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French Onion Soup, by Barbara Redmond

French Onion Soup, by Barbara Redmond

The genius of Julia Child was to translate French cooking into a form that North Americans could follow. In the 1950s, many French foods were unobtainable in the United States and Canada, and Julia had to get creative in finding ways to substitute and adapt local ingredients. North American flour, milk, cuts of meat, cheeses…all were different.

But what about people going the other way? That is, suppose you are a North American who goes with her family to live in France, and you want to continue to cook some family favourites in your new environment? Where is the “Julie Enfant” from whom you can get corresponding advice?

Baking in Paris: A simple birthday cake

We asked a non-French chef about this. Rachel Muse trained as a pastry chef in the U.K. and now lives and works in Paris. She remembers that several years ago, she wanted to make a birthday cake for a little boy … not a fancy cake like those in Paris’s many patisseries, but just a simple layer cake with icing and candles and his name spelled out in Smarties on top.

The first hurdle was buying the ingredients. She was told she was not allowed to buy food colouring, for example. At that time, it was available only to professional patissiers through special outlets. She managed to talk someone in her local patisserie into letting her have a couple of colours. She also couldn’t find the whipping cream she was used to, since the heaviest cream was only 30% fat, not the 35% that non-French chefs use. And she had to search high and low for birthday candles. (She has since learned that Non-French families in France guard their stock of birthday candles and reuse them until they are tiny stumps.)

Fortunately, as a British cook, she was used to measuring things by weight; North Americans measure by volume and need measuring cups or spoons that can be hard to find in France. Still, she couldn’t find the kind of scales she preferred. “I could only find the fancy electronic kind, but I wanted the reliable, old-fashioned needle-and-dial sort.”

And when she put the cake in the oven, she found that it was not the sort of oven that bakers need, since the heat was uneven – one corner of the oven was very hot, while the opposite corner was lukewarm. This wouldn’t matter as much for cooking meat or vegetables, but for making a cake, she says, it was “brutal.” She had to keep turning the cake to get it to bake evenly.

Do French women bake cakes?

Rachel has come to the conclusion that Frenchwomen don’t bake cakes. “Have you noticed that when you go up the stairs in a French apartment building and you smell something wonderful from someone’s kitchen, it’s always something savoury? You never smell baking. Frenchwomen leave baking to the professionals.”

Kathy Morton, a retired French professor and Director of Product Development – France for the company Tour de Forks, agrees. “Frenchwomen have access to the best patisseries and freshest produce in the world – no question about that – so it seems they would rather spend time in the kitchen on the plat principal and pick up a perfect pastry or dessert from the corner patisserie. Sometimes even fresh fruit serves as a dessert. That’s not to say that French women don’t make desserts at all. Many of them have a repertoire of simple desserts like tarts or îles flottantes. With ready-made crusts, puff pastry, cream and crème fraiche available at most local epiceries, it’s easy to put together a quick and delicious dessert. But sacre bleu! Could it be that French women don’t get fat because they don’t bake or eat cakes?”

Considering the delights of the average French patisserie, this makes sense. And French baking is more complicated than the kind of baking American and English women are used to. Frenchwomen who do bake have to learn the techniques of meringues and profiteroles, which are a bit more intricate than muffins or chocolate chip cookies.

Rachel has found that non-French ingredients are now becoming available in Paris, although are probably still hard to find in smaller centres. She is pleased that fresh milk is now sold in most supermarkets – for years, the French got by on UHT (ultra heat treated) milk in boxes. It was useless for making anything that called for cold milk, as the UHT flavour came through, although it sufficed for recipes in which the milk was heated. She has also learned to whip lower-fat French cream by keeping it very, very cold, and putting the beaters and the bowl in the freezer until the last minute, “but don’t try this in a hot kitchen,” she advises.

She finds substituting Comté for cheddar cheese works pretty well. But she still has difficulty finding things like the kind of bacon strips that most of us take for granted – the French use lardons, which are little chunks of bacon.

One day, perhaps, a Julie Enfant will write “Maîtriser l’art de la cuisine américaine/anglaise” (Mastering the art of American/English cooking) for the French. Until then, non-French cooks in France will have to improvise.

Perhaps the best contender to date is Clothide Dusoulier, who has lived in the States and learned some techniques there. In her cookbook, Chocolate and Zucchini, she includes a recipe for a simple French cake that involves using an empty yogurt pot to measure the ingredients — a rare example of French measurement by volume. (See recipe below.) Apparently, French children are sometimes introduced to baking through this recipe. Perhaps the French consider it too simple for grownups.

