A kitchen, a bottle of wine, and a duck recipe. Easy, right?
It’s not called “French Cooking for Dummies.’’ It’s called “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’’ and in the end, it mastered us.
We had just seen “Julie & Julia,’’ the movie about Julia Child and Julie Powell, the blogger who cooked her way through Child’s book. Child is an icon of cooking, and we are two people who like to cook. (Well, Devra cooks. Wesley just makes dinner.) But, we realized, neither of us had ever made any of Child’s recipes.
We decided to change that, because Meryl Streep’s joyous portrayal made us want to be Julia Child. And there would be no pussyfooting around. Powell (played by Amy Adams) spends much of the movie dreading boning a duck to make her final dish, a bird stuffed with meat and baked in pastry. What a baby!
So we bought a duck. And we boned it. That turned out to be the easy part.
Or did we debone it? Wesley was about to embark on a new activity, and he wasn’t sure about the vocabulary. Boning requires slicing the duck down the spine and removing the skeleton wholesale, leaving a floppy shell of a bird. It seems intimidating in theory, but it turns out to be oddly satisfying. For one thing, Child’s instructions demystify the process and reassure the cook. “By the time you have completed half of this, the carcass frame, dangling legs, wings, and skin will appear to be an unrecognizable mass of confusion, and you will wonder how in the world any sense can be made of it at all,’’ she wrote, with coauthors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.
Also, removing the bones feels a little like a science project, like dissecting a frog. It isn’t as confrontational as having to capture and defeather your own food. At the same time, it’s more personal than simply buying prepackaged meat: It’s as intimate as you’re ever going to get with your dinner, short of killing it yourself.
The dish, pate de canard en croute, is a fairly involved one. There are numerous steps and stages. We thought boning would be the most difficult part. Once we’d moved on to Step 2, we realized why it was actually easy. There are no variables. It’s you, the duck, and the knife. You follow Julia’s blueprint. The rest is intuitive: Slice along the bone. Cut through a few joints. That’s it. Wesley held the boneless bird triumphantly aloft (even though we had sliced through its skin in one spot). Devra danced obnoxiously, chanting something about being awesome.
Then we turned the page.
There’s a reason nobody makes this dish anymore, and it has nothing to do with the carcass. It has to do with the next 700 pages of instructions, which involve browning the duck, stuffing and trussing it, then putting together a persnickety dough. Browning a whole, 5-pound duck is not easy, particularly in Wesley’s too-small frying pan. Blame this on our squeamish vegetarian photographer, who found the larger pan aesthetically lacking and the entire process appalling. Blame every other inadequacy on Wesley’s utensils. Do you have a meat thermometer? Tongs? Trussing string? A bigger cutting board? A chopping knife of any acceptable sharpness?
With a fish-filleting knife imported from Devra’s kitchen, we carved the meat from the breast and thighs of the duck easily enough. Then Wesley cut it all into 3/8-inch cubes. How important was it to follow Julia’s instructions precisely? Would the dish be ruined if the cubes were, say, 1/2-inch? We had bigger ducks to fry. We just didn’t fry them enough. Alas, the frying step is important so that when you cut the finished product open, you’re not left with a rubbery layer of fat inside.
But we were rushing, which is the antithesis of the entire “Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ philosophy. We still had to make the dough, never mind cook the bird for many hours and wait for it to cool for many more. Held up at work, we’d also started two hours late, which put us at about 7:30 p.m. when we finally began rolling the dough.
The dough! Julia instructs you to make it with “fraisage,’’ pushing the dough with the heel of the hand to completely blend the fat with the flour at the end. We’d made plenty of kinds of dough before. How hard could this be? We measured the flour and mixed in cold butter, shortening, salt, sugar, eggs, and water. But the proportions seemed all off. It was a dry, shaggy mess that wouldn’t come together, never mind finessing it with fraisage. When no one was looking, Devra dumped in an extra quarter-cup of water. “No problem, everything’s working perfectly,’’ she said with a calm, collected smile when Wesley turned around. (OK, Devra wrote that last sentence. There may have been some whining and cursing.)
