Sunday, May 15, 2011

MMMM Butter

Here's my April column from the Petaluma Post, enjoy:

The grass is growing and the hills are turning green, the cows are in the pasture and the calves are on their way. Springtime means fresh milk and fresh milk means great butter. How lucky are we to live in an area that you likely drive past the cows that will give us our milk and butter.

Growing up locally my aunt had a cow; her name was Goldie (the cow, not the aunt). She put up with all of us kids growing up. We fed her, we chased her and a time or two we tried to ride her. But my best memory was of the butter. My great aunt would milk her and wait for the cream to rise, and then we each got to take turns churning the milk in to butter. Most kids got ice cream, I got butter. I think I can still taste it.

Butter has come to the forefront of the culinary world in the last few years. There used to be those bland white cubes at the market and nothing else. Don’t get me wrong it is still better than that other stuff people put on toast. But now the door has opened for all kinds of things.

Most people’s first question is about the color. Why does butter’s color change though out the year? That has to do with what the cows are eating. It is basically chlorophyll, (that stuff that makes grass green); the greener the grass the yellower the butter (and egg yolks for free range chickens). Grazing cows will provide butter with a richer color.

Should we use salted or unsalted butter? For simply spreading, this is very much a personal issue. I love the taste of sweet cream butter (unsalted); however I often add just a sprinkle of salt to it. For most baking recipes (cakes and cookies and such) I use salted butter, and just eliminate the salt from the recipe. But on finer desserts, like a butter cream or a lemon curd I like to use an unsalted butter. With this kind of recipe, the butter makes up the mass of the product, and the salt can be too heavy.

One big thing for me is how the butter is stored. Butter is great at picking up flavors, but that is not so great when the butter for your meringue has been stored next to an onion. Even though our commercial kitchen does not have a separate baking department, the butter is not stored in the walk-in with other items, it has its own little refrigerator. Butter easily absorbs flavors that are around it. This is good and bad, coming from the pasture with just a touch of grass. But if it sits next to a cut onion in the refrigerator it could be a disaster. I recommend keeping it away from foods that could influence the flavors. In my home refrigerator I just make sure to keep is wrapped and in a separate compartment.

I have created many recipes over the years, this scone is one of my favorites. It holds up great, the dough can be frozen so you can make a batch and use it as you want. It is not a traditional recipe, it uses buttermilk not cream. That makes for a moister product. We add lots of things in, you can do the zest of two lemons and a quarter cup of poppy seeds, for a more traditional one use the zest of two oranges and half a cup of currants. If working with fruit you can use frozen, fresh or dried. With frozen it is important to work with it when it is still frozen or it will add too much moisture to the dough. With any add-ins they should be added at the very end and only mixed till incorporated

½ lbs butter (cold)
6 cups flour
¼ cup baking powder
1¼ cups sugar
2½ cups buttermilk
1 cup flavor (e.g. berries or fruit)

Mix all of the ingredients, but the buttermilk till crumbly, then add buttermilk mix till just combined (do not use all of buttermilk, just add till it forms a soft dough.) Add berries or other flavor. Form into large round piles or roll and cut with round cookie cutter, and wrap and freeze. To bake, thaw, cut large rounds like a pie, and egg wash the top with sugar and bake till firm and brown.

There are some great new butter items out on the market to play with. For those that are pastry purists, Pulgra is now available at specialty stores. Butter is a is a emulsified combination of fat, water and solids, commercially (in the US) it is typically 80% fat and 15% water and solids. But when making very fine pastries, that water can make the dough tougher by allowing glutens to form; this is why some recipes such as pie crust, use shortening since it contains no water. Pulgra is a butter that is lower in water, so it will provide that good butter flavor and still make a tender crust.

Another great item is European style butter. This butter is considered Cultured (no it has not been to the opera), which means that bacterial cultures have been introduced to improve the shelf life and the flavor. The flavor has just a touch of a tang and the butter can sit out for longer on your table top.

So just remember- everything is better with butter!

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