1999: Julia Child making her famous scrambled eggs at home in Cambridge, Mass.
(An excerpt from my book Dish, a collection of my favourite columns and recipes from the Toronto Star)
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.
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, wood-frame house – painted gray and white with black shutters in traditional New England style, surrounded by a white picket fence and lush trees in all their fall glory – 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 unmistakably deep, 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 kitchen 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 what appeared to be well-used kitchen 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.
Then, referring to long-time friend and colleague Jacques Pepin with whom she co-hosts the new 22-episode PBS cooking series Julia And Jacques Cooking At Home, Child continued, “Jacques and I have a contest: who can go faster – this machine or the man or woman.”
When asked if she owns any gadgets, Child quoted Pepin again. “As Jacques says, if it’s a gadget, it’s something you don’t use.”
Pepin, 63, is a professional chef who hails from Lyons, France. He and Child have been cooking buddies for about 40 years and have taught classes in gastronomy at Boston University for several of them. A companion cookbook based on their new TV show has just been published by Knopf.
Both have daunting resumes that include several successful TV cooking series and a slew of brilliant, bestselling cookbooks. Pepin lives not far away in Madison, Conn.
The two spent several weeks in this very kitchen filming their new TV series of half-hour shows that air here on PBS, starting on Saturday, Nov. 27, at 3:30 p.m. “We took out this table and replaced it with a taller counter that had a stove in it while we filmed,” Child explained.
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 kitchen 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, lead 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 jetlag: “I don’t have a problem with it. I just set my watch to the new time and keep on going.”
- On genetically modified foods: “I think it’s all fascinating. There’s no one-minute answer. The technology’s here. If they can give us a better tomato, I’m for it.”
- On filming a TV series in her kitchen: “It was wonderful. We were all together so much, it was like a big family. All the camera crew are cooks now. Anyway, this is a big house – I rent out the third floor – and I love having people around.”
- 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.”
I’ll second that last one with a vote for Child as the host with the most.
And here are two more wonderful quotes: one from Child herself, the other from close friend and co-cook Jacques Pepin.
Two years ago, when asked by a reporter from the Boston Globe to speculate on her obituary, Child replied, “It would say that Julia Child encouraged home cooking and the pleasure of food, that she made it a respectable hobby, something fun and creative and not drudgery.”
Says Pepin, who spoke to me last week by phone from his home: “Julia has amazing stamina for her age. She is really straightforward; you know where you stand. With all the fads and fashion in the world of food, she keeps a clear head. It’s kind of refreshing.”
Couldn’t have said it better myself. And 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, with her introduction.
Julia’s Scrambled Eggs
Perfect scrambled eggs are tender and creamy, really a kind of broken custard. The only secret is to do them slowly over low heat, so that 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 non-stick pan is certainly my choice: the 10-inch size does nicely for 6 to 8 eggs. Plain scrambled eggs are lovely for breakfast but chopped green herbs are always an attractive addition, especially parsley, chives or tarragon; add them along with the seasonings as you beat the eggs before scrambling them.
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 frying pan over moderately low heat; add enough butter to film bottom and sides.
Pour in all but 2 tablespoons of beaten eggs.
Slowly scrape bottom of pan 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.
Accompany with, for instance, bacon or sausage or ham, broiled tomatoes and buttered toast wedges.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Julia’s Cheese Souffle
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.