Julia and Me - Mastering the Art of (dairy-free) French Cooking

What does The French Chef have to do with dairy-free brioche? On the face of it nothing at all. Amazing what a gift of food can do...


One might think "dairy-free" and "French cooking" are diametrically opposed. I've been urged to forego this wrong-headed endeavor. Scoffed at as if I were a mad scientist trying to cross-breed a fish with a gazelle or create something like the human centipede. Well, it's not at all something I'd have chosen to do, this dairy-free living, believe me. But when an allergy develops to a favorite food group like dairy, you can throw yourself off a cliff or you can learn to deal.

As a child I never wanted to go to bed, certain that the fun was really going to start the instant I was asleep. This insatiable curiosity and hunger for what is next is partly why, even in my bleakest moments, the cliff has never really seemed like an option. What if the best thing in my life were just about to happen but for my offing myself, I might be deliriously happy? No to the cliff, yes to possibilities.


Both Julia's Book and I turn 50

One thing that kept me going in my younger days was the discovery of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a box of books in the closet, under the stairs. Then, finding Julia Child on PBS. Until now, I've not called attention to the fact that THE book that introduced Americans to French cooking at home and that helped keep me off the streets, was published in the same year I was born. Fifty years ago. *gulp*

My reaction to this birthday stalking me has been an interesting experience. Who knew I could be so vain? I'm attempting to get to that philosophical place, acceptance and all that. But I'm not there yet. Still stuck in denial, having skipped over anger. (No matter how one feels about it, anger at being alive seems pretty ridiculous, even in my most self-absorbed moments, I realize that.) Right now, I'm working on getting back into game shape. So far, weight is down, blood pressure, too. Progress! This is the hardest time of year to start on a course of "moderation." Mostly, I'm doing okay.

One thing that I appreciate so much, though it helps the "fighting weight" plan not at all, is having good friends family who get me and want to celebrate with me by feeding me and sharing my joy in good food. I've gotten foie gras terrine, French Kisses (Armagnac soaked prunes stuffed with foie.) Fruit, too. Homemade preserves. Chocolate.

On Christmas day WGBH was running a marathon of The French Chef series. I was reminded that one of the most endearing things about the tall, breathless, warble-y woman on the homespun kitchen, (a live set - no music, no edits!) is that she makes one feel that these things are possible. Anyone can do it, with courage! With confidence! This is exciting when you feel the rest of your life is about what is not possible. Many days my younger self was saved by that feeling that the best was yet to come and the combination of Julia Child and the stack of National Geographic magazines on the coffee table. They showed me another world was possible and waited for me outside the gate of the sterile, dull, redundant, Air Force base.


Gifts of Food and Wine

We began the week with an amazing bottle of wine on Christmas Eve, toasting to the holiday and the beginning of my birthday celebration. We shared delicious prime steaks, potatoes roasted in duck fat and roasted Brussells sprouts.

This beautiful wine is poised between the old world and new. Enough minerality to make this Pinot Noir remind you of the best Burgundies, balanced with enough fruit to make my California boy happy.

Fitting that it's number 365 of the 1239 bottles made, yes?


Back to Julia, Possibility, and Foie

What goes well with foie is brioche. But brioche is made with butter.

Watching Julia in the kitchen fearlessly demonstrating one technique after another and chirping out her assurances, "Confidence!" "Bon Courage!" and "Bon Appetit!" I realized the time was now to try my hand at dairy-free brioche. (Of course, Julia would scoff at the notion, probably advise me that "it simply cannot be done, better to avoid it altogether, have some baguette.")

But aided by the booster shot of the Julia marathon of kitchen courage and enticed by the gift of foie and Bergamot jam, I proceeded to move forward with the unholy experiment:

Butter-free Brioche.


You know what? They're not so bad. I can resist tearing through all of them in a day, (which tells you how not perfect they are) but really, they're not bad. And for foie, for someone who's not had brioche in about a year, these made me pretty happy.

I basically used this recipe from a random blog I found doing a Google search (never recommend that as you really want a professional developing and testing the recipes you try out.) And also consulted Joanne Chang's Flour cookbook - in which every recipe begins with butter. I trust Joanne's techniques and I substituted EarthBalance Buttery Spread for the margarine and used the EarthBalance Soy milk as well.

For the record, my cat Puck who is the biggest butter-whor-er-um-I-mean fanatic around, will not touch any other butter substitute but this one. He and I agree it is the closest tasting to real butter.

A quick iPhone snap so you can see the crumb. Note I made a tray in a mini muffin pan, so as to make the foie last....


I like to think that Julia would approve of the experiment, I know she'd love the foie and I'll bet she'd applaud the effort. Anyway, it's my dairy allergy, it's my life and I'm grateful for the gifts of food and friendship, the gift of kitchen courage and the sense of possibility that came from Julia. All of this actually makes me excited for what lies ahead.

As Paul famously said to Julia "You are the butter to my bread." Ah well, it'll have to be soybutter or better yet foie. I'll take it.

Now, who's got a good Panettone recipe I can tackle?