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Every Wednesday night for a month, Jacquie McNish and two dozen classmates trooped to George Brown College to try to pick up a little Julia Child magic. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAI)
Every Wednesday night for a month, Jacquie McNish and two dozen classmates trooped to George Brown College to try to pick up a little Julia Child magic. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. MOCZULSKI/THE GLOBE AND MAI)

Culinary crash course

There will be butter when you cook like Julia - or try to Add to ...

I've already driven the heel of my hand into the creature's fleshy back, dislocating the shoulder blades with an oddly satisfying crunch. Then I swing the knife, a hefty, glinting cleaver, aloft.

A ghost's voice, a familiar, wobbly baritone, urges me on: "You just have to have the courage of your convictions."

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Wham! Off go the creature's ugly feet. As if in approval, the ghost offers a throaty chuckle. "You MUST go wham," Julia Child says.

Though she died in 2004, North America's most famous food enthusiast is speaking to me from a screen hanging below the ceiling of a teaching kitchen at George Brown College's culinary campus in downtown Toronto. On TV, Julia is surrounded by plucked poultry. "The chicken sisters," she calls them.

I'm with chicken sisters too. My classmates are two dozen middle-aged women sporting crisp white aprons and designer knives. They are bankers, lawyers and professionals - women who, by day, are demanding, no-nonsense administrators. Every Wednesday night for a month, however, we let a little recklessness into our lives, trooping to George Brown in pursuit of a lofty and elusive ideal: to cook like Julia. To master even a handful of her recipes that so inspired our mothers, changing them from cooks into chefs.

Maybe we too are looking for a transformation. Place a steel cleaver in our hands and, before long, we're communing with our own inner "wild" Child, swapping cheerful confessions about the bosses and clients we imagine splayed and dismembered on our cutting boards.

"I will never tell you who I am thinking about," murmurs my friend Moira, a poet, as she saws through the back of a luckless carcass of Grade A poultry.

Cook Like Julia is one of a few dozen custom courses George Brown began offering in recent years to companies, organizations and social networks to build teamwork and feed what Joe Baker, who oversees community programs at the college, says is a growing interest in home cooking. "People are coming back into the kitchen," he said.

From the first night, our teaching chef Anne-Marie Shubin knows she has her work cut out for her. We are alpha females. Our BlackBerrys don't stop bleeping. Jack the Ripper would kill for the forged knives we pull from our briefcases for each class. We clutch coffee cups that smell suspiciously of red wine. We talk knowledgeably about Paris menus without knowing a soupçon about French kitchens.

Ms. Shubin wisely bribes us outright, indulging us with samples of Julia's best recipes - food that she and sous-chef Albert Haddad (by day a dental surgeon) have prepared: boeuf bourguignon, leek flamiche, chicken fricassee.

Then, almost as good, she shares Julia's cooking secrets. We murmur happily, clapping with pleasure when she demonstrates how to properly slice an onion, carve château potatoes, spatchcock a chicken and sauté everything with more butter than most of us would eat in a year.

"This is not North America," she says, cocking a knowing eye at the class. "Butter is your friend."

By day some of us are officers and some of us are foot soldiers. In Julia's kitchen we are equals - enlisted women all. We have two hours to follow Julia's detailed and precise instructions. This means teamwork. Like good kitchen serfs, we form our own feudal system. There are onion dicers, meat whackers, lardon cutters, vegetable peelers and sauce reducers. We drip sweat over blazing hot gas ranges. We crawl on our hands and knees to ignite stubborn gas ovens. We lug pots as heavy as bowling balls to bath-sized sinks where we scrub and sanitize shoulder to shoulder.

When one team forgets to place a protective cookie sheet under a quiche pan, Ms. Shubin eyes the smoking sludge at the oven's bottom and announces: "You must clean your stoves when you make a mess."

Dumbfounded by the command, one woman stares at the stove and explains: "But I have a lady who does that."

None of us, however, has a lady who cooks like Julia. But for four weeks, a group of women have indulged in the kitchen rituals of another era. Cutting meat and bone, stuffing a bouquet garni, cosseting a leg of lamb and reducing wine-drenched sauces into infused syrups. It was a cooking fantasy that is beyond the grasp of our busy, butter-free lives.

Chef Shubin's tips

Butter

It's your friend. There is never enough. Don't fear it, just take the stairs tomorrow like the French do.

Boeuf bourguignon

This recipe wants peasant meat, the kind that has worked hard all its life - a solid rump roast or shoulder chuck that has more flavour after a long, slow braise. In Julia's simmering bath of wine and butter, tough chuck becomes unexpectedly tender. Who wouldn't?

The tasty bits

We sear meat to build a "fond," those tasty bits at the bottom of the pan that are deglazed to build a sauce. Don't turn the heat up too high when searing, keep it controlled and clean off burnt bits before deglazing or the sauce will be bitter.

Onion circumcision

Cut a ring of skin off the papery tip of onion. (It never gets tender.) If you are using fresh pearl onions, simmer in boiling water for 10 minutes to remove the clingy skin. When you put a lid on simmering onions, they sweat instead of turning brown. Add salt and the little darlings sweat harder.

Leeks

Undercooked leeks are a menace. For quiches, simmer leeks for at least 20 minutes to tenderize and reduce moisture, the foe of flakey crusts.

Pie crust

Put diced butter into the freezer before working quickly into flour mixture. Stop leaky crusts by adding egg yolk to mixture. Be careful about overworking the crust after you add water; you may end up with overdeveloped gluten, another enemy of crusts.

Bouquet garni

You can save time and a certain mess by lassoing this small cheesecloth-wrapped package of herbs with a line of string. When tied, the bundle is placed in a pot and the end is tied to a pot handle so it can be easily fished out when the flavour is just right.

Follow on Twitter: @jacquiemcnish

 

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