The Day Julia Child Kicked my Butt

Welcome to the latest adventures of one Daring Baker.  This month I took on a challenge posed by bread guru Mary at The Sour Dough and the lovely Sara of I Like to Cook who really put me to task on this one.  Yessirree.  If you’d like to see the recipe, please visit their sites for the study in wonder.  I could think of a much worse way to spend and entire weekend than with the incomparable Julia Child, whom I love with all my foodie heart and sweet soul.  But this day will forever be referred to as The Day Julia Child Kicked my Butt.

My Dear Julia,

Like so many other foodies in this world, I love you, but I have a a confession to make.  I loved Martha first.  I’ve thought about this much over the years, and believe that it comes down to my evolution as a cook.  I bought Martha’s big books on Entertaining and Weddings, subscribed to her magazine from the very start, watched her television show, and then, well, wanted to BE Martha.  And that’s when I really met you.

Julia, you were on Martha’s show quite a bit, and along the way, I learned that you authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking and that Martha had worked her way through the entire two volume set, learning from you.  But I have to say…

…Martha’s recipe for French Bread can fit on one page in her cookbook.  Yours is struggling to be contained in under 20!  I do have to say, Julia, that writing anything that lengthy in Bloggsville is quite the faux pas.  No one reads it. (This post is Exhibit I)

But I did.  I read your entire recipe for Pain Francais like I was a college student again — yellow highlighter in hand and a steaming cuppa extra strong French Roast to boot.  And this wasn’t the first time I’d read it.

Remember when I said I wanted to BE Martha?  That was in the early ’80s and about the time that your publisher released new editions of both volumes of the French Cooking set, and I bought both.  If Martha could cook her way through your books, then so could I.  But I read first, and in doing that, saw a few recipes that stopped me cold in my hopes and dreams.  I looked at them, blinked, read through the recipe, closed the book, went back to it over and over thinking that there might be a smidgen of an inkling of a slight possibility that I could not make that recipe.  Ever.  One is the Filet de Boeuf en Croute (p. 181, VII) — on a mere five pages, and the other was your Pain Francais.

And then last April, I became a Daring Baker and have found myself circling your recipe again with a stiff upper lip and a vow to succeed.  And do you know what, Julia?  There was one line in your recipe that caught my eye and it made all the difference from that point on:

It will turn into bread in the oven whatever happens, but you will have an easier time and a better loaf if you aim for ideal conditions.

Oh, how I now know that AND why the word for bread in French is spelled P.A.I.N.

7:00 am:  I was going to begin my bread, but hadn’t finished some cookies I made, and wanted to post those so blithely put off making your French bread one more day.  Big Mistake.  BIG.


8:00 am :  I was going to get up earlier to begin your French bread, but didn’t.  So I sat down and wasted time on the Internet, the recipe swirling in my head all the while, taunting me…You can’t do it.  You can’t do it.

9:00 am:  I dawdle around in the kitchen emptying the dishwasher and clearing things off the counter.  You know.  Kind of like when people clear the room when they’re going to dance or fight?

9:30 am:  The dough is a simple mix of yeast, flour, water, and salt.  Lots of salt.  And I did have a few detours instantly over the quantity of flour called for by volume as opposed to weight.  I ended up using 1 lb. of flour, noticing that the quantity was 1/4 c. less that the volume requirement.

9:40 am:  I only used one hand, Julia.  Just like you said.  That way, when I began to knead the dough and it began to stick to my hand as I attempted to get it to a stage that it actually resembled bread dough, I could keep adding the flour a sprinkle at a time until I’d added the 1/4 c. that I’d not weighed AND I’d have a certain finger sans sticky dough to wave in the kitchen because already my dough was not cooperating.

(And if I keep this up my post will be as long as Julia’s recipe and I’ll still be writing when the crickets begin to chirp later this evening…)

10:00 am:  The dough is snug in the dining room in the very first un-oiled bowl I’ve ever put bread dough into with a thermometer sitting near it that reads 75 degrees F and a large folded bath towel sitting on top of it to keep it from escaping or something.  It is sunny outside, and it’s Southern California for gawdsakes.  There was NO WAY this was going to take 3-5 hours.  No.  Way.