French celebrity cookbook author and French TV star: Sophie Dudemaine

Kathy Morton also notes, “One Frenchwoman has become a celebrity by baking cakes.” Sophie Dudemaine, cookbook author and French TV star, got her start years ago baking savoury cakes using ingredients like olives, cheese, or tomatoes and selling them at local markets. Her cookbook titled Les Cakes de Sophie has sold over a million copies in France. So somebody’s baking cakes! These savoury cakes, so unusual and so delicious, are often served with an aperitif or even as a light supper when accompanied by a salad and a glass of wine.” For a nation that rose up in revolt over the line “Let them eat cake,” this is an interesting development.

Yogurt Cake

– 2 eggs
– 250ml (1 cup) whole milk plain unsweetened yogurt (if you use two 125ml or 4oz tubs, you can use them to measure out the rest of the ingredients)
– 200g (1 cup) sugar (you can use an empty tub of yogurt and measure the equivalent of 2 yogurt tubs if you used the 125ml or 4oz kind)
– 80ml (1/3 cup) vegetable oil (or a bit less than 1 yogurt tub)
– 2 cups all-purpose flour (or 4 yogurt tubs)
– 1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
– ½ teaspoon baking soda
– 1 teaspoon pure vanilla paste/extract
– 1 tablespoon light rum

Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F), line the bottom of a round 25-cm (10-inch) cake pan with parchment paper and grease the sides. In a large mixing-bowl, gently combine the yogurt, eggs, sugar, vanilla, oil, and rum. In another bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and baking soda. Add the flour mixture into the yogurt mixture, and blend together. Don’t overwork the dough. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean. Let stand for ten minutes, and transfer onto a rack to cool.

Vocabulary: French to English translations

Cuisson: Cooking. (There is no French word that fully corresponds to the English term “baking.”
J’aime faire du pain: If you want to say, “I like baking,” it translates “I like to make bread.”
J’aime faire des gâteaux: “I like to make cakes.”
La levure chimique: Baking powder.
Le bicarbonate de soude: Baking soda.
Une plaque pour le four: Baking sheet or tray.
Un plat allant au four: Baking dish.

Acknowledgements: We’d like to thank our contributors. Rachel Muse is a chef living and working in Paris. Kathy Morton of Tour de Forks designs and guides epicurean adventures in France, including one in honour of Julia Child. She is retired French professor who has produced and given webinars to travel agents about culinary travel and written articles about France.

Philippa Campsie teaches part-time in the urban planning program at the University of Toronto, and runs her own writing and research business, Hammersmith Communications. Before starting her own business, she was editor-in-chief at Macmillan Canada. Philippa lived in Paris as a student and regularly travels to Paris and Normandy.

She is interested in stories of famous Parisian women throughout the ages and how they influenced the Parisian style we have come to love and know.

You may also enjoy A Woman’s Paris® post, Chocolate Mousse — debonair, dark and irresistibly rich! by Barbara Redmond who tells of this crème de la crème of mousses: a supreme seducer. And uncovers the source of the original dish, first known as “Mayonnaise de Chocolat,” created in the 1900s by French post-impressionist artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Recipe included for Mousseline au Chocolat (Chocolate Mousse), by Julia Child from her book, The French Chef Cookbook.

Tartiflette: French Comfort Food, by Michelle Hum who shares the traditional hot dish for warm, savory comfort enjoyed during ski season in the Alps. Tartiflette: a French dish of potatoes, bacon, and Reblochon cheese. Recipe and video guide included from Head Chef of London’s Coq d’Argent, Michael Weiss, who provides his own version of this Alpine specialty. 

French Onion Soup – a Paris meal to remember, by Michelle Hum who recalls the aroma of sweet, caramelized onions, dry wine, and rich broth carried with the steam rising from her bowl. With the first taste – serendipity. Recipe included for Julia Child’s Soupe à l’oignon (French onion soup), from her cookbook, The Way to Cook

Pain Perdu: Childhood love of French custard and bread, by Barbara Redmond who shares her discovery of pain perdu (French toast), from the boulangerie pâtisserie Calixte in Î’le St. Louis, Paris. French toast: a favorite treat eaten in the gardens of Notre Dame in an air of whimsy and childhood delight. Recipe included for “original French toast,” made by Christophe Raoux of the L’École de Cuisine d’Alain Ducasse for Mark Schatzker, ABC News explore.

Text copyright ©2010 Philippa Campsie. All rights reserved.
Illustrations copyright ©Barbara Redmond. All rights reserved.