This story appeared in the Toronto Star in October, 1999, after my visit to Cambridge, MA, where Julia Child, who had become my friend and mentor, lived. She invited me for breakfast. There was an incident with some croissants. Read on:
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – I came bearing buns: rye sourdough buns I managed to procure in a mad dash moments earlier, after the croissants carefully ordered for this momentous occasion failed to arrive at my hotel at the appointed time. (For that bizarre story, see below.)
Still recovering from that culinary escapade, I was both jittery and elated at the prospect of breakfast chez Julia Child as we drove along her quiet, leafy street a few blocks from bustling Harvard Square one beautiful, sunny morning last week.
In fact, by the time Star photographer Richard Lautens and I reached the door of Child’s sprawling, three-storey, New England-style, wood-frame house, I was decidedly on edge.
But as soon as my favourite foodie, main mentor and, by now, firm friend appeared at the door (on it was a small black-and-white plaque bearing the name of Child’s beloved husband Paul who died in 1994) and welcomed me with a big bear hug, I knew all would be well.
“It’s so good to see you again,” said Child sweetly and, as is her way, looking directly at me. “You look wonderful,” she added in that unmistakable sing-song voice. “Come on in.”
Moments later, our coats were hanging on hooks in the hall, we were invited into the large kitchen and those buns, graciously received with a “Thank you – that’s so nice,” were already out of their paper bag and in the oven.
“Paul and I moved here in 1956,” said Child in answer to my question about her lovely, lived-in, spacious home. “It was built in the 1880s and was once owned by a famous philosopher called Josiah Royce. We bought it for the kitchen.”
Scanning the colourful, cozy room before me, I could see why.
Covering one wall was an array of hanging pots and pans, most of them gleaming copper. “I got those in France,” Child explained. “I don’t use them much; they’re lined with tin and have to be re-done. These days, they’re lined with stainless steel, which is better, but they cost a fortune.”
A big black fridge was decked with a few magnets and a couple of family photos. One large oven in which our buns were warming is, said Child “a Thermidor. I think it’s convection – which I never use.”
Beside the windows, covered in vintage venetian blinds, hung two long racks of knives in an assortment of shapes and sizes – at least 30 of them in all. On an adjoining wall, about 20 metal measuring scoops were suspended, each marked crudely in white-out with the letter “J.”
On the counter nearby stood a royal blue KitchenAid electric mixer. “It’s a heavy-duty one – the best,” chimed in Child.
As we chatted, Child, 87, now slightly stooped (“I used to be 6 foot 2 but I’ve shrunk a bit”) and dressed casually in beige slacks, a burgundy man’s cardigan and patterned shirt, was slowly moving about the room getting together ingredients for scrambled eggs.
The large, rectangular table, draped in a yellow cloth then covered in a layer of heavy-duty, white-striped plastic, was neatly laid out for three.
Rustic white plates, each hand-painted with a red rooster, were set on round straw mats. Each place setting had a large blue-and-white cup and saucer. “We bought most of our dishes when we were abroad,” said Child. “These cups are Danish but we bought them in Norway.”
In the middle of the table sat an oversized, cauldron-shaped, antique silver sugar bowl; beside it a small white pitcher of cream. At each place was a big tumbler filled with orange juice. A Braun coffee maker gurgled in the background as the room filled with the luscious aroma of brewing coffee.
By now, Child had broken six eggs into a bowl and was standing over the stove heating a generous slice of butter in her “non-stick Wearever skillet.”
The large commercial gas range was, she told me, “a Garland. I’ve had it since 1945.”
As she poured the beaten eggs, seasoned with only salt and pepper, into the pan and began stirring them with a white plastic spatula, I realized this was my chance to watch first-hand as Child made scrambled eggs the way I’d once tried – with amazing success – from a recipe in her indispensable book, The Way To Cook (Knopf).
“The trick is to keep the heat low, only to have about an inch of eggs in the pan, to stir slowly so you make a soft custard and to reserve a little bit of raw scrambled egg to add at the end,” Child explained, as she proceeded to do just that.
