Thursday, July 30, 2009

Cherry Clafouti, Julia Child, and Stella . . .

I'll bet you're among the huge flock of bakers out there who are looking forward to the Julia Child movie, Julie & Julia, that will be in theaters soon, yes? I know I am. I figure it's a good bet that a hefty percentage of the people interested in this film feel some sort of personal connection--and I don't mean in a touchy-feely encounter-group sort of way--to the memory of Julia Child as we knew her from public television.

If you were a kid in the 1960s or 1970s, and cooking or baking was a big deal in your household, then chances are you probably sat through at least a few episodes of The French Chef, and paid some level of attention to it, even if you really wanted to be watching Mr. Ed, Bewitched, or maybe That Girl. (As a pre-adolescent, I coveted Marlo Thomas's hairdo on That Girl, and the way everyone always ended up loving her character, Anne Marie, even though she consistently managed to engender all manner of catastrophe wherever she went. One might say I saw her as the perfect role model.)

You might also be among the legions of readers of Julie & Julia, the book on which the movie is based. I must admit I haven't yet finished the book, which was kindly loaned to me many weeks ago by Holly, one of my kindest and obviously most patient friends (really, she's a gem; everyone needs a pal like her). The story's premise is unique and it pulls you right in, but in reading it I eventually stalled amidst Powell's recounting of her efforts to cook what sound like the least appetizing recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking--stuff like Foies de Volailles en Aspic. (Picture chicken livers in a savory Jello . . . . uh huh, I knew you'd understand.)

My own relationship with the TV personage of Julia Child was channeled, if you will, through my mom, whose name was Stella. Back then, there were only a couple of cooking shows on TV that I can recall--Julia's, and Graham Kerr's Galloping Gourmet. My mom loved watching them both, especially the former.

As kids, my older sister Joanie and I spent hours at my mom's side on summer afternoons while Julia chirped away on the screen in black and white, instructing American housewives of the proper way to render goose fat, unmold coeur a la creme, or achieve the perfect golden crust on a baguette. The three of us would perch on the big bed in my parent's room, a summer breeze moving through the pristine white curtains, and all of us folding clean laundry for the thirty minutes or so of the show. (Joanie and I eventually came to label my mom's particular--and more or less mandatory--towel folding technique as "The Stella Fold.") That's got to be one of my fondest old memories. Not that I loved the program. In fact, I thought Julia's voice was just awful. I can still hear her breath-laden, overly lengthy pronunciation of the word tomatoes as "tommaaaatoes." But, Julia was pleasingly far from intimidating and, clearly, Stella felt some kind of kinship with her enthusiasm and gutsy confidence when it came to food. That brief half hour represented a cheery, and very female, domestic diversion in the middle of a typical summertime weekday.

Stella, just like Julie Powell's mother, had her own set of Child's two-volume masterwork. Well worn as an old pair of fine leather gloves, and pictured above, those books inhabited my parents' house for decades, alongside dozens of other somewhat less awe-inspiring cookbooks. This spring, when I began reading Powell's book, I took Stella's volumes off the shelf where they'd stood undisturbed for a few years now, reverently blew the dust off the bindings (if such a thing can be reverently done), and brought them home to join my own ever expanding cookbook collection. Since Stella's death at the age of 79, two and a half years ago, I'd already taken--with my father's blessing--the vast majority of her wonderful cookbooks, but I'd hesitated when it came to removing these seminal tomes. It had seemed to me that removing them too soon would be unseemly, not in any formal sense that anyone else would notice, but just in terms of my own knowledge of how much they belonged so expressly to her, and because of my sense of how much joy she must have derived from them.

The only Julia Child recipes that I know for certain my mom used were for breads. She perfected, through literally hundreds of batches, the most delicious homemade breads I've ever tasted. Probably her greatest triumph was her French baguette. Until I entered culinary school this past spring, and was offered slices from a very fresh baguette created (I assume!) by the artisan breads class, I didn't realize how completely perfect--truly perfect--Stella's breads must have been. I have renewed admiration and appreciation for her talent and perseverance as a baker, based on that recent experience alone, and I had quite a bit to start with.

