Julia Child: A new film celebrates the culinary legend who brought her lanky charm into American living rooms – and cordon bleu into their kitchens

Click to follow

It isn't unreasonable when pondering the place Julia Child held in postwar America to evoke the name Fanny Cradock, at least in these pages. They were both women with quirks of personality and appearance who became cooking celebrities by unlikely routes. Before taking up the ladle, Child worked in American intelligence-gathering – some say she was a spy; Cradock was briefly a vendor of newfangled vacuums.

Consider also the scale of what they took on: their audiences lived in nations that may have beaten the Germans but shared last place in the West's culinary leagues. America was stuck in a Fifties funk that lent a special respectability to the TV dinner. In Britain, boiled egg curry was haute cuisine.

Also, because of a shared air of mild dottiness – Child measured an ungainly 6ft 2in while Cradock slapped on more rouge than Lucille Ball – they were both at times objects of gentle national mirth. Scholars of Saturday Night Live have a special place in their hearts for Dan Aykroyd's impersonation of Child remaining unflustered as she almost slices off a digit while deboning a chicken.

A clip of Aykroyd finds its way into Julie & Julia, the new film you have probably already heard plenty about, starring Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, which opens in Britain next month. It portrays a post-9/11 food writer in New York named Julie Parsons cooking every recipe in Child's first cook book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in one year and blogging about it. At the same time, the screenwriter Nora Ephron intermittently takes us back decades to recall how the book came into being.

That the film exists – and the reception in the US has been warmer than an Aga hotplate, particularly where the portrayal of Child by the mesmerising Ms Streep is concerned – gives a clue to what may separate Child from Cradock. Child was, by all accounts, a treasure of a human being who took being polite almost as seriously as getting her sauces and soufflés right. And she was probably on a different plane if only because that single, 524-recipe book changed the American kitchen forever.

It gives little away to tell you that it all began with Child arriving in France on the arm of Paul Child, her husband, sent there on an embassy posting. Her first meal on arrival – sole meuniere – was an epiphany. Simple fare to the French, but she never knew such oral delight was possible. She enrolled at the famous cordon bleu cooking school and while in Paris met two women who became her co-authors on Mastering the Art, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. It is this period, up until Knopf in New York agrees to publish the book in 1961, that is retold in the Julia (rather than Julie) sections of the film.

From the start, the mission of the authors was to give American cooks the means to entertain like the French. An ambitious goal. The New York Times' film critic AO Scott put the significance of what finally emerged very simply. "The book stands with a few other postwar touchstones – including Dr Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care, The Kinsey Report and Dr Seuss's Cat in the Hat – as a publication that fundamentally altered the way a basic human activity was perceived and pursued."

It is almost surprising that such an homage didn't hit cineplexes sooner. Never mind if sauce-rich French cooking has fallen out of favour somewhat. (Recession and artery-sensitive it is not.) In fact, all cooking that involves anything as elaborate as deboning seems slightly quaint. Yet, if thousands of Manhattan laps will be laden tonight with fancy ready-cooked meals from Whole Foods, the fact that they are fancy is thanks to Child. She raised expectations of what a meal should aspire to.

Do not think either that that it is merely because of the film that Child-worship has been reignited. It is true, and rather astonishing, that almost five decades after its debut, Mastering the Art was catapulted to number one in the Amazon sales ranking within days of the film opening in the US. Child, who died of kidney failure in a California nursing home in 2004 days before turning 92, is surely smiling somewhere.

But it was back in 2002 that the National Museum of American History decided to give a new home to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen from which Child had broadcast several of her later television series into the mid-1990s. This month, the exhibit was made complete with the delivery of her trademark copper pots and pans, which had been in the custody of a now-defunct culinary museum in California. But over these seven years it has been the third-most-popular exhibit in the whole place.

From the start, the Child kitchen has been packed daily, confirms curator Rayna Green. "They come into the museum often with Julia's kitchen as their destination. They stand around the video monitors, watching and laughing together over Julia's old cooking-show episodes. They exclaim to each other and swap Julia stories or comment on her refrigerator magnets or kitchen bookshelf."

Linda Greider, a Washington-based writer and journalist raised in southern Illinois, recalls interviewing Ms Child in that very kitchen when it was still in her home in Cambridge. Nor has she forgotten the delight and astonishment she shared with so many of her friends when Mastering the Art and the subsequent television programmes became popular years before. "Here was this gangly, gauche woman who'd apparently infiltrated the mysteries of French cuisine," she explained this week. "If she could do it, there was a possibility we could do it. It made reaching for it seem almost reasonable.

"We knew enough to know we were hicks – at least I did – hopeless clods with no taste. And here were all these possibilities. You could understand her recipes. You could get the ingredients, for the most part. And yet they seemed authentic. Cooking with wine? We never did that in the Midwest. Braising? Yeah, we did that, but we called it pot roast."

Greider, for years now an accomplished cook herself, still remembers her interview with Child vividly. "She made lunch, simple salad put together as I watched. I was scared to death but she was nice to me and lunch was perfect. She was funny but very sophisticated. Her kitchen was dreamy, just like on TV. All that equipment lit a fire in me. I've never gotten over my attraction to copper pots."

True, compared to Cradock, Child was a bit late in the game. But after the 1961 publication of Mastering the Art there was no slowing her down. Her first television series, The French Chef, debuted on public television just two years later and audiences were quick to take to her slightly startling but always instructive presence. That one show was to win her multiple awards and ran for 10 years. The Way to Cook, arguably her second-most-important book, was published in 1989. Several other books were tied to Child's television shows, which were a fixture of America's viewing schedules until well into the 1990s.

Her last book, My Life in France, is a memoir about those pre-celebrity years when Mastering the Art was just a twinkle in her eyes. It also provided much of the source material for the film. She closes with a simple admonition. "Learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!"

Yes ma'am. We promise.

Julie and Julia is in cinemas from 11 September

La Reine de Saba: The Queen of Sheba Chocolate Almond Cake by Julia Child

My favourite chocolate cake. For an 8 by 1.5 inch cake, serving six to eight.

Preheat oven to 350F, set rack in lower-middle level, and prepare the cake pan. Measure out half a cup sifted plain bleached cake flour and a third of a cup blanched pulverised almonds. Using an electric mixer, cream one stick unsalted butter with half a cup sugar; when fluffy, one at a time beat in three egg yolks. Meanwhile, melt 3oz semi-sweet chocolate and 1oz bitter chocolate with 2tbsp dark rum or strong coffee, and stir the warm chocolate into the yolks. Beat three egg whites into stiff, shining peaks, and stir a quarter of them into the yolks. Rapidly and delicately fold in the rest, alternating with sprinklings of almonds and siftings of flour. Turn at once on to the prepared pan and bake about 25 minutes, until it has puffed to the top of the pan but the centre moves slightly if gently shaken.

Let cool 15 minutes before unmolding.

This type of chocolate cake is always at its best at room temperature. Serve with a dusting of confectioner's sugar, or with soft chocolate icing.

[Note: a stick of butter is about 125g. A cup of flour is 115g.]

Soft chocolate icing

For an 8in cake, melt 2oz semisweet chocolate with 1oz bitter chocolate, a pinch of salt and 11/2tbsp rum or strong coffee. When smooth and glistening, beat in by spoonfuls 6tbsp softened unsalted butter. Stir over cold water until cooled to spreading consistency.

From 'Julia's Kitchen Wisdom', published in the US by Knopf