Adventures in Julia’s Kitchen

This is a long one. Feel free to skip it and go eat an ice cream cone if your day is as lovely as mine. Once again, if Beanie hadn’t loooooved the sound my camera made while he manually shoved the lens, I would a) still have a camera, and b) this post would be awesomeness incarnate, with photos of my adventure and even my chopped off tip of thumb. Instead, it’s just words. I shall do my best to paint with them…

So a few nights ago, I was flipping channels and found a PBS channel showing old reruns of Julia Child’s Master Chefs. This is a fantastic show. I hardly ever find it anymore- it’s a double happy, because not only do you get Julia, but you get to see young (now famous) chef’s stammering and doing their clumsy best in front of the Queen.

This particular episode, I know now, was something of an urban fable. Nacy Silverton of La Brea Bakery was on, and she was preparing a Creme Fresh Brioche Tart with Caramelized Plums and a white wine zabaglione.  At the end of the unbelievably long and complicated recipe, when Julia tastes it, she stammers and tears up, and says aloud that she is going to cry, because this is the best dessert she has ever tasted. Wow. Nancy has been immortalized and cast in bronze, and this dessert is the urban legend of The Tart that made Julia Child Cry.

Of course, I had to make it.

At midnight, I was Google-ing “Nancy Silverton” “Crying Tart” and trying to figure out how to spell “Zabaglione”. All to no avail. Finally, I hit up PBS and Julia’s page, where it turns out, the recipe is only available in her book, Baking with Julia. I don’t have $39 to drop on a book- because really, I could already outfit a library with my cookbooks. But! I did notice you could watch video clips from the show. So I got a pencil and paper, hit play, and started writing. 

Yesterday, I used some of my precious garage-sale funds on ingredients, and got started.  I’ve never made brioche before, but when I worked in Palo Alto, there was a bakery that had the BEST brioche, and I’ve never been able to replicate it. (And for whatever else this recipe is, now I CAN make a screaming brioche)

So I’m working on the brioche dough, and realize with all the rise times, this bread won’t be ready until morning. So it’s a two-day recipe now. Whatever- that might work out better anyway. One of the labor-intensive things about a brioche dough is you have to add cold, mashed butter. If the butter is warm, the dough just gets oily. Keep it cold. So. I’m slicing butter into chunks so I can smash it with my bench scraper (it’s not as fancy as it sounds) and buttery-10″ crazy-sharp chefs knife slips from my hand and dances across my left thumb.

Oh, and another thing: My knives are wickedly, razor sharp. David hones them after each use, the way you’re supposed to do- and I adore having sharp knives. Almost always.

You’ve heard about the Ninjas with knives so sharp you can’t even feel them cut you? It’s true. The tip of my thumb and nail was GONE before I even knew it. It was so clean I actually got to watch it fill with blood. I know, gross out. Grabbing a towel, raising my hand and calling for David, I fought feeling faint. Not because I’m squeamish about blood- totally am not- but because dang, that was a lot of blood. And it was mine. Crap. Daaaavid!!

David comes down all sleepy (it was late, did I mention that?) Wha? Huh? Yeah, um, honey? I cut my thumb off- can you help me decide if this needs the doctor, or just bandage it and we play Taps for the tip? He got the first aid kit and a roll of duct tape. I kid you not. Men. After staunching the blood, we decided the piece wasn’t big enough to warrant sewing back on, and we could rig it ourselves with some Dermabond and bandages. No duct tape was used in the care of my wound.

But see, my brioche dough was only half done. David, I need your help.

David smashed all the rest of the butter and cleaned up the kitchen while me and my throbbing thumb went to bed. When I got up this morning, the dough was doubled in the fridge, and ready to go. Wooot!

Doing things with one thumb is hard. Just so you know. Thumbs are pretty significant.

Dividing the dough in half, I roll out enough to make the tart, and use the other half to made just a simple pan of bread. I made up the filling with creme fresh and eggs, then put it all in the oven. That part was easy. Next came the caramel sauce and zabaglione. Carmel sauce I can do. The only problem was, it called for white wine. I don’t have any.  Hit Google again, it says apple juice  with a splash of cider vinegar is a good substitute for white wine in recipes. That, I can do. Strike one.