While Devra kneaded and rolled, Wesley mixed and stuffed. This also was relatively simple: ground veal, ground pork, and ground fat in a bowl with eggs, cooked chopped onion (damn Wesley’s knife, which managed to cut him), salt, pepper, and reduced port. After a vigorous beating, Julia recommends (commands? decrees?) frying up a bit of the ground mixture - which, if we’re being honest, had a decidedly rank odor (thank you, ground fat) - in order to determine whether the stuffing is properly seasoned. Now, at this point you have to understand our mindset. It was 8 o’ clock. We were hungry. There was a photographer waiting for a finished duck that we’d neither stuffed nor trussed. Nor encased in dough. Nor baked. There was no time to test for proper seasoning. We just stuffed it. Our bad.
Happily, wrapping the dough around the bird was not as difficult as kneading it. It fit perfectly around the duck and, surprisingly, even looked nice, although we omitted the dough rosettes the movie version sports. Even our vegetarian photographer remarked on its likeness to actual food: He called it a “giant evil dumpling.’’ A few minutes later, the dumpling was in the oven.
You might be wondering why we would embark on this project and cut corners. In the spirit of our divine leader, and in toasting her, we may have consumed a bottle of wine. On empty stomachs, this made us both devil-may-care and inclined to ignore some of Child’s advice. Drinking then made us ornery and panicked after we realized that we were wrong, wrong, wrong to stray. We should have browned the duck. We should have tested the stuffing. We should have gone out and secured proper trussing string. At some point in this process, shortcuts start to undermine the exercise. We were convinced we’d taken too many. Child didn’t write guides. She wrote recipes - to be obeyed. (Still, those dough instructions are way too finicky.)
With the duck in the oven for two hours and the time closing in on 9:30, it was obvious our dinner plans had to change. The fantastic Julia Child dinner party we had planned suddenly became burgers and ribs at a restaurant down the street. But our backup dinner gave us time to reflect on what we had done and learned.
With Julia Child, the details really matter. Even when her recipes are complex, they’re not complex. Pate de canard en croute is one of the more complicated recipes in the book. It was laborious, but it was also pretty simple. Basically, in many, many steps, we had made meatloaf and stuffed it in a duck. There was no fancy chopping, nothing to do in advance. Really, the duck just combines every element of a dinner party, including the pie, into a single dish.
Cooking a la Julia may not be for the modern workaholic. At least not on a weekday. This is not the sort of dinner one runs home to make for the family (the irony, again, being that it’s really just fancy meatloaf, featuring an amount of fat that’s almost cruel). If you’re going to make this duck for anyone, it’s probably wise to begin at the crack of dawn on a Saturday.
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ represents a bygone view of cooking. It sees the act as intimidating, the cuisine as foreign. We are not the housewives of 40 years ago, wide-eyed and easily impressed. We’ve eaten and likely cooked Chinese, Italian, Thai, Turkish, and Mexican food. Even still, Child’s book is the progenitor of today’s volumes that instruct us how to make our own charcuterie, craft artisanal bread, brew beer, make cheese, bake using ratios. If French food no longer needs step-by-step demystifying, plenty of edibles do.
Though the degree of difficulty may be low for some of Child’s dishes, the rigor and patience most of these recipes require can be daunting. Julie Powell started cooking from the book as a kind of lark. She finished in respectful awe. Using “Mastering the Art,’’ using it seriously, is like performing Shakespeare. The recipes are like his plays. Rightly or not, every story since seems to trace back to him. The same is true for Western cooking and Child.
No one speaks like Shakespeare’s characters nowadays. No one really cooks like Child regularly (seriously, aspic?). But to use “Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ is to approach an art form that could expose your limitations in the kitchen while making you a better cook. Actors love Shakespeare for what it challenges them to bring out of themselves. You could make a similar argument for cooks and Child. She’s an occasion to which you want to rise.
So, did we? The next morning we hauled the duck to the office. Devra was doubtful: The pastry shell seemed too hard. She’d worked the dough so much, how could it be edible? But when we sliced through, it looked like it was supposed to. It smelled really good. We hadn’t taken too many shortcuts: Julia’s recipe forgave us. Our co-workers ate it happily, though the stuffing was underseasoned and the duck skin was fatty. They forgave us too. Or else they didn’t know the difference.
After all, none of us is Julia. But we tried.