aux Pommes, not Mother’s apple pie at all. I would serve it the next day as dessert for the first meal I would ever cook from Mastering the Art.
Mastering the Art had been published three years earlier in 1961, and Julia Child’s television show, “The French Chef,” had been broadcast to a Berkeley audience in 1963. But in 1963 I had no television set and no clear idea of whether I would stay in graduate school at all, an uncertainty that seemed incompatible with mastering the art of anything. By the spring of 1964, having done well enough on my master’s oral exam, I had decided that I would go on for the English PhD as well. Why not? I thought, buoyed by my recent success. And that September, as a mark of my new commitment, I decided to cook a dinner for Paul and Sarah, two of the smartest and most serious graduate students I knew.
Paul, always jovial, shoulders curving forward because of his height, and Sarah—dark, petite, and fun—were an established couple. They had met at Harvard and were studying the Renaissance at Berkeley, where Renaissance was king. But they were kind and very witty and never made a big deal of how smart they both were. Cooking for them would be a pleasure, or so I hoped, and the dinner would signal to me, at least, that I, too, had found a path in life, a path that was different from that of my mother. Did I notice that, like her, I was implicitly coupling adulthood with the ability to cook a proper meal? No, I did not.
I had moved the summer before into an old, brown-shingled Victorian that was carved into four or five apartments, each inhabited by an English graduate student or two. My studio was the old dining room, which I had furnished rather starkly with the standard twin bed posing as a couch. The rest of my garage-sale furniture kept company with some soulful prints by Rembrandt and Fra Lippo Lippi, which I had soberly mounted on brown cork. On the other side of the bathroom a small separate kitchen looked out onto the weedy back yard. It was the apartment’s Unconscious, a room where I rebelled against Mother’s ways by leaving my unwashed dishes in the sink until green scum began to form.
It was from this mossy bank that I first eased myself into the waters of French cooking, holding onto my newly purchased Mastering the Art like a non-swimmer on an untested raft. (I did at least give my pots and pans a good wash before I began.) The menu for the evening consisted of Poulet Sauté aux Herbs de Provence (Chicken Sautéed With Herbs And Garlic, Egg Yolk and Butter Sauce); Crêpes de Pommes de Terre (Grated Potato Pancakes); Tomates á la Provençale (Tomatoes Stuffed With Bread Crumbs, Herbs, and Garlic), and the Tarte Normande Aux Pommes. Mastering the Art recommended a chilled rosé to accompany the meal.
Having made the Tarte Normande the day before, I was free to work on the Crêpes de Pommes de Terre for most of the afternoon. The first step in their preparation involved a good forty minutes of peeling and shredding, a process that added a drop or two of blood to the growing potato mound. The next step called for squeezing the grated potatoes into the corner of a dish towel to extract their juice. This step left large, brown and purple splotches on the cotton sacking, the sight of which produced a guilty thrill.
Mother, could she have seen it, would have been horrified at this stain-inducing use of a kitchen towel—and of this towel, in particular. It belonged to a set showing kittens getting engaged, entering into matrimony, and wheeling a baby kitten in a stroller. I had embroidered them myself as a young girl. I felt a little bad about the kittens. Stitching them had been one of the few occasions when I had gone along with Mother’s desire that I prepare myself for marriage and for family, and she’d been pleased. But I kept on squeezing those potatoes nonetheless. Mastering the Art was not at all sentimental about kitchen towels, or embroidered kittens as far as I could tell. Mastering the Art was about squaring your shoulders and learning to cook it right.
I mixed the wrung-out potatoes with cream cheese, Swiss cheese, and heavy cream—-yummy additions which, unfortunately, refused to fully bond, and, as I browned them, the crepes fell apart into a series of broken shards. Aware that Mother’s meals had always maintained a respectable solidity, I set the crepes aside, hoping to reconstruct them later. I browned the chicken until it turned an uneven yellow and reread the directions for making its sauce. I had never coated a chicken with anything, much less a hollandaise, which must be finished at the last moment. Even the tomatoes, which I had already stuffed, had to be baked ten minutes before being served. So baking, chicken coating, and crepe repair would come together, or so I hoped.
To someone like me, who had never read a recipe longer than one side of a three-by-five card, each separate dish had seemed unbelievably complex, and, taken together—the peeling, shredding, squeezing, stuffing, browning, baking, sauce making, and warming—-had driven me close to the limit of my powers for doing more than one thing at a time. I threw on some dressier clothes while the chicken cooked, the tomatoes baked, and the crepes warmed, the smell of garlic, basil, and chicken filling the air. At least the dinner was smelling good. Then, “brring,” Paul and Sarah were at the door.
