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An oldie but a goodie

"There was this woman tossing French omelettes, splashing eggs about the place, brandishing big knives, panting heavily as she careened about the stove, and WGBH-TV lurched into educational television's first cooking program."

We've probably all seen Meryl Streep playing Julia Child in the film Julie and Julia, talking in that weird voice and doing just what the above quote describes. Well this is a 'kill two birds with one stone' post - a first recipe and also a guru meal last week. I am currently making myself cook something new one week, and in the next cook something from an old book from one of my old gurus. Last week it was guru week and Julia Child was my guru, and since her book shown here was sitting on my desktop waiting for that first recipe post, I thought, why not make the first recipe. So I did, and learnt a few things along the way, was surprised here and there, and vowed to make it again, as well as experimenting on variations. Because it's that basic a dish.

However, before I get into that just a brief aside on Julie (not Julia). I thought I might find the original blog that covered the dish I planned to make, as it also appears in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I couldn't find the blog, but rather shockingly I found that Julie had died at the age of 49 of a heart attack last year. How sad. Hence no blog - well it was published as a book anyway and so the blog was probably taken down then. And I don't have the book. So young. Vale Julie Powell.

The book from my bookshelf, consists of the recipes from Julia Child's television programmes. The drawing shown here, which captures the spirit of Julia admirably, is the frontispiece to the book and, as shown, is by her husband.

Curiously the book begins at program 14 which Julia explains is because the first thirteen episodes - recorded on tape - were lost, although they repeated them later on.

For my first recipe posts I am still working my way through the last shelf in this particular kitchen bookcase, which houses some now, somewhat ancient, paperbacks - oddments from here and there. I would have bought this particular book after having bought the Mastering The Art of French Cooking books, and, you know, I'm not sure I have ever made anything from it. Now, having made the very first recipe I am wondering why not. These days, I'm sure because it's a very humble and, dare I say, unattractive book, but why I didn't use it more when I bought it I don't know. And not being American we did not see the programs either.

Because these books are old and unillustrated, other than the occasional line drawing, they are usually arranged in the same somewhat boring and rigid way that begins with stock or soup or sauces and then progresses through a meal. This one is different as it just works chronologically through her programs. Episode 14 has a basic recipe called Suprêmes de volaille à blanc (Chicken breasts in butter with white wine and cream sauce). This is followed by a variation - Suprêmes de volaille à l'Ecossaise and a recipe for risotto. I didn't realise that the risotto was meant to accompany the dish, so made a potato gratin with chicken stock and cream instead - plus the inevitable green salad.

I didn't have a problem with what cut to use for the recipe because Julia clearly says

"The skinless and boneless meat from one side of a chicken breast is called a suprême. ... Remove the wing and reserve it for something else."

So just a bog standard chicken breast without the skin then. You can find her showing you how in the original lesson for Episode 1 (well technically lesson 14). (Yes you can watch the whole thing on YouTube - oh the wonders of the internet.) She, of course was removing the breasts from a whole chicken. That's what we all used to do, and maybe we should return to it because it's much cheaper that way. However, I was fine with just using skinless chicken breasts from the supermarket - free range though. In fact the chicken breasts these days are so large that I actually cut one into two, which was plenty. However, when I came to 'research' this post I found that there was a division of opinion on what constituted a suprême. Many said it had to have the skin on, and another sector said that you had to include the wing. Personally I think Julia is probably right - and Larousse Gastronomique seemed to support her on this. Besides it's hard to find breasts with the skin on these days (what do they do with it?) and even harder to find a breast with the wing attached. Impossible dare I say.

So how did she cook them you ask. Well this was interesting too. Her introduction states:

"The skinless and boneless meat from one side of chicken breast is called a suprême. Never cooked in liquid because that would toughen it, the suprême is broiled, sautéed or simply poached in butter and seasonings in a covered casserole. As suprêmes cook in only 6 to 8 minutes and may be served very simply, they make an exquisite quick meal." Julia Child

Not cooking them in liquid? Well that eliminates a vast number of recipes that you will find for chicken breasts these days.