A few days after Julia Child died, in August of 2004, my husband and I traveled with our kids on a trip we'd planned to Washington D.C. and while there we made the obligatory trip to the Smithsonian. Julia's actual home kitchen--all of her own belongings, I believe--had recently been recreated and installed in a display there, not too far from the First Ladies' inaugural gowns. It seemed fitting to me that I was able to see her kitchen so soon after her passing. It looked at the same time cluttered, functional, and comfortingly well used. That experience, of looking at the objects she must have handled over and over, is part of what I think of when I think of Julia. I wish my mom could have seen that kitchen too; I imagine she would have stood there gazing quietly, examining all the details for a long time, smiling to herself.

My sister, several years ago, went to one of Julia's book-signings in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and that year for Christmas she gave me an autographed copy of the book Baking With Julia. Of all the cookbooks I own, that is the one I am least likely to part with.

In homage to Julia, and in honor of Stella (who adored sweets of every stripe), I made Julia's very simple and very French recipe for cherry clafouti (accent on the last syllable, bakers!). An eggy, custardy dish, that is sometimes served as part of a breakfast meal, clafouti is also served as a dessert. Julia's clafouti recipes, with several variations, appear in Volume I of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Julia Child's Cherry Clafouti

(For a printable version of this recipe click here!)

1 and 1/4 cups milk
2/3 cups granulated sugar, divided
3 eggs
1 Tbsp. vanilla extract
1/8 tsp. salt
1/2 cup flour (I used All Purpose, bleached)
3 cups cherries, pitted
powdered sugar, for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Lightly butter a 7 or 8 cup baking dish (or a 9" cake pan will work).

Using a blender (by necessity I used my food processor and it worked fine) combine the milk, half the sugar, eggs, vanilla, salt, and flour.

Pour one quarter of the batter into the pan. Place the dish in the oven just until it sets. Remove from the oven and spread the cherries over the batter.

Sprinkle on the remaining sugar. Pour on the remaining batter.

Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until the clafouti is puffed, brown, and a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.

Sift the top with the powdered sugar. Serve warm.

* * * * * * *

Stella, above, as a bride on May 17th, 1952. She carried fresh lilacs in her bouquet, three of her four sisters were in the wedding party dressed in sea-foam gowns, and an assortment of finger sandwiches were served at the reception. (P.S. I just realized that the Julia Child movie opens on Stella's birthday, August 7th! How serendipitous, and how perfectly appropriate.)

(My sister, Joanie, on the left . . . I'm on the right. We called these outfits our lemon dresses. This was taken on Mother's Day, circa 1967.)


Sara H said...

I love your story. Just love it. Such sweet memories.

Yes - all the women in my family are so looking forward to that movie. Thanks for the story and the recipe!

Irene said...

Wonderful, what a touching story. I love clafoutis, I just have never made it from Julia's recipe. Can't wait to see the movie!

My Casa Bella said...

YEs, I am one of those who are counting the days when the movie is out in theatre's. We're making it a girls day out. I read her book, My Life In France, which from my understanding the movie is also based on that book and I could not put the book down. I'm excited.

Jane said...

Thank you, Sara and Irene, so much.

Arlene, a "girls' day out" sounds great--have fun! The theaters are going to be just packed with women next weekend!

:) Warmly,

Elaine said...

Hi Jane, thanks for dropping by my blog! Your cherry clafouti looks really yummy. :)

Julia @ Mélanger said...

Wow, this clafouti looks great. I have already bookmarked it! How great is Julia Child? I love your story. Funny, as my name is Julia and my sister's name is Stella so I had a double take when I read your article heading! Thanks for stopping by my blog. Glad to know you! :)

Jane said...

Julia, I'm glad you liked that post. I couldn't NOT write about my mom if I was going to write at all about Julie & Julia (which I saw on Sunday and really enjoyed). Have you and/or your sister Stella seen the movie yet? If so, what did you think of it? I was pleased and relieved that they didn't make a mess of it on screen. My image of Julia Child is still intact, thankfully!