12:00 pm:  The dining room has lost a bit of its earlier warmth, so I moved the bowl to the living room floor in a patch of sunlight giving the dog an eye about even going near it.

3:00 pm:  No way?  Way.  The dough hasn’t come close to the place in the bowl it needs to be, Julia.  And yes, I used the right type of bowl.  Yes, I poured the water in the bowl to make sure about where the 10-1/2 cup mark was.  I was only half way there.  FIVE HOURS had gone by.  So I moved the bowl to my bedroom where it’s warm because the sun sets on that side of the house, keeping the room quite warm.  I moved the bowl with the towel and the thermometer and acknowledged that I was feeling a big crankiness settling in…

I’m beginning to think that I’ve somehow acquired another child and am now responsible for its welfare…

5:00 pm:  Finally, I decided to concede and bring the dough down to the kitchen to move along.  I didn’t have to “rupture” it because it stuck to the sides of the bowl and I had to peel it away to get it onto the counter to do the whole flipping thing again, but not as much as the first time. I put it back in the bowl for a second rise which was supposed to be 2 hours.

9:00 pm:  Um.  Julia, my dearest one, I thank you for your “delayed action” suggestions, but at the rate my dough was rising, I knew that Hell had probably frozen over and that was why my kitchen was so freaking cold.

10:30 pm:  I kissed my new dough child goodnight, made sure her towel was snuggly settled over her lest she escape in the night, and went to bed promising myself that I would NOT be as cranky the next day as I had been today.

7:00 am: I yell at my Hunkster while he’s going downstairs, “Don’t you DARE lift that towel off that dough and if it’s oozing out of the bowl I don’t want to know about it.”  Needless to say, I had to make my own coffee after that.  Feh.  But when I looked in the bowl, the dough child hadn’t quite done her work in the night.

It looked, Julia, like you were seriously working me over.  But I smiled and continued on with the challenge even though I was beyond challenged at this point.  But NOT cranky.  Because you know what?  I remember you said that when I was done, whatever happened, I’d have bread.

So true.

It didn’t matter that even though I lovingly turned my three little boules round and round and round, they weren’t exactly perfect looking.  I was their mother and would love them unconditionally.

It didn’t matter that they didn’t feel like rising in any hurry either, or that they stuck to the nicely floured dish towel.  Or that they really didn’t like having their gassy bubbles popped.

Or that they didn’t quite make it on to their baking sheets in any way that could be associated with any Art of French Cooking or any other cooking.

So forgive me Julia.  I am humbled in your presence even though I know you are only smiling and would never shake your finger at me or sort of nudge me out of the way like Martha would.

But you were so right.

We had bread that only a mother could love at about 3:00 pm — about 30 hours after I’d begun your recipe.  And although I’m one who loves to languish in my kitchen, that’s a record.

The menfolk — all four of them — ate every last bite.  I, on the other hand, was able to enjoy mine by dipping it into a gift from a very good friend — French olive oil.  I know you said that as much as “bread is always exciting to eat fresh from the oven, it will have a much better taste when the inside is thoroughly cool and has composed itself,” but I couldn’t help myself.

Goodness, Julia, you should have tasted it.

Sure, there were some nooks and crannies in the crumb as big as moon craters, but still.  It was mah-vellous, dahling.  Truly.

Cheers to the wonder that you continue to be in the land of all things food.  I still love you.

Your faithful French Bread flunky,

And that, foodie friends and neighbors, is the conclusion of my Daring Baker challenge this month.  I think I shall remove myself and find a tattoo parlor so that I can have one done that says:  Julia Child Kicked my Butt.

Now don’t forget to venture on over to the other Five Hundred and counting Daring Bakers to see if Julia kicked their butts, too.