Monday, December 23, 2013

Mastering the Art of French Cooking dinner party

Ever since I was introduced to Julia Child, I've had an item on my bucket list - to cook an entire dinner party from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Everything from appetizers to desserts. I was able to check it off my list this month when we had a few friends over for a Christmas feast. (Excuse the poor phone photos - way too busy that day to break out the good camera.)

The first course was French onion soup (Soupe a l’Oignon Gratinee). The soup was really simple to make, though it takes awhile, since the onions cook low and slow, releasing the most amazing flavors. Once it's finished, it's topped with swiss cheese, toasted baguette and a bit of olive oil drizzle and set in the oven to brown and melt. We ate every drop.

The main course was beef stew with red wine (Boeuf a la Bourguignonne) over parsley potatoes with buttered green peas with shallots (Petits Pois Etuves au Beurre). The stew was so tender and flavorful - unlike any crock pot stew I've ever made. I don't know if it was the ingredients or the method or a combination of both, but the stew was also worth its effort. I made enough potatoes to feed an army (I overestimate how many will be needed every single time I make potatoes), but they paired well with the richness of the stew. The peas were also a hit, even with a few guests who only took the peas to be polite, but ended up really liking them. (That's always the mark of a great dish - when people who ordinarily would pass it up find it delicious.)

The French bread (Pain Francais) was something I had been wanting to make for a long time, having never made bread only from my hands before. (I've always relied on the dough hook of my mixer for kneading, the few times I've made homemade bread.) Jacking up the heat in our house that morning really helped the dough rise, since usually we keep it pretty low in the winter. I'm glad I thought to do that and followed Julia's recommendations on temperature. After hours of kneading and rising cycles, the payoff was worth the effort: crusty on the outside, soft on the inside loaves that rang hollow when you thumped them - Julia's indication that they are done. We ate all three loaves in a matter of minutes and they were so delicious in and of themselves that we didn't even need the honey butter! 

For dessert, it was a chocolate almond cake (Reine de Saba) and upside-down apple tart (Le Tarte des Demoiselles Tatin). Somehow I only took a photo of the apple tart when it was still upside down (crust on top) in the frying pan. At first I was skeptical that the cake recipe could really feed 8 people, especially when I saw that the frosting was nothing but a few tablespoons of butter and an ounce of chocolate. But it was so rich and creamy, we had leftovers - a little goes a long way. I should know by now not to doubt these recipes. I'm glad I didn't do the American thing and slather the cake in 50 pounds of icing and make 6 more layers. It was perfect the way it was. And adorable on a cake stand, too.

The apple tart was tricky, and I was nervous about burning the apples, so it was a little less caramelized than I'd like, but it worked out fine. It was also rich and very heavy on the sugar, so a little piece went very far. Perhaps that's the theme of these French recipes - a little goes a very long way. 

My friend Anthony chose some fantastic wines to pair with the food, according to Julia's recommendations in the cookbook. Even people who aren't usually wine people were impressed - it was like the wines were made for this specific menu!

Though the meal took 13 hours from start to finish and required assistance from other people (greatly appreciated), it was worth it. I feel like even through the busy, frenzied prep (and the fact that I needed this white board to keep track of where everything was in the process), I could find the joy in cooking these recipes and realize the painstaking care that was made in writing them. 
I could hear Julia's voice in the text and knowing that the hands in the bread making photos were hers makes it all the more special - and really makes it stand out from other cookbooks of today. Ghost writers abound in today's celebrity cookbooks, so knowing that Julia wrote and developed these recipes and their specific methods was having a connection with an author of a cookbook that I haven't experienced before. And to have people linger over a meal at the table for three hours blissfully full and content? Probably just how Julia intended.

For more on my obsession with Julia, check out these posts on watching The French Chef and a book review on her biography, Dearie.


  1. It was the best Christmas party we've had to date. Everything was PHENOMENAL, especially the French bread.