julia child, mastering the art of french cooking, julie powell, french cuisine

If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen

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“I would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot.” – Julia Child

 

I have an announcement to make…are you ready? We live on the sun. It is summertime in Texas, and the temperatures are blazing. Well into the 100’s during the day, still in the 90’s at night, I’m here to tell you that this does not make for a pleasant mid-afternoon cooking experience. I’ll start from the beginning…

This is what they're supposed to look like...*sigh*.

Last night we got together with some friends for a semi-monthly-when-everyone-has-time-to-get-together Game Night. The hosts of this shindig provided snacks, and the rest of us were in charge of bringing desserts. I thought this would be a perfect opportunity to mark off one of Julia’s sweets! I flipped through MtAoFC and found the simplest thing I could that would travel across town easily and wouldn’t have to be served warm. I wound up with Biscuits a la Cuiller (ladyfingers) with apricot glaze.

Side Note – One of the few things I really remember from junior high French class is this song (which played through my head every time I read the title of this recipe):
Qui a volé les biscuits de la jarre à biscuits?
Qui, moi? Oui, toi! Pas moi! Alors, qui?
Qui a volé les biscuits de la jarre à biscuits?
Kind of sad, huh? It’s this kind of useless information that’s taking up valuable real estate in my brain where basic math skills should go. I’m just saying.

I called in for reinforcement. Tag team!

Okay, enough silliness. Back to the recipe. Now, I was a little strapped for time, and we had just gotten home from running errands out in the heat (I’ll tell you about our shopping adventure later this week…), so I was already breaking a bit of a sweat. First things first, I prepared two cookie sheets by coating them with butter and a little bit of flour, then began making the batter for the ladyfingers by mixing egg yolks, sugar and a little vanilla into a mixing bowl. Once it became a light yellow, I beat egg whites, salt and sugar in another bowl until stiff peaks were formed (I had to call in for reinforcement during this step – the kitchen was so hot, and I was really working up a sweat by this point, so Ben took pity on me and stepped in to give me a little rest). He finally acheived the goal of a nice thick mixture, and I folded it into the egg yolk combo.

The batter was really looking good, light and fluffy as the recipe described. But the next part was a little tricky – I was supposed to scoop the batter into a pastry bag with 1/2″ tip. Now, believe it or not, I actually DO own a pastry bag. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it since we moved into our house over nine months ago. So I did the next best thing – I used a zip-loc bag and cut one of the corners off. I’ve done this before for cupcake decorating – why should this be any different?

This can't be right...I'd hate to meet the lady with these fingers!

I was supposed to squeeze out even lines onto the baking sheets, making finger shapes about 4″ long and 1 1/2″ wide, spaced about an inch apart. However, I’m not sure if the opening in my makeshift pastry bag was too big, or if it was the fact that the heat in the kitchen was so great the batter couldn’t thicken, or maybe the combination of both – but the size and shape that I managed to get onto the cookie sheets were not like any lady’s fingers I had ever seen. More like the elephant man’s fingers (sorry, Mr. Merrick, but it’s true). The consistency of the gooey blobs on the sheets was way too thin, and the liquid spread so quickly I couldn’t maintain any sort of control over the size or shape. I kept working until I was out of batter, then went back with a paper towel to scoop off any excess liquid from the cookie sheets and try to regain some kind of structure.

It was a pretty hopeless situation (MAN, it was hot in there!), so I did the best I could, then covered the batter with a little bit of powdered sugar and eventually put the sheets in the oven for 20 minutes. I watched them nervously through the oven window (this wasn’t looking too promising) and when the timer went off, I pulled them out for a closer look. They didn’t look very done, but when I tapped their tops, they seemed crispy enough. At this point, I had the bright idea to take a knife and cut off the sides off each cookie so that they would be more in the shape of a typical ladyfinger. (Sadly, much to the chagrin of Julia and myself, the ladyfingers also came out very flat. Julia warned me about this on page 666 – how appropriate! – when she said, “A batter that is too liquid will form flat rather than rounded ladyfingers.” Drat! Somewhere she was looking down on me, shaking her head and saying, “I told you so.”) With the sides trimmed, I felt much better about their overall appearance and decided to move them to a cooling rack.

Straining apricot preserves for glaze.

The first batch was no problem – a little thin, but nice texture and easy to remove from the cookie sheet. The second batch, however, would not budge from the sheet. I chiseled away at them with a spatula, but to no avail. All I wound up with was a pile of crumbs. This was bad news. My plan was to make these into little sandwiches, with an apricot glaze spread between two cookies. But now I only had half the amount – barely enough to serve to my Game Night friends. That’s when I got creative.

I gave up on the second batch completely and focused all my efforts on the eleven cookies that had survived the oven. (This suddenly reminds me of the time I took a ceramics class in high school, and every time our class put our bowls and pitchers into the kiln to be fired, it never failed that someone’s project would explode, thus ruining the rest of the class’s pieces. Apparently I have a very low success rate for items surviving an oven.) I took each ladyfinger and cut it in half, which then doubled my final count. They weren’t pretty – not by a long shot – and they were now barely bite-sized, but at least there were enough to justify bringing to a party.

While the arthritic ladyfingers cooled, I made the apricot glaze – the one piece of this dish that didn’t go horribly wrong. Using a seive, I strained a half cup of apricot preserves into a sauce pan along with some sugar and heated it until it became a syrupy sauce. I took it off the heat, then spooned a little bit onto one half of the ladyfingers, using the other half to complete the little cookie sandwich.

Ladyfingers make it to the party - yikes. That's all I can say.

I have to say, considering that nothing seemed to go right in this recipe, the end result was pretty impressive – it was definitely something out of nothing. They were a hit at the party, but if I’m going to be perfectly honest, these were NOT ladyfingers. If I had served these to Julia Child, I imagine she would have said, “These are lovely, dear. Now…what do you call them?” and I would have had to make up some ridiculous name (“Uh, these…I call these Biscuits de Rigor Mortis. Bon appetit!”) because there’s no way I could have passed these off as something as delicate and lovely as ladyfingers.

And so, if we were on the TV show Mythbusters, this is the point at which a giant stamp would come on the screen saying “Myth Busted!” This experiment failed. Badly. And to be honest, I’m okay with that. Sure, it’s disappointing, but this project isn’t about doing everything perfectly. It’s about trying new things and learning from my mistakes. But I also want to do things the right way; therefore, I can’t allow this attempt to pass – I can’t check it off our list just yet. It’s back to the drawing board on these babies. I promise, when it happens, you’ll be the first to know. But when I do give it another go, you can bet it’ll happen under the cool darkness of night. And I’ll be using the electric mixer for those danged egg white peaks.

For the record, when we got home from the party, my tupperware container was empty. There were no leftovers…so maybe it wasn’t a complete failure after all.

-Jessica

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One Response to “If You Can’t Take the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen”

  1. Sharon Sartor says:

    Jessica,
    I’m so enjoying your blogs.. I just got on here to see what it was like and I couldn’t get off… Good for you! Your a very talented writer girl! Love it! Enjoy your weekend with in Georgia

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