Screeeeech. Stop right there. If you EVER find yourself making a recipe that takes TWO days to make, do not, DO. NOT. substitute ingredients. File away for future reference. That is all.

Caramel sauce is easy. Pot the sugar, keep it down the side to avoid seizing, and watch until it colors. No problem. What was a problem was that I also had no Tahitian vanilla beans. So I used extract. Strike two. Can you see where this is heading? Too bad I couldn’t.

See, the thing about a caramel is that you reduce it. A lot. So what started out as a tiny teaspoon of vinegar condensed into a syrup of apple vinegar that even a cup and a half of sugar couldn’t cover. So far invested in this by now, I cannot admit that the vinegar is overpowering and press on. I set aside my hot “wine” caramel sauce and separate four eggs for the zabaglione.

I have to temper the eggs with the hot caramel, and whip them over a bain marie for at least five minutes, to cook the eggs. Every cooking school student learns zabaglione the first year. It’s not hard, it just requires attention, and that you never, ever stop whisking. I can do all that. I whip and whip. And whip and whip. Then I whip some more. Nothing. It’s supposed to get thick! Putting it back over the bain-marie I cook it for another five minutes, and it finally begins to thicken. I must pat myself on the back for tempering them without cooking so much as one little curd of egg. It’s about the only thing I did right.

Whipping the caramel sauce into the warm zabaglione, I still refuse to admit it smells like vinegar. It’s yummy, dammit. It made Julia Child cry, and mine will too! (One way or another, right? Riiight! Har har har.)

Pulling the brioche from the oven, it’s a picture of perfection. It’s toasty and golden, puffy and glossy from the egg-wash and sugar crust. The creme fresh is set perfectly in the middle, and it looks awesome. Siiiigh. Thank you.

The next step is sauteing sliced firm stone-fruit in the “delicious” caramel sauce. Well, I didn’t have any plums or nectarines, so apples would have to work, right? Yeah, strike three. That and sauteing in my Vinegar Carmel. Strike four five and six.

Cutting into the tart, I call the kids and David to come sample this delightful slice of heaven I have created. On each plate, I put a small wedge of the brioche tart. I top it with the caramel-sauce sauteed apples, a dollop of the zabaglione, some fresh toasted almond slivers and a light dusting of powdered sugar. Just like Nancy Silverton. Just. Like.

Only not.

Jeffrey took one bite and spit it out. David took a bite and closed his eyes. Stomping my foot and near tears I stammer, “I worked two days on this, and you are going to enjoy it with me!” I took a bite. Oh. My. Hell.

Imagine overcooked dried out sweet rolls with mushy apples soaked in sugary vinegar with a poached egg on top. Oh yeah.


This is why I’m not a baker. I love to cook, and think I do a pretty good job. I can replicate restaurant recipes, and make a lot of food I’m told is good. But baking? Even though you do it on the same court as cooking, it’s an entirely different animal. It’s precise. It’s exact. It requires recipes not be deviated from. Not one inch. Or ingredient. This is why I am not, and never will be, a Baker.

I bet mine would have made Julia cry, too.

19 thoughts on “Adventures in Julia’s Kitchen

  1. Awesome. Except the thumb part. Hubs and you are exactly alike, he can cook so well, but baking is not his thing, either.

    The mother-sauce, are you talking about a hollandaise-type thing? Because he (not that “I” would know anything about mother-sauces) says that eggs and caramel is not a mother sauce, it’s eggs and fat (with some acid).

  2. Mother-sauces do not have to have eggs. There are several different mother sauces. Hollandaise is one.

    I was mistaken- zabiglione is not a mother sauce. The five mother sauces are: Hollandaise, Bernaisse, Veloute, Tomato, and Espagnole (a veal-based stock)

  3. I once made a risotto and subsituted apple juice and white wine vinegar for the white wine. And it was horrible. But then I’ve also made fondues with the same substitution, and been very happy with the resulting flavor – I even prefer it to the fondues made with white wine. I wish it was always one or the other for this substitution!

