When Butter is Better


Photo by Robert S. Donovan/Flickr CC

Supremes de Volaille a Blanc aux Champignons. Sounds pretty fancy for what is basically a simple dish of boneless chicken breasts with mushrooms. Who knew Julia had 30-minute meals in Mastering the Art of French Cooking?

I came across the recipe while we were preparing to film a scene in Julie & Julia. Just as several real-life people are sometimes combined into a composite character for the sake of telling a story efficiently, so are recipes in Julie & Julia. For the most part, we followed the recipes slavishly, but once in a while we had to bend and blend things a bit so the action fit the vision of our director, Nora Ephron.

In this particular scene, Amy Adams, as Julie Powell, is sautéing mushrooms as her husband comes bounding up the stairs, and since it became apparent that we would not be seeing the whole process through to the end, I didn't worry about the logic of the recipe, even though Nora wanted to see her browning mushrooms, and the recipe says to "sauté lightly for a minute or two without browning". I am pretty sure she says that she is making chicken with mushrooms, but we didn't actually get to see the chicken, until...months later when I got a call about a reshoot day.

I was reminded that even just a little butter makes everything taste better, and that brown isn't always better.

Now we would need to complete the steps of this particular recipe, because Nora needed the scene to be longer so that she could have more to cut away from. Lengthening the scene added something, in my opinion--it's one of the few close-up cooking moments that we see, and it's nice to linger there, seeing the cream swirl into the port in the pan, and then seeing her add the nice brown chicken breasts to the sauce. Since we were retro-fitting the recipe to the action, I decided not to worry too much that we were cutting and pasting parts of different recipes and modernizing other parts to make them look more appealing.

The first time I cooked the Supremes de Volailles a Blanc, just to see what it was all about, the process seemed foreign to me. I am much more accustomed to cooking things à brun, which Julia also has a method for. In our modern culinary world, we like things seared, grilled, caramelized, and otherwise browned, which can also mean dry.

What I didn't realize until I cooked this recipe is that is not always the best way to cook a poor defenseless boneless chicken cutlet, still one of America's favorite go-to convenience foods. I was skeptical when Julia said to simply roll the chicken breasts around in the foaming butter, cover them with buttered wax paper (they didn't really have cooking parchment readily available in those days), and place in a hot oven for just 6 minutes.

When I completed the dish by deglazing with port, adding cream and reducing it, adding the browned (sorry, Julia) mushrooms, and pouring it over these simply cooked chicken breasts, I and the crew who got to taste it were beyond pleased. Such a seemingly simple dish became truly transcendent, largely due to small amounts of butter and cream. We have veered away from using too much, or any, butter and cream in our cooking at home, but I was reminded that even just a little butter makes everything taste better, and that brown isn't always better.