Just what is it about French cooking that makes it so special?  Is it the gobs of ooey gooey butter?  The soft simmer of chicken in wine?  Years ago I watched an Anthony Bourdain episode show where he traveled to Bretagne.  He asked the owner of an artisanal pâtisserie if he would ever think of purchasing a machine to improve the efficiency of making the caramels in his shop. The owner responded that if you buy the machine just to make more, you forget the importance of quality.  Whether or not this is a sound business practice is a topic for another day, but there is no denying the allure of the French commitment to quality in their cooking.

I’m certainly no professional cook but in the last few years I’ve enjoyed trying new recipes more often.  This fall when one of my colleagues mentioned we should do a blog post inspired by author Julie Powell and her attempt to cook through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was on board!  Below is my experience with one of Julia’s beloved recipes from that cookbook.

Step 1: Choose the recipe.  (Choisissez la recette)

This was the hardest part!  To be honest, I had never picked up Julia Child’s famous cookbook before but I had seen the film Julie and Julia.  Reading the beginning of the book gave great insight into Julia’s life and some techniques for cooking in general.  I pored over the pages and tried to find the perfect recipe to make.  I wanted something challenging that required some technique but nothing that would leave me in a puddle of tears on my kitchen floor (à la Julie in the film)!  I decided on the Bavarois à l’orange, a dessert that might be more summery in taste but perhaps a welcome distraction from the abundance of pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon that floods fall menus.  It would be an homage to a German friend from Munich that I made while working in France years ago and a chance to experiment with egg techniques in baking.  I decided not to watch any YouTube videos beforehand and just try to follow the recipe as it appeared in the book.  Alors, on commence !

Step 2: Grate the oranges and make juice.  (Râpez les oranges et faites le jus)

The recipe called for grating an orange peel and I will say that grating anything, including an orange, is truly grating.  As I started juicing the oranges I couldn’t help but wonder, was I preparing a French dessert or an American brunch?

Step 3: Prepare the crème.  (Préparez la crème)

Here’s where the eggs started to come in!  I had to add just the egg yolks into my grated oranges which meant I needed to carefully separate the yolks from the whites that I would be using later using the “eggshell transfer method.” It was working pretty well until plop!  One egg yolk fell into the whites.  I fished it out and hoped for the best. Then I beat the orange peels, sugar, and egg yolks to “form the ribbon,” a technique from earlier in the book.  I referred back to the section on this technique to make sure I succeeded.  Seemed to be OK. After pouring in some milk, it was time to heat up this puppy.  The recipe told me that I shouldn’t overheat the eggs or they’d scramble.  Yikes!  Another thought about making an American brunch came into my head.  It reminded me of the Friends episode where Rachel puts meat into her dessert trifle (do you remember that?!).  I kept careful watch with a food thermometer and no scrambles were in sight.

Step 4: Fold the egg whites (Pliez les blancs)

Next I was supposed to beat the egg whites until stiff, glossy peaks formed.  I re-read the technique section on beating egg whites and decided to try this by hand. I whisked briskly and foaming occurred- success!  After a while I decided to give up and pulled out my mixer.  La honte !

Good enough.  On continue.
The next part was to fold the egg whites into the hot custard.  I wasn’t exactly sure how to approach this but I decided it would be a motion like softly tucking the egg whites into bed.  You do NOT want the whites to deflate, so I handled this step with the utmost care.  You are then supposed to beat some whipping cream over a bowl of ice and add it to the custard.  I almost didn’t do this over ice but decided I needed to be faithful to my mission.  Everything was added, et au frigo!

Several hours later I removed the custard from the fridge and tried to make it look at least a bit presentable.  Et voilà !  Below is my result.

The verdict?  Good but I probably won’t make this particular recipe again soon.  I was impressed with the amount of orange flavor but didn’t really like the bits of grated orange peel in every bite. However, it was a fun experiment nonetheless.

Cooking is attractive because it is a skill, a challenge to tackle.  It opens up your world by presenting new flavors and ways to use old favorites.  But most of all, cooking shows that you care about the people with whom you choose to break bread.  You take the time to nourish your friends and family and share your culture and flavors with them.  The stereotype exists that the French aren’t always friendly or warm, but perhaps their cooking tells us more from the time and effort they put into preparing and enjoying food.

What’s a French recipe you’ve been waiting to try? Leave some suggestions in the comments!


Natalie Collet

Membership Manager

From the Midwest, Natalie is a Francophile at heart. Her interest in French started when studying ballet and​ the language and culture entranced her through her student years.​ She became involved with the - Alliance - in the suburbs of Chicago after she spent an unforgettable year teaching English in a French high school near Bordeaux. She is happy to join the team in Boston and work with the members to provide them with unique opportunities​, ​quality programming​, and a community through French!

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