In 1990, as a student at the Culinary Institute of America, I was named one of Food & Wine magazines' top 10 student chefs. I was invited to the annual Aspen Food & Wine Classic in the Colorado Rockies, where I discovered I'd be Julia Childs' head gofer and carrot peeler.
What a week. Julia Child was larger than life and just plain fun to be around. She was simultaneously deadly serious and insanely playful about food, and left me with some profound words that still resonate today. "Michael," she said, gin and tonic in hand, "everything in moderation, including moderation!"
Flash forward to 2002, I'm a Food TV host myself with my ear tuned to the foodie universe when up pops a new blog: the Julie/Julia project. It was a lot of fun following Julie Powell's exploits as she cooked her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My own copy of the book was already worn out from years of use and by the end of the year so was hers. As a confident cook myself, I found her angst quite revealing.
I later found myself hosting Chef at Home, writing cookbooks and focusing on helping average Canadian home cooks clear the same hurdles that Julia, Julie and countless other writers found in their path. When I heard last year that Julie's adventures were heading for the big screen, that Meryl Streep was playing Julia, I was thrilled. It was the foodie movie of the year. Once again Julia's book was on the bestseller list, only this time so was mine.
I guess I wasn't the only one watching and reading. Genevieve Epp, a young Ontario mom and home cook, wanted a new challenge and got it Christmas Day, when The Best of Chef at Home showed up under the tree. She remembered Julie and Julia and decided she would do the same with my cookbook.
The Chef at Home Challenge is off and running, Genevieve is well into the book and vowing to cook every recipe this year. She's already tackled the brined turkey (neck, giblets and all) and is generally validating the ease, practicality and flavours of my book. She's funny, irreverent and engaging. But that's not why I've become an avid follower of her blog (genepp.mycookingblog.com).
As a professional chef and an advocate for real home cooking, I find my biggest single challenge is putting myself in the shoes of my audience. Bridging that gap is the essence of what I do, and following Genevieve is really helping. She is a genuine window into the world of real home cooking.
So when she met me in Toronto last week to show me the results of what I think is the toughest recipe in the book, it was a test for us both.
Potato Bacon Cheddar Tart
I've been making this dish for a long time. I'm so proud of it that it's the only recipe that's been in all four of my books. This special-occasion treat features the classic trio of potatoes, bacon and cheddar. It will take you a while to make, but the results are more than worth it. It's the sort of thing that looks complicated until you try it and quickly realize how simple it is to master.
2 pounds (1 kilogram) room-temperature bacon
Plenty of freshly ground pepper
4 cups shredded aged cheddar
5 or 6 large baking potatoes, unpeeled
a sprinkle or two of sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 onion, minced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
Preheat your oven to 350 F.
Arrange the bacon in a radial pattern from the centre of the bottom of a 10- or 12-inch round non-stick baking pan to the lower edge of the rim and continuing up and over the sides of it.
Let the ends hang over. The slices should overlap slightly around the sides of the pan. To reduce the thickness of the bacon in the centre, stagger every other piece, starting it 2 inches from the centre and extending it further than the adjacent slices.
With the palm of your hand, flatten the centre area, leaving no gaps in the bacon. Season the bacon with lots of pepper and then sprinkle on several spoonfuls of the shredded cheddar.
Slice the potatoes as thinly and uniformly as you can, about 1/4 inch thick, using a sharp knife or mandolin.
Arrange a circular pattern of overlapping slices around the inside bottom edge of the pan. Continue arranging overlapping layers of the potatoes until the bottom is evenly covered. Season the potatoes with salt and pepper.
Mix together the onion and garlic and sprinkle some of the mixture onto the potatoes. Continue with a layer of the shredded cheese. Cover with another layer of potato, pressing it down firmly before continuing with alternate layers of the potatoes, onion mixture and cheese, insetting each a bit from the edge of the pan until the top is an inch or so higher than the pan's rim. Fold the overhanging bacon neatly up and over the top of the potatoes.
Trim a piece of parchment paper and place it in between an ovenproof lid and the bacon. This will prevent the bacons ends from pulling back and shrinking during cooking.
Place the pan on a baking sheet and bake for 2-1/2 to 3 hours. You'll know it's done when a small, thin bladed knife inserts easily. In the case of Genevieve's tart, which was delicious, I suggested she take the parchment paper off for the last 20 minutes to let the bacon crisp, otherwise it may still be too pink.
Pour off as much of the fat around the edges as possible. Let the tart stand for 15 minutes and then invert it onto a cutting surface. Slice into wedges and serve immediately.
You may refrigerate any leftovers and reheat them later in a microwave.
As a variation, try mixing a few spoonfuls of your favourite fresh herb into the onion mixture. Thyme, rosemary and tarragon all work well. Serves 8.