Tuesday, November 23, 2021

A Conversation with Julia Filmmakers, Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Julia is a new film based on Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child by Bob Spitz and inspired by My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme and The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act by Alex Prud’homme. Julia Child died in 2004, and yet our appetite for all things Julia hasn't waned. 

I grew up watching Julia Child on TV and learning to cook the French classics from her books, And while I never trained to be a chef, like Child I also transitioned into a career focused on food, a subject I have always found endlessly fascinating. I enjoyed the new film very much and while it didn’t break much new ground, it did add a layer of perspective that can only come with time. In particular, how Julia Child became a ubiquitous pop culture figure is addressed in a fresh way. 

I reached out to the filmmakers,Julie Cohen and Betsy West to find out more about what inspired them and why Julia Child still holds our attention. 

Julia Child died over 15 years ago and has been off TV for decades. Why do you believe we continue to be so fascinated by her?

In some ways Julia is the Godmother of modern American cooking - and eating. Her spirit looms over cooking segments on the morning shows, The Food Network, and all those overhead Instagram shots the current generation loves to take of restaurant meals. Beyond that, though, Julia’s bigger than life personality and unstoppable joie de vivre are infectious. People couldn’t get enough of her while she was living, and they still can’t now. 

There have been so many Julia Child films and documentaries, what inspired this one? 

Well there’d been some great programs about Julia but this is the first feature length theatrical doc. Like everyone else, we adored Julie & Julia, but a documentary gives you a special opportunity to tell a person’s story in their own words and with the authentic images. This is particularly true of Julia, who was truly one of a kind. 

The impact of Julia Child how she was a groundbreaker really comes across in the film, are we understanding her in a different light as time passes? 

People understand that Julia was a talented television entertainer, but outside the professional food world, there’s been an under-recognition of just how much she changed the 20th century food landscape. As Jose Andres points out in the film, almost every serious food professional has a sauce-splashed copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” on their shelves. We also felt Julia’s role in opening up new possibilities for women on television deserved more exploration. In the early 1960’s the idea of a woman on TV who was neither a housewife nor a sex bomb but a mature, tall, confident expert was downright radical. She paved the way for many women who followed. 

The food shots add an extra element to the film and entice viewers in a very visceral way, how did those interstitials come to be part of the film? 

 We knew from the start that we wanted to make food a major part of this story, not an afterthought. We worked with cook and food stylist Susan Spungen to determine which authentic Julia recipes could be integrated with which story beats to become part of the film’s aesthetic and its plot. For instance the sole meunière is a key part of the story because it sparked her obsession with French food, and the pear and almond tart provides an enticing metaphor for the sensual side of Julia and Paul’s early married years. 

Note: Susan Spungen was also the food stylist for Julie & Julia

Julia is in theaters now.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Meet my Friend & Mentor: Rick Rodgers of the Online Cooking School Coffee & Cake

Rick Rodgers
I met Rick Rodgers early in my career as a recipe developer and food writer when we were both contributors to the Epicurious blog. Not only is he a lot of fun to hang out with, but he has also been incredibly helpful to me and is usually the first person I call when I’m floundering with a project, client, or cooking quandary. His interpersonal skills, business experience, and cooking acumen explain why he’s been recognized as one of the top cooking instructors in America. Literally. 

You built a career as a cooking instructor and cookbook author. How many cookbooks have you written? 

I was asked recently to make an official count, and It looks like an even hundred. Many of those were collaborations with chefs, restaurants, celebrities, bakeries, and business entities, such as Tommy Bahama, Williams-Sonoma, and Nordstrom.  I made it known that I was available for collaboration work, and my phone literally rang off the hook for quite a few years with editors and agents looking for help with novice writers or those that wanted a branded book. 

Which cookbook(s) are you most proud of? 

There are three books that I get fan mail for almost every day: Kaffeehaus (where I explore the desserts of my Austrian heritage), Thanksgiving 101 (a deep dive into America’s most food-centric holiday and how to pull it off), and Ready and Waiting (which was one of the first books to take a “gourmet" approach to the slow cooker). These books have been in print for 20 years or more, which is a beautiful testament to their usefulness to home cooks.  

How did you get started as a cooking instructor and what are some highlights of your teaching career? 

