Two birthday cakes for Julia Child

When you have several cooks in the kitchen, things go faster but they can also go awry. What happened when we tried to bake two sponge cakes in honor of Julia Child's 100th birthday.

American television chef Julia Child shows a salade nicoise she prepared in the kitchen of her vacation home in Grasse, southern France, on August 21, 1978.
Kitchen Report
Orange Almond Sponge Cake is a classic dessert featured in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child.

Julia Child’s birthday is August 15 and this year marks her 100th. I decided I wanted to honor Julia by baking a birthday cake for her on my birthday, just a few days before, using a recipe or two from one of her many collections.

I must admit that while I am an admirer, I am not a Julia Child disciple. Even though I own “The Way to Cook” with this inscription: “Christmas love to Kendra, from Mom, 1998,” I remain somewhat intimidated by it.

My birthday this year fell on a Sunday, and the weekend seemed like the perfect opportunity to host a little backyard picnic with some friends, offered in a kind of casual elegance that describes August. My mom’s house on the Cape is the ideal setting for this kind of thing. More so than me, I think my mom and Julia would have been good friends, had they ever met. A intellectual fervor and the tendency to not sweat the small stuff are characteristics they share.

On Sunday morning, however, a steady rain drummed on the roof. Jenna, Gretchen, and I could all hear it from our beds tucked under the eaves. A text arrived from my brother who would be on his way soon with his family to join us in the backyard. “Is there a Plan B?”

No, there was not.

After glumly deciding against a swim in the pond, Jenna, Gretchen, and I set to work on not one, but two cakes: Orange and Almond Sponge Cake and Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) from Julia's “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

Cooking, at least successful cooking, tends to be a solitary affair. A cooking party, which this turned out to be, is more fun, and more chaotic. When you have many cooks, things go faster and they can also go awry. They did.

I sat at the long kitchen table and called out instructions as Jenna and Gretchen tried to navigate an unfamiliar kitchen. The electric mixer wasn’t working, so Jenna beat the egg whites by hand (a strong swimmer’s arm is good for this).

Another setback, the sudden arrival of guests ready for lunch was a distraction in our work flow and more ground almonds went into the cake than necessary. We were nowhere near ready.

Another distressing discovery: I had called out the instructions for the wrong cake – I had wanted to make a Queen of Sheba cake that required no filling and had instead skipped ahead a page and was directing a Chocolate Sponge Cake without realizing it. Two sponge cakes was not in the original plan. But the chocolate sponge cake and Queen of Sheba are so similar in their ingredients it hardly mattered, we thought, except for one thing. The sponge cakes didn’t rise.

Maybe it was the rain. Humid Cape air is a constant presence in the summer as it blows in one window and out the next. It’s one reason why things are so causal on the Cape. Everyone slumps around in wrinkled clothes and tugs at swollen doors because that’s the way it is. The kitchen, with its low raftered ceiling and bones dating back to 1840, has no air conditioner. Or maybe we beat the egg whites too hard. Or maybe we shouldn’t have used unbleached cake flour.

But this is what I love about Julia’s example. I don’t think she’d worry too much over our flat sponge cakes. She says to master cooking, and that means doing things many times until it clicks. It also means don’t get hung up on a failed dish. You don’t master something on the first try, after all. Maybe on the 10th or 20th try. I think Julia would be satisfied that we had tried at all.

“The measure of achievement is not winning awards,” Julia once remarked. “It’s doing something that you appreciate, something you believe is worthwhile. I think of my strawberry souffle. I did that at least twenty-eight times before I finally conquered it.”

It looks like I have some more sponge cakes to make.

In the prologue to her memoir “My Life in France” are these thoughts on her own learning process:

“I would approach the stove armed with lofty intentions…. My meals were satisfactory, but they took hours of laborious effort to produce. I’d usually plop something on the table by 10:00 p.m, have a few bites and collapse into bed. [Husband] Paul was unfailingly patient. But years later he’d admit to an interviewer: ‘Her first attempts were not altogether successful…. I was brave because I wanted to marry Julia. I trust I did not betray my point of view.’ (He did not.)”

This quality of forging ahead is one of the endearing traits viewers of her many PBS shows came to love (and still do). A dropped ingredient, a too-brown omelete were part of the flow as the cameras rolled on. Delicious meals are a noble goal, but with the tempermental medium that is food, at some point you just have to flow on, sit down, and eat.

Or in Julia’s words: ”The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a ‘What the hell?’ attitude.”

Despite our flat sponge cakes, which were really too flat to cut in half and fill with icing, we pressed on. We melted chocolate and butter for icing and stirred preserves with sugar on the stovetop for an apricot glaze. We dressed the Chocolate Sponge Cake with festive raspberries and birthday candles. Almond slivers made an interesting pattern on the Orange and Almond Sponge Cake.

And then the skies cleared. Sunlight cut across the lawn. We shifted our indoor picnic back outside and carried out towels to dry the lawn chairs. It was too windy to light the candles, but we sang “Happy Birthday” anyway and sliced the cakes.

Of course they were delicious, because we were happy. Glad to be together picnicking above the damp grass tickling our feet on an August afternoon, and relieved to be out of the kitchen.

"Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal," Julia once said.

And that recipe is absolutely right.

Happy Birthday, Julia, to the woman who taught us that home cooking can be a learning experience, an adventure, as well as a delight.

Bon Appétit!

Related post on Kitchen Report: "The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food," by Judith Jones

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