Dinner with Julia: Mastering the Art of French Cooking

by gratinee on July 31, 2009


Those of you who have been reading my blog for the last week know that I am cooking with Julia these days and that all of my posts will be focused on recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking–at least until the release of the long-anticipated movie Julie & Julia.

Now I have a confession to make. Despite the fact that I own more cookbooks than I would want to count, have stacks and stacks of back issues of cooking magazines like Gourmet and Bon Appetit, and binders overflowing with recipes that I have printed off the Internet, MTAOFC was not a part of my library until a couple of months ago. I have other cookbooks by Julia, other books on French cooking. So why was I missing a classic that started a revolution in home cooking when it first came out in 1961?

I have no real answer except that it was always a book that seemed intimidating to me. Until my first trip to Paris, I had focused on Italian cooking, not French. I am also most attracted to cookbooks with glossy, mouth-watering pictures; Julia’s book with its illustrations and strange recipe layout would just make things more complicated than they needed to be, I reasoned. And wasn’t French cooking already too complicated? Who has the time to spent the whole day making puff pastry and wrapping it around a duck?

Which brings me back to Julie & Julia. Before it became a movie, it was a book; a memoir written by Julie Powell, who cooked her way through all 524 recipes in MTAOFC within the space of a year. There has been widespread criticism of Julie Powell in foodie circles for some of her opinions, her writing style and penchant for cursing, which is really too bad. Because when you come right down to it, what she did was an astonishing feat.

Many of the recipes in MTAOFC are complicated. They do take time. Very few people have the time or inclination to cook this way anymore. Putting together a dinner party from this cookbook can take a good couple of days from your life. Julie Powell did this on a daily basis–after coming home from a dead-end secretarial job.

Now this is not to say that every recipe is difficult. Once I started cooking from this book, I realized how accessible a lot of the recipes are. Julia Child walks you through everything in such detail that you cannot fail as long as you follow her instructions. Although I have not yet attempted an aspic or a Canard en Croûte, there are many recipes that don’t take a lot of time. In fact, I put a little dinner together for myself the other night that took no more than half an hour to make: Steak au Poivre, mushrooms in Medeira sauce, and Tomates à la Provençale. It was all so delicious that I wondered why I had waited so long to get this culinary masterpiece.


Julia Child’s Steak au Poivre


Pepper Steak with Brandy Sauce

Serves 4-6 people


2 tablespons mixed or white peppercorns

2 to 2 1/2 lbs. steak


1 tablespoon butter

2 tablespoons shallots or green onions

1/2 cup stock

1/3 cup cognac

3-4 tablespoons softened butter


1) Place the peppercorms in a mixing bowl and crush them roughly with a pestle or the bottom of a bottle.

2) Dry the steaks on paper towels. Rub and press the crushed peppercorns into both sides of the meat. Cover with waxed paper. Let stand for at least half an hour; 2 or 3 hours are even better, so the flavor of the pepper will penetrate the meat.

3) Sauté the steak in hot oil and butter 3-4 minutes on each side. Remove to a hot platter and season with salt.

4) For the sauce: pour the fat out of the skillet. Add the butter and shallots and cook slowly for a minute. Pour in the stock and boil down rapidly over high heat while scraping up the coagulated cooking juices. Then add the cognac and boil rapidly for a minute or two to evaporate its alcohol. Off heat, swirl in the butter a half-tablespoon at a time.

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{ 15 comments… read them below or add one }

lickedspoon July 31, 2009 at 10:44 am

Your dinner looks delicious! I am very much enjoying this series of posts. I hope that all of the hoopla around the film will encourage people who have been intimidated by classic French cooking to take a fresh look at it and discover that many of the dishes are very simple. As you say, few people are going to attempt canard en croute – few French people even – but there are many delightful and easy dishes in MTAOFC which could earn a place in everyone’s week night repertoire.

