Like many (many) people in the food world, I adored Julia Child. I followed her life and her cooking like I would follow the activities of a family member. I watched her shows as a kid and a teen and an adult. I read her cookbooks cover to cover and cooked and baked out of them on a constant basis. I read her column in Parade Magazine when she was food editor there. I read books about her. I never met her in real life, but like many people, I sort of felt like I knew her.
She was always part of my interior world. It wasn’t quite a matter of me asking, “What Would Julia Do?”, but she was with me in a way I never quite articulated. I didn’t think much of it until the day she died in August 2004. I was in the garden, puttering and thinking about what a long and full life she had, when a friend of mine called and asked how I was doing. She said she knew how important Julia was to me and she wanted to make sure I was OK. That gave me pause. I had no idea that my adoration of Julia was apparent to other people. Of course it seems obvious once I started to examine my intense admiration of Julia, but she was such a part of me at such a deep level that I never gave it a second thought.
I’m guessing that everyone knows the fact that she didn’t even learn to cook until she was in her late 30s, and didn’t publish Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 until her late 40s. She is frequently put forward as an example that one can find one’s passion at any time in their life. This point was always comforting to me in an unexpected way. This may sound a bit odd since I was one of those people who always did things early. I was always the youngest person who did [x] in the room. But I knew the day would come when I was no longer the whiz kid.
After my 20s, things slowed down for me and I became a person who did things a little later than was usual. I got married in my early 30s. I became a mom in my middle 30s. I stopped doing and started the process of being. I started to learn about who I was and what was important to me at a deep level. And I slowly learned to how to be happy and content as a person and not as an achievement.
During this time, I also went through something of a career crisis. I finally quit my job at a university and realized I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. But the thought of Julia was in the back of my mind, reminding me that she found her passion—and even started learning how to cook—in her late thirties. This was comforting to me–it helped me remember that life unfolds in amazing and unexpected ways, no matter what one’s age. Now that I’m farther along on my life path, I realize that this is a wonderful thing. But as an early achiever who was achieving as fast as I could, it was scary to contemplate a life where I wasn’t the youngest one doing my thing. It sounds kind of silly now that I truly think about it, but that’s how I felt.
Then, several years ago, I finally became aware that baking is my passion—not just a hobby. This realization opened the door to another realization—that I wanted to pursue baking as a profession. Mixed in there was the added fact that I am also a writer. It seems so obvious now, but then it was a mind-blowing realization.
And as I travelled down the path to come to where I am now–a soon-to-be-published baking cookbook author (squee!)–Julia’s life has always been in the back of my mind, giving me the courage and strength to keep going. I’ve been quite lucky along the way, but I truly believe that when you are on your path, the Universe will help you along. And I feel so lucky to be in a profession that is constantly interesting to me and that gives me great joy. Again, Julia comes to mind with her quote: “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”
Today I want to honor what would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday by sharing one of my favorite recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 (and what has been said to have been her favorite cake recipe): Reine de Saba (Queen of Sheba) cake. I’ve included her Glaçage au Chocolate (Chocolate Butter Icing) recipe–but you can serve the cake plain, if desired. It is a surprisingly light cake and the ingredients and simple–creating a cake worthy of royalty. Happy birthday, dear Julia!
Reine De Saba (Queen of Sheba Cake), Gluten-Free
with Glaçage au Chocolat (Chocolate Butter Icing)
adapted from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck
For the cake
2/3 cup (115 grams) semi-sweet chocolate
2 tablespoons rum
½ cup (1 stick; 115 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup (135 grams) plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
3 extra-large eggs, divided into yolks and whites
Pinch of salt
1/3 cup (35 grams) pulverized almonds or almond meal or almond flour (I’ve used all three and they each work fine)
¼ teaspoon almond extract (optional)
½ cup (70 grams) Jeanne’s All Purpose Gluten-Free Flour mix
For the icing
1/3 cup (55 grams) semisweet chocolate
2 tablespoons rum or coffee or decaf coffee
6 tablespoons (3/4 stick; 85 grams) unsalted butter, room temperature
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F/180 degrees C/Gas Mark 4.
Line the bottom of an 8 inch (21 cm) round cake pan with a round of parchment. No need to grease the pan.
In a small saucepan set over very low heat, melt chocolate until just barely melted. Remove from heat, add the rum, and whisk together until combined and smooth.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together butter and the 2/3 cup of sugar for 3 or 4 minutes–until very light and fluffy. Add the egg yolks and beat until well blended.
In a very clean medium bowl using an electric mixer, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks are formed. Sprinkle on the 1 tablespoon of sugar and beat until stiff peaks are formed.
Using a rubber spatula, blend the melted chocolate mixture into the butter and sugar mixture and then stir in the almonds and the almond extract, if using. Stir in one fourth of the egg whites to lighten the batter. Then delicately fold in a third of the remaining whites and when partially blended, sift on one third of the flour and continue folding. Alternate with more egg whites and more flour until all of the egg whites and flour are incorporated.
Turn out batter into the prepared plan, pushing the batter to the sides with a rubber spatula. Delicately smooth top.
Bake in the middle of the 350 degree oven for about 25-30minutes. Cake is done when puffed and 2 ½ to 3 inches (6 to 8 cm) around the circumference of the top of the cake are set so that a tester plunged into that area comes out clean. A tester put into the center of the cake should come out oily.
Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes. The cake will deflate a bit in the middle–that’s OK. Run a sharp knife around the edge of the pan and carefully turn out cake onto a cooling rack. Allow to cool before icing. Cake must be thoroughly cool before icing.
To make icing:
In a small saucepan set over very low heat, heat chocolate and rum/coffee until just barely melted. Remove from heat. Whisk in butter, one tablespoon at a time. Place bowl over a larger bowl filled with ice and water and whisk until it cools to spreading temperature. Watch it closely—it will get too hard very quickly. If it does so, warm up over barely simmer water until it is spreading consistency. Ice the cake at once.
Store lightly covered in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.