“Pastry-making…is one of the most important branches of the culinary sciences. It unceasingly occupies itself with ministering pleasure to the sight as well as the taste.” So said Mrs. Isabella Beeton in The Book of Household Management, first published in 1880.
A rather staid way to describe the near-magical creation of a glistening, chocolate-glazed caramel tart, or the conjuring of delicate squares of thyme-scented shortbread, no?
There is nothing staid about pastries, of course, and that has much to do with what is arguably the most important ingredient in the art and science of baking: butter.
First, let’s get straight on a few facts about butter. There are two main categories--uncultured (often called sweet cream) and cultured (occasionally known as ripened). Uncultured butter is made from simple pasteurized cream and has a sweet, neutral flavor. For the second category, dairy producers add beneficial bacteria to cream to culture it—that is, to ferment the cream— which gives the butter a light tanginess and nuttiness. (Taste a cultured butter right after trying an uncultured one and you will find that it has more dimension and depth—more interesting flavor.)
Most butter makers add salt to enhance flavor and to preserve it. Salted butter is good on plain bread or vegetables, because a little saltiness heightens the character of food. Bakers and pastry chefs, however, prefer unsalted butter for its freshness and rich neutrality, and so that they can manage the amount of salt in their products.
Both cultured and uncultured butter types may also be premium, or European-style, meaning the butterfat content is extra-high. Premium butter is a pastry baker’s best friend. It is higher priced than regular butter for a good reason: cheaper butter is usually high in moisture, but it doesn’t cream as easily as premium butter, creates tougher pastry and can affect how the butter melts, blends and bakes. It also doesn’t keep as long. Because high-fat butters are firmer than lower-fat ones (experienced bakers can actually feel the difference), they are able to hold more air, producing more tender, flakier baked goods.
Caring bakers always choose pure, organically produced butter—butter that is made from the milk of cows that feed on grass. Pasture-based butter contains high levels of antioxidants and a good balance of Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids. Its multi-faceted flavor is influenced by the breed of the cows and by their terroir—the land, water and air that “feed” them.
The richest, healthiest and most flavorful butter is produced in spring and summer. That’s because the grass that cows graze also is at its peak of freshness, flavor and nutrition at that time. “Summer butter” is the crème de la crème of butter types, as superbly good in pastries as it is on them.
So what exactly does butter do in baked goods? Read on:
The world of pastries is a vast one: cakes, pies, cookies and bars. Tortes, tarts, croissants. Puff pastry and Danish pastry, muffins and scones. To be sure, the pleasures of pastry baking are never-ending. Here we’ll concentrate on four types of butter-rich pastries, ones that are readily mastered by home bakers. Let’s call it a good beginning, shall we?
Peach and Lemon Thyme Shortbread - Shortbread is one of the easiest butter and richest-tasting pastries to prepare. And it will fill your kitchen with a divine aroma.
Butter Dough for Tart Crust – We love dessert tarts. Colorful, elegant fruit tarts, chocolate drizzled nut tarts, ricotta-rich cheese tarts--you name it, we love it. Here’s a buttery base for many of them.
Caramel Walnut Tart – Two crusts encase a dreamy, dense filling of homemade caramel and walnuts and then the whole thing is glazed with chocolate. In a word: WOW.
Lemon Tart – A graceful classic with a sweet-tart savor.
Coconut Pecan Coffee Cake – You might want to serve this old-fashioned coffee cake on a cut-glass platter, with coffee in antique cups. Double-risen in a warm kitchen and baked with pasture-pure butter, it evokes the “olden days”.
Cream Puffs – Butter gives these fun-loving pastries their characteristic flavor and crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside texture.
Keep these in mind when baking with butter: