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MS. EPHRON’S RECIPE

“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.

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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

“Young people today really have no idea that people ever had sex before they were born except once or twice in order to have kids,” the wiry Ephron said as she cut apples into incredibly even slices. “These two people,” she said of Julia and Paul Child, “and you would never have guessed to look at them, had had this wild, fantastic sexual connection. And then there was the story of this married couple living in New York right now who absolutely never got laid -- ever.”

Rather than cite significant books or movies about food as her “Julie & Julia” references, Ephron instead pointed to films about marriage: “The Thin Man,” “The War of the Roses,” “The Palm Beach Story.” But considering her adoring close-ups of fish, duck and even an Everest of chopped onions, Ephron isn’t afraid to elevate food to the same plane as romance.

“The truth is that most marriages have food as a major player in them, and certainly mine does,” said Ephron, who is married to author and screenwriter Nick Pileggi (“Goodfellas,” “Casino”) and wrote about her earlier marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein in the caustic roman a clef “Heartburn,” a novel that included recipes. Ephron’s best-selling 2006 memoir, “I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman,""Heartburn,” shares an almost equal fascination with gastronomy.

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Yet even the most experienced cook can turn out a strawberry souffle resembling a red Frisbee. On her groundbreaking, low-tech public television show “The French Chef,” Child occasionally launched food onto the floor, and Powell’s debacles included greasy mayonnaise, carbonized boeuf bourguignon and inedible poulet en gelee a l’Estragon. Given the risks, would the apple tart turn out as memorably as “Sleepless in Seattle?” Or would it unfold more like Ephron’s last film, 2005’s “Bewitched,” a TV show adaptation many critics found about as agreeable as cold leftovers?

Child discourages store-bought ingredients; her cassoulet recipe calls for homemade sausage cakes. Powell, who found some of these recipes either inexact or overly complicated, sometimes departed from and criticized Child’s thoroughly tested recipes. That irritated Child, who dismissed Powell’s blog as not worth her attention.

Ephron had no qualms about not following the tart recipe to the letter. She proposed using Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust, but a reporter insisted on making the pastry dough from scratch -- but not using Child’s recipe, and substituting a food processor for fingertips to mix it. Because Child crafted her book before the advent of molecular gastronomy, she couldn’t have known that blending vodka and water for the crust yields a moister, more manageable dough. Ephron was skeptical and wondered how she had become a sous chef to her visitor. “I think it’s fascinating that we have to cook something from Julia Child, but you are now completely improvising,” she said. “So if it doesn’t work out, you can’t blame me or Julia.”

Ephron grew up in Beverly Hills with plentiful good food around -- her screenwriter parents had live-in cooks -- and graduated from Wesleyan just as the first volume of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was published. Like many women her age, Ephron’s eyes -- and taste buds -- were opened by the cookbook, along with “Michael Field’s Cooking School” and Craig Claiborne’s “The New York Times Cookbook.”

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“Everybody in America was waking up from a long slumber with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup,” Ephron said in her slightly narrow but well-equipped galley kitchen, which includes a Viking range but also an eclectic assortment of cookbooks -- “Great Dinners From Life” and “The Silver Palate Cookbook” among them.

Like Child’s typewritten recipes (marked “top secret”) that are reprinted in “My Life in France,” Ephron’s cookbooks are stained with bits of food and sauce -- they are there for cooking, not decoration. “I still cook all the time,” she said, adding that her version of Chasen’s chili is among her favorite dishes.

“Every woman I knew was doing this insane amount of cooking,” Ephron said of her postgraduate food fixation. “It was obsessive. It was competitive. It was pathological.”

Sony studio chief Amy Pascal pitched Ephron on “Julie & Julia” while the director was filming “Bewitched”; producer Amy Robinson thought of combining the books into one movie.

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“I felt my entire life had prepared me to write this screenplay -- my obsession with food,” Ephron said.

Outside of having just one week to shoot in Paris, Ephron said that one of her hardest challenges was creating tension within Powell’s narrative; she eventually added a scene where, over a lunch with girlfriends, the blogger’s occupational shortcomings are more palpable.

She cast Streep after a chance encounter -- in which the actress effortlessly slipped into Child’s distinctive patois -- and then devised all sorts of schemes to make the 5-foot-6 actress look like she was Child’s ceiling-scraping 6-2 self. Ephron’s costume department built lift shoes, her carpentry staff built sets with two levels and her casting director hired short extras to fill the background. “We did every trick in the book,” Ephron said, “but we never used special effects. It was as if we did it 20 years ago.”

Child’s apple tart recipe says the pastry shell should be “partially cooked” before it is topped with applesauce, apple slices and strained apricot preserves, but gives no time. “What does that mean -- ‘partially cooked’?” Ephron said. “How long is that?” About 15 minutes, it turned out. Ephron then spread about two cups of artisanal applesauce (from neighborhood gourmet market Eli Zabar) and then began arranging her apple slices.

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“How gorgeous or un-gorgeous should we make it?” she asked. Told pretty is always best, Ephron then struggled with the irregular geometry of the hand-formed pastry. “Now which direction do they go?” she asked, examining the apple slices. “This is a nightmare, a total nightmare.” It wasn’t, really: The tart looked lovely, especially with the strained (but not heated to 227 degrees) apricot glaze drizzled on top. Because her massive Viking range heats the already hot kitchen, Ephron put the tart into her built-in Thermador, preheated to 375 degrees. Then the “Waiting for Godot” vigil began, as we waited to see when (if ever) the tart would be done. “Is it your oven?” her visitor asked after more than an hour with no visible browning. “Is it my oven?” Ephron said, indignant. “No. It is not my oven.”

As much as “Julie & Julia” celebrates food, as much as cookbooks stuff wings of bookstores, as much as food shows pack the airwaves, as much as almost every home remodel features a new kitchen, Ephron isn’t sure the culinary craze adds up to anything more than a passing hobby. Like SUV owners whose mammoth vehicles never leave the pavement, the cooking craze seems to be more about hardware than food. “No one seems to cook anymore,” she said.

But for those who wait -- or cut a few corners -- the results can be sublime. After nearly 90 minutes in the oven (which was finally turned up to 425), the tart finally came out.

“That’s really pretty, don’t you think?” Ephron said. Biting into a nearly molten slice, she smiled. “I think,” she said, “that this is delicious.”

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john.horn@latimes.com


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