    I’ve also been trying to make fancy desserts for the last six months or so, and as an accomplished normal cook, it has been a real eye opener. I’ve had so many failures! (Although none chopped fingers, but then my knives do need a good sharpening). Did the separate brioche loaf taste good, at least?

  4. I’ve had a few of these types of epic fails in my day too. But never had so cooperative a hubby as to jump into the fray with me. Especially AFTER the blood has been spilt, that is bravery.

    Congratulations on having the hope and creativity to try something amazing on a garage sale budget. You are great. When will you move in next door to me?

  5. Seriously, this one blog alone is better than Julie and Julia — and they are making a movie about her book.
    Sorry about your finger. OUCH!
    I’m not a baker either. Or a cook. Or much of a mother come to think of it.

    • The fact that you are baking with a newborn is amazing. I don’t care if it flopped on the floor, if you got anything at all in the oven, you deserve some kudos!

  6. And this is why Mr Renn will never be a baker. The man cannot keep from deviating from a recipe to save his life. I’ve yet to have success with my new lovely cooks illustrated cookbook because of this and we sort of had a fight that almost involved throwing things about it today. Okay, it wasn’t that bad.

    But I don’t have white wine on hand either. So mine may have turned out just as bad.

    • Cooks Illustrated is usually a total fail-safe. If you follow their recipes, it’s a guaranteed winner. The only time I flopped on a CI recipe was a crumb cake, and I think it was my whack-a-doo oven, and not the recipe.

      Sometimes it’s good to throw things.

    • Hubby is right. My brain is fried. Bechamel is a sauce made with a roux of flour and butter, with milk. Dozens of other sauces spring from this one sauce. Bernaise is a completely different animal, flavored with chervil and tarragon, I think. Not sure on that, too lazy to look it up at this point.

      5 points for The Wiz’s DH!

  7. I am so sorry about your thumb and about the recipe flop. But thank you so much for writing it. It was JUST what I needed to read tonight while being up with the baby.

  8. It is amazing how much thumb tips bleed when cut off. I chopped mine off via my mandolin last year, and I think you made the better choice with the home treatment vs. my 3 hours at the urgent care for some glue to stop the bleeding. I am amazed that you finished it at all with only one useable thumb.

    I’ve found in many recipes that call for white wine that white grape juice works nicely sans any vinegar. Sure, it might not have the bite that the wine would have imparted, but the recipe usually turns out tasting good still, if not the same as it’s supposed to.

    I have never used real vanilla beans in my life. I always use extract. So I suppose I don’t know what I’m missing.

  9. Two-day recipe = non-starter for moi.

    I sliced my thumb once. It hurt like a bad word. Bad word, I can still remember it. I hope yours is healing.

  10. Didn’t mean to be nit-picking your post. Sorry if it came across that way. I can totally relate. There’s nothing worse than spending tons of time on a recipe that tastes nasty. Sometimes, substitutes can be better than the original. Here are some of my favorite substitutions.

    1. Use Mayo instead of eggs/oil when making pancakes
    2. Creme fraiche instead of milk/butter for mashed potatoes.
    3. Add cream to generic spaghetti sauce to make tomato bisque

    • I was wondering how to spell “fraiche” I kept trying different ways, and none of them looked right. And clearly I am too lazy to check!

      Those are some good ideas- I’ve added cream to spaghetti sauce, but I would have never thought of mayonnaise in pancakes. It doesn’t taste “sandwich-y”? I guess mayo doesn’t have spices in it- it’s just eggs, salt and oil, right? Hmmm. Interesting!

      Oh, and no worries. You don’t blog as long as I have and take things personally. You were right!

  11. Wiz DH’s buttermilk pancakes-

    dry (mix together):
    1 Cup flour
    1 T sugar
    1 tsp salt
    1/2 tsp baking powder
    1/4 tsp baking soda

    wet (mix together)
    1/4 C Mayo
    1 C Buttermilk
    1/2 C Water

    Mix dry together… mix wet together. Dump wet into dry, mix together lightly… add additional water if needed.

    cook on griddle. I often add banana slices or blueberries after they’ve been poured on the griddle (that way the batter doesn’t turn blue).

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