Back to her recipe. First you flatten your breasts - she says with a knife, but I bashed them with a rolling pin (they were very thick and I didn't think they would cook in 6-8 minutes unless I thinned them considerably), then you sprinkle the breasts with some lemon juice, salt and pepper. Heat a tablespoon of butter per breast until foaming in a casserole, put the breasts in the butter, turning them over to coat both sides, cover with a piece of baking paper cut to the size of your dish, and the lid, and put in a preheated oven at 200ºC. Cook for 6-8 minutes she said until done. Well I tried six but added another 5. It has to be springy to the touch, not squashy. At six minutes they still looked pink. Remove and keep warm.

At this point they look pretty anaemic and unappetising, but put them on a serving plate with hope in your heart and keep warm while you make the sauce. For 4 breasts, pour 1/4 cup each of chicken stock and port, Madeira or dry white vermouth - I had some very old Martini and used that - into the casserole. Boil down over high heat to a syrup. Add 1 cup of cream and heat rapidly until thickened. Season with salt, pepper, a bit more lemon juice and pour over your breasts on their serving dish. Sprinkle over a bit of parsley to brighten it up a bit because it still looks pretty anaemic. And actually the taste of the parsley also added something to the final taste - which, dare I say, was surprisingly wonderful. Delicate and subtle, with each component adding it's own touch to the whole. Not bland. And so French to pour your sauce over your meat and not cook it in it.

Following her basic recipe she gave a variation for Suprêmes de volaille à l'écossaise which the cook of My Kentucky Home has tried and loved. As you can see it's marginally more complicated in that there is a mirepoix added - a mirepoix being a mixture of diced vegetables - carrots, celery and onion I think. You cook these with the chicken and leave them in the pan as you cook the sauce. Perhaps a little bit tastier.

Now Julia served her suprêmes à blanc with risotto, but not risotto as we know it. The version shown here is from a website called Sweetened Thyme but the breasts are probably the Ecossaise variation rather than the à blanc ones they are described as. But I digress. I'm pretty sure the Italians would turn in their grave at her method. She doesn't even specify risotto rice - just 'raw white rice' and all she does is soften some onions in butter, add the rice and stir around a bit, then pour in your chicken stock, add a bouquet garnie, put on the lid and cook. Times and quantities are specified, and, of course, you can nowadays cook a risotto in the oven - Delia has a very popular mushroom version for example - but it's still not quite right is it? But also very French and the writer of Sweetened Thyme was well pleased

This chicken dish is, in some ways, the most basic that you can get. But oh so delicious, and you might just find it in a village café in France somewhere, or in somebody's home for Sunday lunch. Maybe you would even find it on the menu in some posh French restaurant.

It's also a wonderful base recipe on to which thousands of variations have been added. This one here is hardly a variation - the author of the website Salt and Lavender has a version she calls Creamy chicken in white wine sauce. There are a few differences - the chicken pieces are dredged in flour and garlic powder, which, to me anyway, betrays a certain lack of confidence that the sauce will thicken enough on its own. Or maybe the flour makes the chicken browner and not so anaemic looking. But the sauce is made separately with wine, and chicken stock à la Julia, then cream and herbes de Provence, in much the same way as Julia although the chicken breasts are slipped back in for a warm up at the end. The sort of variation that we would all try I think. Maybe with some different herbs and some chilli.

Mushrooms are a common addition to the sauce, of course, and Julia herself has a mushroom version elsewhere, and probably deserving of its own post. So I will leave you with two more simpler variations - one from a recent Coles Magazine - Chicken with mustard cream sauce - because variations on this simple dish are almost always in one or the other supermarket magazine each month. And Chicken with marsala and crème fraïche from Nigel Slater, because I have cooked this a couple of times and it's delicious. The main difference here is not the different wine, or the crème fraïche, but the addition of some sliced cornichons. Yum.

Another dish that anyone - yes anyone - could cook in no time at all. And so malleable that it would fit Julia Child's mantra:

"One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to correct something if you can and bear with it if you cannot."

I mean what's the worst that could happen here? Your chicken is slightly undercooked? Stick it back in the oven a bit longer. Your chicken is burnt - not possible I think unless you totally forget it. Your sauce is too thin - just keep boiling it away. Then add whatever you fancy to your sauce.

Go on - try it.

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