Ruth Rogers on Ju­lia Child

The Guardian - Feast - - Feast - The cook’s cook

Be­fore I sur­faced as an Ital­ian chef, the dish I loved to cook was souf­fle.

I learned how to make them from Ju­lia Child’s de­but, Mas­ter­ing the Art of French Cook­ing. I first started cook­ing – home cook­ing, that is – when my hus­band Richard and I lived in Paris in the 70s, and Child was a big in­flu­ence. I loved that cook­book be­cause she was so pre­cise in her recipes – I al­ways felt that, if you fol­lowed them to the let­ter, you could never fail. She gave you the di­am­e­ter of ev­ery dish, and ev­ery other mea­sure­ment; it was like read­ing a chem­istry book.

Un­like El­iz­a­beth David, who would just say, “find the ripest, juici­est tomato”, Child didn’t re­ally worry too much about sea­son­al­ity or in­gre­di­ents; she cared more about tech­nique. And I think learn­ing the tech­niques is what gives you con­fi­dence – if you feel like you re­ally can make things, you feel con­fi­dent they will work. So, with my souf­fles, for ex­am­ple, every­body would be so amazed – they were so good. But, ac­tu­ally, it wasn’t so much to do with me as with Ju­lia’s recipe – it was that good.

With the souf­fle, it was also the drama of the dish. You make it, you put it in the oven and you watch it rise. That ev­ery­one is slightly fright­ened by the process helps – you’re al­ways told how del­i­cate it is, you mustn’t open the oven door, you mustn’t make a noise. But I learned that, in re­al­ity, you could be quite ro­bust when mak­ing one. I re­mem­ber once, on a ski­ing hol­i­day with my chil­dren, putting the souf­fle in the oven and it break­ing down half­way through. We just took it out, walked down the hall to an­other oven and put it in. It was fine.

My kids loved them when they were lit­tle. I would al­ways make a green-coloured spinach one and a cream-coloured cheese one

– a dol­lop of each on the plate, ev­ery­one fight­ing over the crisp bits on top. Served with a lovely salad, to cut through the rich­ness of it.

Child also does a de­li­cious fish souf­fle. You poach sole in wine, then put bits of the fish in the bot­tom of your souf­fle dish, be­fore adding the egg whites. While it bakes, you re­duce the poach­ing liq­uid to make a sauce, which you then pour over the baked souf­fle. A rather beau­ti­ful dish.

I have al­ways had re­spect for the rigour of cook­ing, which Child em­bod­ied – this idea that there is a pre­ci­sion to learn, which you can then break away from, in the same way that you have to know clas­si­cal mu­sic to play jazz. It’s tra­di­tion ver­sus freeform.

An­other dish of Child’s I made a lot in Paris was tarte tatin – again, the drama of the dish ap­pealed. And I love a bit­ter-sweet dessert. I’d make it with quite big pieces of fruit and serve it with creme fraiche. Her îles flot­tantes – quite sim­i­lar re­ally to the souf­fle, in that you have egg whites – poached – and, in­stead of the bechamel, a creme anglaise. It’s a dish I al­ways have when­ever I go back to Paris, which I do at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity. That, and the warm salad of curly en­dives with crisp bits of ba­con and a poached egg with red-wine vine­gar.

We lived there for five years. Go­ing down to get a baguette twice a day – one for lunch and one for din­ner – cross­ing the Seine to do my laun­dry that whole im­mer­sion in the food and cul­ture of the city – from the restau­rants we ate in to the mar­kets where I shopped – was so ex­cit­ing. And then, of course, we moved to Italy and I dis­cov­ered Ital­ian food, and fell in love. But I never lost my love for French food, and for mak­ing it.

Ju­lia Child at her home in Cam­bridge, Mas­sachusetts. ‘She was so pre­cise in her recipes, you could never fail’

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