Wednesday, December 16, 2009

For Julia's Ghost


Butter. Just try getting through the Holidays without it! I bake without gluten but the idea of sweet treats sans butter is as remote as Persia.

What a change from when I was a boy! My celiac disorder wasn’t active then, so wheat flour was everywhere but butter was a big no-no. This was about the time our government was propagandizing against animal fat – the link between cholesterol and heart disease had just been discovered –  and butter was in the cross hairs. Our family had become a bit overweight, so my mother joined the campaign and switched to margarine. I don’t remember her baked goods losing any flavor as a result, but I’d never bake with margarine today – especially since I know it’s a far more dangerous fat than anything that comes from an animal.

I love slathering sourdough bread with butter. Nothing beats butter when sautéing chanterelles. It’s great on buckwheat pancakes and the perfect shortening for pie crust, though I like to add lard too. One of my projects for the new year will be GF “Parker House” rolls made from butter-softened dough.

My passion the past three weeks has been baking cookies. I’ve adapted as many recipes to GF as I’ve had time for, including Pecan Sandies, shortbreads, sugar cookies, buckwheat butter cookies and my wife’s mother’s chocolate drops, Some of these did not turn out so well, but most are quite fine. I give thanks to the many flour flavors we GF cooks have, and a special acknowledgement to an article that appeared in the New York Times last year about using butter correctly.


The Times pointed out that butter isn’t just a fat, but a structure as well. Among other traits, it is very temperature sensitive. For example it creams perfectly at 65 degrees F but fails completely at 68 F.

This makes perfect sense to me. Many of the structural chemicals we use in photography are similarly temperature-sensitive, and a lot of these are protein-based collogens, which puts them in the same organic family as butter. An example is gelatin, used in photographic emulsions and to size (seal) papers. You can dissolve it at room temperature and it looks perfectly fluid, but don’t try using it at anything less than 110 F – on contact with a solid it turns into a gloppy mess.

With my instant-read thermometer in hand and my creaming attachments at the ready, butter is mine. (Every time I unpeel another stick I recall Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia, intoning Julia-Childs-wise: “Butter!”)

The one bad side: cookies all start tasting the same. So I’m now on a quest for structural fats other than butter. Peanut butter is one that has possibilities (Click here for a recipe) but it too is strong-flavored and therefore limited. I’ve made some pie-like cookies using lard for shortening and am now hot to work with coconut fat. My local Spanish market has a good supply of various brands and purities. I’ll keep you posted.

In the meantime, there’s shopping to finish, a trip to visit my mother in Ohio, some cross-country skiing to fit in and then the annual jaunt to Mohonk Mountain House in the Catskills. I’ll get in one more post before Christmas – see you then.


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