Certain things should be left alone. Others might be altered, a little, with great care. Most of Julia Child's recipes fall into one of these two categories.
Julia Child has long been a sort of patron saint of cooking. Her books and television programs probably did more to awaken the American palate than any other single thing has done in the last half-century or so. Julia's status has risen (and I imagine sales of Mastering the Art of French Cooking have rejuvenated) thanks to Julie Powell's blog, book, and movie about cooking her way through that definitive English-language book on French food. Powell's love-hate relationship with Julia Child is familiar to anyone who cooks seriously and has used one of Child's books. When you read the instructions, you're inclined to think, "Seriously? I have to do all that??" Yes, you do. Skip one step, scrimp on time in one aspect, and you will pay the price.
Sue and I first learned this about 30 years ago. Along with our good friend Barbara Hall, we were cooking dinner for our graduate school professors as a sort of farewell and thank you. (Nobody does that sort of thing much anymore...) We made Julia's Beef Wellington, among several other dishes (I recall a lobster bisque, too.) The Wellington required a gravy based on a demi-glace. At one point, Sue and Barbara went out to get some ingredient we had run short of (or maybe it was the strawberries to put on the ice cream for dessert), leaving me in charge of the kitchen. Mainly, I was fretting while the demi-glace simmered. The ham we had used seemed a little aged to me, and when I sampled the sauce, I thought I detected a distinct "off" flavor. By the time the women got home, I was frantic--certain that the sauce was a failure and that we'd have to start over, with little time for such retrenchment. Barbara, ever the voice of reason, said, "Well, how long has it cooked?" I think it had been on the stove for two hours, and the recipe said to cook it for three. "OK," Barbara said. "It can't hurt to cook it for another hour and see what happens." I was skeptical. I shouldn't have been, because after about 2 hours and 59 minutes, the sauce underwent a transformation. It was like a potion in Harry Potter: you know how they change color when you add a certain ingredient? Well, all of a sudden, this sauce went from pretty poor-tasting to heavenly. Julia Child is the Snape of sauces--or maybe it's the other way around. In any case, we decided then and there that you departed from Julia's instructions at your peril.
I have had that experience again, just this evening. I'm preparing French Onion Soup according to the instructions in Julia's magnum opus, The Way to Cook. Once I had put everything together, I gave it a preliminary taste--and it tasted too boozy (it has cognac and vermouth in it). But I didn't panic. "Simmer for one-and-a-half hours," it says. So I did. After an hour, it still tasted boozy. But at exactly 1-1/2 hours? Perfect. Sublime. Amazing.
So I hesitate to say that I did make one slight departure from Julia's instructions, which I think improves the soup. This is daring; it's tantamount to heresy, like changing a few words here and there in St. Luke's Gospel. But I just didn't think the soup was dark or rich enough, so I used an old trick I picked up someplace: I caramelized a couple of tablespoons of sugar with a little water until it was very dark and stirred that into the soup. (You have to do that carefully, because the caramel tends to spit when it hits the hot liquid.) Well, it did just what I'd hoped: it improved the color, and it added a little depth to the flavor.
This isn't radical, but any departure from Julia's instructions--delivered as they are with the authority of Moses coming down from Sinai--seems a bit rebellious. I hope everyone in the family agrees that the risk was worth it. It's about to go into the oven to get its topping of toast and melted cheese. The whole house smells wonderfully of beef broth (which has been brewing on and off since last night) and onions. It's a cold, rainy night in Phoenix; there's a fire in the fireplace, and this seems like the perfect meal.
Cooking and living both demand boldness and a certain fearless abandon. Go ahead--make a mess. Otherwise, you might never find out what's possible.