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Nora Ephron tries to find the perfect recipe for 'Julie & Julia'

Food, which the writer-director says is among her lifelong obsessions, is central to the film's theme of love and marriage.

July 26, 2009|John Horn

JOHN HORN AND NEW YORK — "I don't understand this," Nora Ephron said, shaking her head. "Why isn't it done yet?"

The writer-director of the foodie movie "Julie & Julia," opening Aug. 7, is as comfortable wielding a paring knife as she is aiming a movie camera; Ephron has self-published for herself and friends a spiral-bound booklet of scores of favorite recipes. On this day, though, she can't figure out why her apple tart won't cook.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, July 27, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Nora Ephron: An article in Sunday's Calendar section about writer-director Nora Ephron and her new film "Julie & Julia" incorrectly stated that she was a graduate of Wesleyan. Ephron graduated from Wellesley College.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 02, 2009 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 34 words Type of Material: Correction
Nora Ephron: An article in last Sunday's Calendar section about writer-director Nora Ephron and her new film "Julie & Julia" incorrectly stated that she was a graduate of Wesleyan. Ephron graduated from Wellesley College.

The dessert has been in the oven of her Upper Eastside apartment for more than an hour, twice the time recommended in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Volume One," from which the recipe (and a good chunk of Ephron's new movie) comes. She isn't panicking, even though a recent shared afternoon of cooking a Child recipe with the filmmaker started problematically, as she nearly set fire to a store-bought cabbage strudel warming in her toaster oven.

Cooking, like filmmaking, can't always be governed by inflexible rules and timing; there has to be some serendipity too. "Julie & Julia" is a movie about two chefs, but their parallel stories are intended to dramatize a bigger idea -- that determination, creativity and passion can change a life. Those same attributes can produce memorable dishes in the kitchen too, as the apple tart may prove -- if it ever finishes baking.

Considering that some of Child's recipes are as intricate as a Tolstoy novel, the pioneering chef/author's instructions for Tarte aux Pommes are remarkably simple. The apples -- about four pounds peeled, cored and sliced "crisp cooking or eating apples" -- are tossed with a teaspoon of lemon juice and two tablespoons of sugar before they top the tart. But Child calls for a homemade pastry shell, made-from-scratch applesauce and an apricot glaze that must be heated exactly between 225 and 228 degrees to achieve the right consistency. This much is clear: If we don't take some shortcuts, the apple tart won't go in the oven until very late in the evening.

Julie Powell's 2005 book "Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously" and Child's 2006 autobiography "My Life in France" have at their centers the kind of unusual romances that the 68-year-old Ephron has been drawn to throughout her film career, a slate that includes writing credits on "Heartburn" and "When Harry Met Sally. . ." and directing and writing credits on "Sleepless in Seattle," "You've Got Mail" and "Michael."

Powell, a failed actress and discontented Manhattan secretary, felt unaccomplished and unfulfilled. As a personal challenge as she neared 30, she decided to cook all 524 of Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" recipes in a year, constantly blogging to a growing fan base about the experience.

While her expedition presented perilous challenges -- setting aspics, euthanizing lobsters, boning a duck -- her culinary circumnavigation also brought new focus and satisfaction to her personal life: She not only became an author but also rediscovered friendship and love. Powell condensed some of her hundreds of blog posts and added biographical material for the book version of her online diary (but was not directly involved in making the movie).

Child's autobiography traced a similar narrative of discovery and transformation. A child of privilege who didn't aspire to become a stay-at-home society wife, the Pasadena native experienced an epiphany when in 1948 she visited France with her diplomat husband -- and bit into an incomparably delicious sole meuniere.

A stranger to both the country (she didn't speak French) and cooking (she didn't know what a shallot was), Child was transformed by that piece of fish and committed herself to learn how to cook and, subsequently, craft her own cookbook. It wasn't easy. Paris' Le Cordon Bleu cooking school didn't welcome the enthusiastic American with open arms, and it took years of recipe research and publisher rejections before Child and coauthors Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck completed their cookbook.

Published in 1961, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" helped set off a revolution in American kitchens. Where women had hustled out tuna noodle casseroles, they began slaving over blanquette de veau a l'ancienne.

Yet what really drew Ephron to a story that cuts between the women's lives were their surprisingly different yet believable marriages. Ephron's best-received movies -- "Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally. . ." -- have relatable love stories at their core. When Ephron struggles ("Bewitched," "Mixed Nuts") the romance seems saccharine, uninvolving: too-sweet desserts that are harder to digest.

Julia (Meryl Streep) and Paul Child's (Stanley Tucci) postwar romance was a red-hot affair filled with afternoon delights, whereas Julie (Amy Adams) and Eric Powell's (Chris Messina) modern relationship was more focused on careers than copulating. "I may NEVER want to have sex AGAIN," a frustrated Powell writes in her book.

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