Remembering the French Chef

Wednesday, September 1, 2004

It was an ordinary day in 1968. I turned on the little black and white television set to watch my favorite show. n The program's host, in her unmistakable voice ("a voice that could make an aspic shimmy," it's been called), was showing how to make a French chocolate rum and almond cake called Queen of Sheba.

For 28 minutes and 52 seconds this woman, who has been likened to a dowager doing a burlesque routine, demonstrated with characteristic aplomb everything you needed to know to create the dish. As soon as the show was over I headed straight for the grocery store to buy the ingredients to make the cake that very evening.

That was not the only time this program would have such an effect on me, nor was I the only one. For example, after the show on broccoli, every store within 200 miles of the Boston television studio where it originated sold out of the vegetable. Following the program on omelets, there was a run on omelet pans at every specialty store in the area. Clearly, millions of others like me were similarly inspired by this show, "The French Chef," and its host, Julia Child.

It is impossible to exaggerate the influence of Julia Child, who died last month at the age of 91. Indeed, as Frances Dowell rightly concludes, "Julia Child changed the face -- and flavor -- of American cooking." Ironically, when she was born, few would have predicted that she would become, in Kathryn Kellinger's words, "the most important culinary figure this country has produced." Born to privilege and wealth, she never needed to venture into the kitchen. There was a cook who prepared family meals.

However, during a stint in the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA (the intelligence agency, not the Culinary Institute of America) she met Paul Child. They married and moved to France and there, over lunch at La Couronne restaurant in Rouen on Nov. 3, 1948, Julia, dining on oysters portugaises, sole meuniere and a green salad, experienced an epicurean epiphany.

Enthralled with French food, she spent nearly a decade of research co-authoring the classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." It was the promotion of this 700-page tome that brought Julia Child to the attention of an America ripe for a culinary revolution. Appearing on what was then called educational television to talk about the book, she brought along a copper bowl, a whisk and some eggs, and whipped up an omelet. The response was so overwhelming that she was given her own program, and the rest, as they say, is history.

We'll miss you, Julia. Thanks for teaching us to be passionate about food.

Queen of Sheba

This is the French cake I couldn't wait to make the first time I watched Julia Child demonstrate the procedure on television more than 30 years ago. Though she is gone, through dishes like this her impact lives on. The recipe is adapted from "The French Chef Cookbook."

Ingredients:

7 ounces semisweet chocolate chips, divided

3 1/2 tablespoons strong coffee, divided

14 tablespoons butter, divided

13 tablespoons sugar, divided

3 eggs, separated

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

pinch of salt

1/3 cup pulverized blanched almonds

1/4 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 cup cake flour

Directions:

Melt 2/3 cup of the chocolate chips with 2 tablespoons of the coffee. Cream 8 tablespoons butter and 11 tablespoons sugar until soft and fluffy. Beat in egg yolks. Stir in chocolate mixture, almonds, extract and flour. Whip the egg whites with cream of tartar and salt until they form soft peaks, then beat in remaining 2 tablespoons sugar until they become firm but not dry. Stir one fourth of whites into batter to lighten, then quickly fold in remainder. Pour batter into a greased and floured 8-inch round pan and bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes or until toothpick inserted three inches from the edge tests clean. Cake will puff slightly on top and center will not be completely set. Cool cake 10 minutes, unmold and let cool completely. Melt remaining 1/2 cup chocolate chips in remaining 1 and 1/2 tablespoons coffee and beat in remaining 6 tablespoons butter one tablespoon at a time until icing is of spreading consistency. Ice cake and decorate with blanched almonds if desired.

Listen to A Harte Appetite Fridays at 8:49 a.m. and Saturdays at 11:59 a.m. on KRCU, 90.9 on your FM dial. Write A Harte Appetite, c/o the Southeast Missourian, P.O. Box 699, Cape Girardeau, Mo., 63702-0699 or by e-mail to tharte@semissourian.com.

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