When the eggs were deemed ready, she moved the pan away from the burner, poured the reserved tablespoon or two of raw egg into it and gave the mixture a couple of stirs.
Then, as if on cue, wielding that spatula, our host exclaimed, “And then a little extra butter for company!”
My offer to pour coffee was graciously accepted. And as we proceeded to savour those wondrously creamy eggs along with the warmed rye buns smeared with butter (a stick of it, untouched when we arrived, was fast disappearing before my eyes) and delectable Robertson’s marmalade from its jar, the conversation flowed.
Here are some choice tidbits from that magnificent morning meal:
- On her health: “I don’t feel myself slowing down. I just got back last night from a two-and-a-half-week media tour across the country. My only problem is my legs; I do exercises for it.”
- On romance: “There’s not much happening at this age but if you know any nubile men my age, bring them on!”
- On cookbooks: “I just keep a few in the kitchen: most of mine and the new Joy Of Cooking plus some reference books. I have more books upstairs but I gave most of my collection – thousands of books – to the Schlesinger library at Radcliffe College.”
- On her mission: “I would like people to take cooking as a serious hobby: learning the basics of how to use and sharpen a knife, cut quickly and easily, how to saute. It’s all very simple – just a matter of practice.”
- On recipes: “There are as many ways to make a dish like coq au vin as there are cooks. I’d like to free people from slavish dependency on recipes to the freedom of knowing the basics.”
- On nutrition: “A few years ago, people were so afraid of their food. Things seem to have calmed down a bit. People were using their emotions, not their heads. I believe in moderation – a bit of everything – and no snacking.”
- On fame: “If you’re off TV for a year, you’re dead – so don’t get a swelled head. Celebrity’s part of the business. If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”
- On entertaining: “I love to entertain. It’s always casual. If I meet new people, I like to have them over here and show them this is a nest of simple folk.”
The Missing Croissants and How I Hijacked a Bag of Buns
Here’s how the croissants intended for breakfast with Julia Child turned into buns.
The day before our memorable meal, I had scoured Cambridge on foot with the help of a map and advice from my savvy friend Jim Dodge – a talented pastry chef and cookbook author who is currently director of food services at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
After agreeing that croissants from a Boston bakery called Iggy’s would fit the bill, Dodge offered to order them for me since he dealt with that establishment regularly.
Here was the plan.
The croissants would be delivered to the front desk of my hotel between 8 and 8:10 a.m. the next day, ensuring enough time for me to arrive, goodies in hand, chez Child for breakfast at 9 a.m.
The next day, 8:10 a.m. arrived and I was at the hotel’s front desk. The croissants were not.
By 8:20, I was biting my nails. A phone call to Dodge informed me the driver was stuck in traffic but only five minutes away.
By 8:30, I decided I could not wait any longer.
Star photographer Richard Lautens was dispatched to get the car. I decided to wait on the sidewalk and scan the horizon for an Iggy’s delivery van.
Minutes later, a vehicle bearing that name drove down the side street beside our hotel. I ran like the wind, flung open the van’s door and began to babble, “I’m Marion Kane. Where are my croissants – the ones for Julia Child?”
The perplexed, dark-haired, olive-skinned young man at the wheel either spoke no English or was in a state of shock at the sight of a frantic woman who was, by now, rummaging through the brown bags containing baked goods piled on the seat beside him.
He managed to mumble a few words that sounded like, “Miss, I don’t know. . . .” but ’twas in vain. I had discovered a bag with stickers on it bearing my hotel’s name.
Inside, it appeared, was an assortment of buns and rolls but no croissants.
“These will have to do,” I reasoned. In hindsight, I was incapable of reason at this point as, glancing at my watch, I realized it was 8:45 a.m. Sheer panic had set in.
Clutching the large bag of buns to my chest, I slammed the van door shut and ran back to the front of the hotel where a nervous and confused Lautens was looking for me. “We’ll have to take these,” I gasped, opening the car door. “Let’s go.”
