Of all the people who would have exulted — and permitted themselves a wry smile — at the recent rehabilitation of butter, Julia Child would surely have been the first.
Child was my hero. I was living in the wrong part of the world when her television series aired, so I missed all those apocryphal episodes featuring chickens crashing to the kitchen floor to be scooped up, restored to the serving plate and served up with a flourish. But I learned to cook with her at my side, not on the screen but through the pages of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (both volumes). When my first book “A Taste of Alsace” was published, I took my courage in both hands and sent her a copy.
A month or two later, in January 1991, I received a most charming letter thanking me for the book – I still treasure it. “How wonderful,” she wrote, “that you have recipes for good hearty food like choucroute, snail ravioli etc. with all of those wonderful ingredients of the old cuisine. We hardly see that kind of cooking in this country any more (sic) because people are so terrified of food and fat.”
Butter makes everything better
Child was famously unafraid of food — or fat. Butter is the warp and woof of all her books, a golden thread that runs through them from start to finish. Here she is on “Enrichments for White Sauces”: “Fresh butter stirred into a sauce just before serving is the simplest of the enrichments. It smooths out the sauce, gives it a slight liaison, and imparts that certain French taste which seems to be present in no other type of cooking.”
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How could her pastry crusts — five parts flour to four parts butter — be anything other than “tender, crunchy and buttery”? Sauces don’t skimp on this glorious fat either, whether roux-based and further enriched, of the hollandaise family or whisked vigorously and with abandon into a reduction of shallots, white wine and vinegar for a classic beurre blanc. Even her crêpe batter has 4 tablespoons of melted butter blended in, to give the richest, tenderest, lightest crêpes imaginable.
When she gives a recipe for hamburgers (while cheerfully anticipating the shocked reaction of her audience on finding a hamburger recipe in a French cookbook), she first softens onions in a goodly quantity of butter, adds a little more to the ground meat for tenderness and moisture, and finally recommends serving the burgers with butters flavored variously with parsley, herbs, mustard, shallots or garlic.
Vegetables almost invariably get the treatment, whether it’s buttered artichoke hearts (to be filled with poached eggs and/or béarnaise sauce), asparagus with hollandaise or plain buttered French beans, “which go with almost anything,” but which are so good in their own right she suggests offering them as a separate course. One of my favorite potato recipes is her Gratin Savoyard, where meat stock replaces the customary milk or cream of the Gratin Dauphinois (plus an extra dollop of butter).
And when did anyone last see or hear of butter cream, that wondrously rich, smooth-as-silk filling or icing based on egg yolks, sugar butter and flavorings, which fell out of fashion alongside things like Baked Alaska and Black Forest Gateau?
I have a special place in my heart (and kitchen) for Child’s Pouding Alsacien, a homely Alsatian dessert which I suspect draws on a recipe known here in its home country as Bettelmann (“beggar man”). Child’s version consists of apples tossed in butter, mixed with plum jam and rum, topped with whipped butter, sugar and eggs with some breadcrumbs mixed in and baked till golden. I like to think she would rejoice to see this buttery, golden pudding rejoin the ranks of permitted foods.
Pouding Alsacien (Gratin of sautéed apples)
This dish, which should be served cold, is inspired by a similar recipe from Julia Child.
Serves 6 to 8
2½ pounds (seven or eight) well-flavored eating apples
4½ ounces (125 grams) butter
4 tablespoons plum jam, pushed through a sieve
2 tablespoons rum (I use an Alsatian eau-de-vie de quetsche or plum liqueur.)
3 ounces (75 grams) sugar
3 egg yolks
2 teaspoons flour
A pinch of cinnamon
2 ounces (50 grams) fresh breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons milk (optional)
3 egg whites
A pinch of salt
2 teaspoons of sugar
Icing sugar in a shaker
1. Quarter, peel and core the apples and cut in thick slices.
2. Heat half the butter till sizzling in a large frying pan, toss in the apples and fry over lively heat till lightly browned, tossing the pan from time to time so they brown evenly — they should be tender but still hold their shape (This is why you need to use eating, not cooking apples, which may disintegrate into a fluff.)
3. Tip the apples into an ovenproof dish or pan about 9 inches in diameter and 2 inches deep (23 centimeters by 5 centimeters).
4. Melt the sieved plum jam in a small pan and stir in the rum or eau-de-vie.
5. Mix the jam mixture into the cooked apples and smooth the top.
6. Heat the oven to 325 F (170 C).
7. Using a hand-held mixer, cream together the remaining butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
8. Beat in the egg yolks, then the flour and cinnamon, and finally the breadcrumbs. (If the mixture is very stiff, you may need to stir in a couple of tablespoons of milk.)
9. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks are formed, then beat in the sugar and continue beating till stiff.
10. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolk mixture and spread it evenly over the apples.
11. Bake in the preheated oven for about 25 minutes or until the top is nicely risen and lightly colored.
12. Dredge with icing sugar and return the gratin to the oven for a further 15 to 20 minutes until the top is golden brown.
13. Allow to cool on a rack, then refrigerate for 24 hours.
Top photo: Pouding alsacien with crème fraîche. Credit: Sue Style