>i feel as if i have had a glimpse of some greater realm, a place where cooking really is alchemy. my guide, naturally, was julia child. it was like this: last week, my mom and i were making a cake to celebrate my father’s birthday – after all, i’ve been celebrating his birthday my whole life, so why stop now? we were making an outrageous cake that my mother has made for his birthday for decades, involving, among other things, eight egg yolks and half a pound of butter (and no flour). she had copied the recipe from her file onto an index card that she brought with her. she had just finished folding the egg whites into the mousse and was going to pour half of the mousse into the cake pan when i noticed the half a pound of butter sitting on the counter, unused. evidently, she had forgotten to copy the step where the butter is melted along with the chocolate. well, we thought, the cake would probably still be pretty good, so we decided to bake the mousse. i still wanted the butter in our dessert somehow, and before long we had a recipe from mastering the art of french cooking volume 2 in front of us for buttercream frosting. it went like this — i beat three egg whites (conveniently, we had them left over from the cake) with some cream of tartar and salt. meanwhile, my mother cooked a sugar syrup until the soft ball stage, using a candy thermometer she had given to me for christmas some years back. then we came together and she poured the syrup slowly into the egg whites while i beat them with my hand cranked rotary mixer, my bowl of eggw hites standing in a pan of cold water to help cool the mixture. about 5 minutes later, when the mixture was once again firm, we turned to the half a pound of butter. how on earth was it to coalesce with this sugary foam? well, julia child put it quite simply — put the butter over the stove until it is just beginning to melt, then beat it until it is creamy. then add it in. we did this and the whole thing looked rather a mess until… it just came together. we had one more step to go, but i had to taste it because what had been a sort of runny unappealing slop had come to form a luscious whip that was so light, so heavenly and yet so unmistakably buttery, i wanted to climb into the bowl and bury myself in it. the last step was to add coffee. oh man. it was pure magic. i do not often make things that require such rapt attention, but i have to say that in this case, our efforts were very richly rewarded. so if you have half a pound of butter sitting forlornly on the counter, let it become buttercream!

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