Julia @ Mélanger July 31, 2009 at 6:15 pm

I am loving your posts on Julia. I too came to appreciate these enormous classics (V1 & 2), later in the piece. It’s now a regular go to, if only to educate myself on technique. I do find the recipes are very detailed, but so rewarding when you complete it successfully.

Hélène July 31, 2009 at 7:39 pm

We are on the same page this week. I love cooking from the book but it’s time consuming but the results are making me to wants to cook more from the book. I’m addicted now. I’m already thinking of what I can make next. The meal you had prepared is beautiful and looks delicious. So glad we are doing this together :)

Fuji Mama July 31, 2009 at 7:51 pm

Oh yum! Can’t wait to try out the recipe for Steak au Poivre now!!

Another thing that really bothers me about the criticism of Julie Powell is that she did exactly what Julia Child meant for a home cook to be able to do, and that is to sit down with the book and teach yourself how to cook using it.

gratinee July 31, 2009 at 10:44 pm

It was delicious. I want to make it again very soon!

gratinee July 31, 2009 at 10:45 pm

Me too, H. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to make next. I’m glad we’re doing this together as well; you had a great idea.

Kayte August 1, 2009 at 5:07 am

Your dish looks wonderful, both the food in it, and the dish itself! Great job with this recipe. To continue in the vein above about cooking from the book, I wanted to add this: I have been a member of Whisk Wednesdays cooking from the Le Cordon Bleu at Home book for the past year or so. Shari at Whiskblog had been cooking from it and had no one to cook along, so when I found out, we set up Whisk Wednesdays to cook along and have just a small group of us doing that. I fell in love with the French way of cooking…time consuming, yes, pot and dish and utensil intensive, yes, but this past year or so has taught me so much about technique and flavor and depth of flavor and how to achieve all of that. My cooking has changed for the better a hundred fold. Everything has gotten easier and some things at this point just automatically there, especially the making of sauces, etc., When I saw that Helene had put this little note out about this group forming, I knew I would be in for sure…and I am enjoying all the posts. I could not participate this week as I am out of town at a championship swim meet with my son for five days and just could not get all the cooking in before I left. I am enjoying your posts, however, and yours looks particularly delightful and delicious!

gratinee August 1, 2009 at 6:47 am

Thank you so much, Kayte. I have been following Shari’s blog; it’s wonderful. She has put so much time and effort into it. I’m glad that you have learned so much from Whisk Wednesdays and cooking from this book. I hope to as well. Stay tuned next week for more. :)

lisaiscooking August 3, 2009 at 12:20 pm

The brandy sauce sounds incredible! I’m looking forward to cooking more from this classic book.

Alejandra August 3, 2009 at 9:24 pm

I just saw Julie & Julia today…just a few hours ago actually…at an early screening, and I really enjoyed it. Much more than I expected. I can’t say that I still love the “real life” Julie Powell, but you’re right in saying that what she did was an incredible feat. I’ve been inspired to check out Julia’s book now and give a few of those recipes a try. Probably not the aspics though…

Jackie @ PhamFatale.com August 4, 2009 at 12:16 pm

What a mouth-watering meal. My tummy is growling now. lol
I’m making a full 4-course meal as well. Can’t wait for the movie
Check at http://www.phamfatale.com/id_385/title_An-Entire-Week-of-Julia-Child-Inspired-French-Recipes/

Tianne August 4, 2009 at 9:06 pm

i’m too scared to try French cooking… but am enjoying living vicariously as you try it. Looks awesome!

gratinee August 4, 2009 at 9:53 pm

Start with the easy stuff–that’s what I’ve been doing. Once you get the French cooking fever it’s hard to stop.

Bill Ayres November 22, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Here in Chicago we add some heavy cream into the pan when making the sauce. It creates a far smoother and tastey sauce.

gratinee November 22, 2009 at 8:52 pm

Thanks for the tip. I agree that cream makes everything tastier 😉

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