Sorting through several dozen buns as we drove, we agreed the rye sourdough ones – though nothing like croissants – looked best. Eight of them were dutifully offered to a gracious Child and consumed at our wondrous repast.
When I returned to the hotel a couple of hours later, a young woman called me over to the front desk. “This note arrived for you with a package.”
On it was written, “8:30 a.m. Your croissants are late due to problems with proofing.”
I didn’t have the heart or stomach to eat or even look at those pesky, proof-challenged pastries. “Please give them to the nearest hostel,” was my defeated reply.
As for that poor Iggy’s driver, he’s probably still scratching his head over what was behind that short, curly-haired wild woman and the hijacked bag of buns.
Here’s the recipe for those famous eggs as enjoyed by me at Child’s kitchen table from The Way To Cook (Knopf) by Julia Child.
Julia’s Scrambled Eggs
Perfect scrambled eggs are tender and creamy. The secret is to do them slowly over low heat so the eggs coagulate into soft curds. You don’t want the eggs too deep in the pan or they will take too long to cook and if there is too shallow a layer they will cook too quickly. A one-inch layer is easy to handle and a 10-inch non-stick skillet works well for 6 to 8 eggs.
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp or more butter
1 tbsp or more heavy cream (optional)
3 or 4 tbsp chopped fresh herbs: parsley, or parsley and chives, chervil, tarragon or dill (optional)
Break eggs into medium bowl, adding salt and pepper to taste; beat just to blend yolks and whites.
Set skillet over moderately low heat; add enough butter to lightly coat bottom and sides.
Pour in all but 2 tablespoons of beaten eggs.
Slowly scrape bottom of skillet from edges toward centre with spatula, continuing slowly as eggs gradually coagulate. It will take them a minute or so to start thickening; don’t rush them.
In 2 to 3 minutes, eggs will have thickened into a lumpy custard; cook a few seconds more if they are too soft for your taste. Fold in reserved 2 tablespoons of beaten egg.
Adjust seasoning; fold in butter, cream and herbs, if using.
Serve at once on warm (not hot) plates.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Julia’s Cheese Soufflé
There are versions of this sweet and simple dish – a Child trademark – in almost all of her many cookbooks including my favourite: The Way To Cook (Knopf; $59.95). I recently saw her demonstrate it on Emeril Live! – the hugely popular TV show hosted by her buddy, the irrepressible Emeril Lagasse. Inexplicably, the souffle flopped on that occasion but it should work if you follow this recipe. With a tossed salad and hunks of crusty baguette, it makes a lovely light lunch or supper. I didn’t bother making a collar for the baking dish, which makes for an elegant presentation as described by Child, but it looked and tasted great. You’ll need a 6-cup soufflé dish or straight-sided baking dish.
About 1 tbsp softened butter
2 tbsp finely, freshly grated parmesan cheese
2½ tbsp butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup hot milk
¼ tsp paprika
A pinch of grated nutmeg
½ tsp salt
Pinch of ground white pepper
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
1 cup (about 4 oz/125 g) coarsely grated gruyere cheese
Preheat oven to 400F.
Grease bottom and sides of baking dish with softened butter. Sprinkle on grated parmesan, turning dish so cheese adheres to its sides and bottom.
In medium saucepan, melt 2½ tbsp butter over medium-low heat. Add flour and cook, whisking, until mixture foams, about 2 min. Remove from heat. Whisk in hot milk. Return to heat, bring to boil, reduce heat and simmer 1 to 2 min. or until thickened. Remove from heat; stir in paprika, nutmeg, salt and pepper, Stir in egg yolks, one at a time, until combined
Using manual or hand-held electric mixer, in medium glass bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and glossy. Whisk about a quarter of them into sauce in saucepan, then delicately fold in remainder alternately with grated gruyere. Carefully turn mixture into prepared baking dish.
Reduce oven temperature to 375F. Bake soufflé 25 to 30 min. or until puffed and nicely browned. It will fall slightly as it cools. To serve, hold serving spoon and fork upright and back to back in middle of soufflé and pull it apart.
Makes 4 servings.