“Hi,” they said, handing me a bottle of wine.
“Hi, good to see you. Come in. Can I pour you some wine? I have a few things to finish up in the kitchen.”
“Can we help?”
“No, thanks. Just get comfortable.”
No one could help me now. My first dinner from Mastering the Art was a voyage to be made alone.
Back in the kitchen, I beat egg yolks into “herbal buttery pan juices,” hoping the yolks would thicken, which amazingly they did. But, wait, was the chicken underdone? Some rosy drops still lingered in the pan, so I stuck the chicken in the oven just in case. Then I jammed the crepes together using parsley to disguise the cracks, aware that I had never seen a sprig of parsley in my mother’s house. I dished out the tomatoes—-geez, they were overbrowned—but parsley covered that as well. And then came the chicken parts in their yolky jackets, hopefully now fully cooked. Their yellow coats looked like the brighter tones of a Fra Lippo Lippi against the tomatoes’ red.
I carried the plates into the main room and set them on the table, which I had moved from the kitchen where it usually stood. I invited Paul and Sarah to sit down, poured more rosé, giving myself a generous glass, and took my place. We clinked our glasses and Paul said “Cheers!” Then, Sarah lifted her fork and took a bite.
“Oh, Judy,” she said, her brown eyes gone round. “This is gourmet.”
My life as an adult had officially begun.
Tarte Normande Aux Pommes
(Hot Custard Apple Tart)
(From Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, Vol. 1 by Julia Child and Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck, copyright © 1961 by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. Any third party use of this material, outside of this publication, is prohibited. Interested parties must apply directly to Random House, Inc. for permission.)
An 8-inch partially baked pastry shell, on a baking sheet (see below)
1 lb crisp cooking or eating apples
1/3 c sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
½ c sugar
¼ c sifted flour
½ c whipping cream
3 T Calvados (apple brandy)or cognac
Powdered sugar in a shaker
Preheat oven to 375.
1. Quarter, core, and peel applies. Cut in 1/8 inch lengthwise slices. Should make 3 cups.
2. Toss apple slices in a bowl with sugar and cinnamon and arrange in pastry shell.
3. Bake in upper third of preheated oven for 20 minutes or until apples start to color and are almost tender. Let cool.
4. Beat egg and sugar together until thick and pale yellow. Mixture should form a slowly dissolving ribbon when it falls back on itself.
5. Beat in flour, then cream, and finally the brandy. Pour mixture over apples almost to the top of the pastry shell.
6. Return to oven for 10 minutes or until cream begins to puff.
7. Sprinkle heavily with powdered sugar and return to oven for 15-20 minutes more. Tart is done when top has browned and a knife plunged into the custard comes out clean.
8. Put tart on rack but keep warm until ready to serve.
Pâte Brisée Sucrée
(Sweet Short Paste)
For a 10-inch shell
2 c sifted flour
2 T sugar
¼ tsp salt
8 T. chilled butter
3 T. chilled vegetable shortening
5 to 6 T cold water
1. Place flour, salt, sugar, butter, and shortening in mixing bowl. Rub flour and fat together quickly between tips of fingers until fat is the size of oatmeal flakes. Do not overdo.
2. Add water and blend quickly with one hand slightly cupped as you gather dough into a mass. Sprinkle up to 1 T more water by drops over any unmixed remains.
3. Press dough firmly into roughly shaped ball. It should be pliable but not damp or sticky.
4. Place dough on lightly floured pastry board. With the heel of one hand rapidly press the pastry by two spoonful bits down on the board and away from you in a quick smear of about 6 inches.
5. With a scraper or spatula gather dough into a mass. Knead briefly into a fairly smooth round ball.
6. Sprinkle lightly with flour and wrap in waxed paper. Place in freezing compartment of the refrigerator for about 1 hour. Or leave it for two hours in the refrigerator.
7. Place dough on lightly floured board. If dough is hard, beat with rolling pin to soften. Knead briefly into fairly flat circle.
8. Lightly flour the top of the dough and roll rolling pin back and forth gently to start the dough moving. Then with firm even strokes rolling away from you, start below center of dough and roll within an inch of the far edge. Lift dough and turn at a slight angle.
9. Continue rolling, lifting, and turning until dough is 1/8 thick and about 2 inches larger than your pie pan. Use dough as soon as possible so it doesn’t soften.