I was a theater major at San Francisco State College (now University), so getting in front of a crowd held no terrors for me. When more brick-and-mortar cooking schools opened in the eighties, I was ready for prime time. During that period, there were at least twelve cooking schools in the Bay Area, so I made quarterly trips here a year from the east coast, where I had moved.  My Thanksgiving classes were so popular that I taught every day from November 1 to Thanksgiving, with a couple of days off for laundry and travel. The absolute pinnacle of my teaching career was being named Outstanding Culinary Instructor of The Year by Bon Appétit Magazine’s Food and Entertaining Awards, an honor that I share with only a handful of other recipients, including Rick Bayless and Bobby Flay.     


How have cooking classes changed since you started? 

Because there are so many classes available, I can teach at any level of experience. At the cooking schools, we tended to walk a fine line between too difficult and too easy.  The exposure to different cuisines and skill levels on TV also has seriously raised the bar. Unfortunately, students want to walk before they can run.  They want to learn how to make croissants when I doubt that they can bake a pound cake correctly. It is best to build on your skills instead of going right to the top. That being said, in my online classes, I am concentrating on the more challenging recipes because that is what the market demands of me.   

Tell me about your baking school, coffeeandcake.org 

As much as I loved my cookbooks and in-person classes, I knew there was a more modern way to reach people who wanted to cook with me, especially since so many cooking schools had closed. I retired the day I got my first Social Security check. But…as I was warned by my friends who knew me better than I did…I was bored, and wanted a new project. I heard about online classes through other teachers who were having success.  I found an online course specifically for cooking classes (Cooking Class Business School at HiddenRhythm.com), got the nuts and bolts down, and I finally entered the 21st century!  

How do you decide which recipes to teach? 

I felt there were plenty of other places to learn how to make chocolate chip cookies and banana bread—just take a look on YouTube alone. I had a specialty of Austro-Hungarian baking thanks to my Kaffeehaus book, so I decided to niche into that category.  I have branched out to a few other locations, but my goal is to expose students to something new and out of the ordinary.  I also survey my students on what they would like me to teach, and those answers are amazing. People are truly interested in the more difficult desserts.   Perhaps it is because so many people discovered baking as a hobby during the pandemic? 

For students who have your cookbooks, what are the advantages of taking an online class? 

There is no substitute for seeing a cook in action.  Plus you get to answer questions during class.  In a recent class, I made six-layer Dobos Torte in two hours’ real-time to prove that you can do it without giving up a week of your life. And we don’t have to travel to each other to be “together.” My classes are videotaped so you can watch them at your convenience.  

What are some highlights of your upcoming schedule of classes?

Honey cake
Honey cake

In October, I am teaching virtually all Hungarian desserts, things that will be new to most people. I am making one of my absolute favorites, Flódni, which is a Jewish bar cookie (almost a cake) with layers of apple, poppy seeds, and walnuts between thin sheets of wine-flavored cookie dough.  San Franciscans in particular will be happy to see a master class that I am teaching with the delightful Michelle Polzine, owner of the late and lamented 20th Century Cafe and author of Baking at the 20th Century Cafe. We will be making her (in)famous 12-layer honey cake on two coasts, with me doing the heavy lifting in New Jersey and Michelle guiding me from the west coast.  That is going to be fun!  In November and December, I am switching over to holiday baking and a few savory recipes for Thanksgiving, including my fail-proof turkey and gravy, which I have made over 300 times in classes over 30 years’ worth of teaching. It ought to be perfect by now

Head to Coffee and Cake to sign up for classes or learn more. 

Sunday, August 15, 2021

All about Saffron and Saffron Scented Fennel & Chickpea Stew Recipe

Like so many people, when I’ve traveled to Spain, I’ve come back with packages of saffron. But recently I met Negar Ajayebi, whose company Baron Saffron is importing the most exquisite organic Persian saffron. The color is incredibly vibrant and the aroma intense and complex. Frankly, it was way better than anything I ever had before. I spoke with Ajayebi to learn more about this exquisite spice and how to use it. 

How did you get into the saffron business?
It was a hobby as we cook every day and we use saffron a lot. Persian people grow up with saffron. We came from a culture where daily cooking is the primary job of every family, and saffron is an important ingredient. The best saffron in the world grows in the Persian plateau, and we like to introduce it to people worldwide.

What is something that most Americans don't know about saffron?

Most Americans use the threads to add taste, but the point is that you should grind the threads and brew them! It has so many health benefits as well. The use of saffron as a medicinal plant dates back to ancient times, with its reported therapeutic applications ranging from complaints of the eye, skin, respiratory, digestive, and genitourinary tracts, to mood disorders and as a general tonic.

What makes Persian saffron so special compared to saffron from other countries?

Saffron, like other flowers, needs a unique climate to grow up well. The geographical parameters in the great Khorasan (the eastern part of Iran and western part of Afghanistan), aka soil, water, and temperature, make it the best place to grow up saffron. This flower needs too much attention, which means a lot of labor costs. So economical parameter is another issue.

Can you explain the lab testing of saffron and grading?

The standard test for saffron is ISO 3632-2, which clarifies the three characteristics' saffron sample:

 • Safranal: This index represents the smell of saffron. The high-quality saffron scores over 40

 • Crocin: This shows the color of saffron. Pure and fresh saffron gets over a score of 250

 • Picocrocin: This demonstrates the flavor of saffron. If the test has over 80, you can trust it

I think a lot of people like me buy it and use it infrequently. How important is it for saffron to be fresh?

The fresher, the better! Keeping saffron in a dry and nearly cold place is a must. It should be kept dry and in a closed lid container.

How do you use saffron, and how much is typically needed per recipe?

The best way to use saffron is to brew it. Brewing the saffron releases the most aroma and color, and taste. To have a better result, we usually grind the saffron's threads. It practically helps to release its flavor and aroma three times more! The amount of saffron used in the recipes depends on how much you want the taste to be strong and how much you believe in saffron!

You recommend grinding the saffron and brewing it with ice at room temperature. Why is that?

It's a traditional way we learned from our ancestors, and that's because we believe precisely like coffee, cold brewing draws the most aroma and color and tastes out of saffron. 

SPECIAL OFFER: If you’d like to purchase saffron, Baron Saffron is offering free shipping with the code cookingwithamy. I hope you’ll try this truly exquisite saffron and let me know how you use it in the comments. I can personally attest a very little bit goes a long way. Thanks Negar!

Saffron Scented Chickpea and Fennel Stew

Serves 4


2 heads of fennel, chopped, (save the core)

1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil

1 large onion, chopped (save the peel and scraps)

1 yellow pepper or 5 mini peppers, seeded and chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced 

1 can or 1 1/2 cups of cooked chickpeas

1/2 cup orange juice 

1 cup of fennel onion broth

1 can of cherry tomatoes (15 ounces)

Pinch of saffron 


In a small saucepan combine the reserved fennel core and onion scraps. Cover with water and simmer to make a broth. Meanwhile, heat a soup pot and add the oil. Gently fry the onion, fennel, and peppers until soft and beginning to turn golden brown, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and stir until fragrant. 

Add the chickpeas, orange juice, about a cup of the fennel onion broth, the cherry tomatoes and their liquid, and a pinch of saffron. Simmer for 10-15 minutes or until thick and fragrant. Season to taste with salt. Serve with bulgar or rice. 


Monday, June 14, 2021

News & Ways to Stay in Touch

Last year I became the editor of chief of two sites, the Cheese Professor and the Alcohol Professor. On each site you will find three new stories a week. There is also a weekly newsletter. Needless to say, I have not been blogging here as much as I did in the past. But there are still ways to keep in touch! 

My old email subscription service Feedburner was discontinued, but you can sign up with Follow.it and then choose how you would like to be notified of new posts--in a feed, a direct email or otherwise. Simply click on this link to sign up (or the "subscriber now" link in the side bar). 

I do hope you will take a look at both the Cheese Professor and the Alcohol Professor and consider signing up for the weekly newsletters as well. I write the newsletters and also contribute to both sites. Check out the past newsletters for Cheese Professor and the past newsletters for Alcohol Professor to subscribe.

As always, you can find pretty much all the stories I've written personally here

Wishing you all things cheesy, boozy or otherwise delicious,