Allyson Gofton in France: Baking with butter
Baking in France is a joy, especially for a confessed butteroholic and baking fan like me. My favourites are simple and make the most of the sublime flavours of the artisan butter — fare such as a citrus-scented pound cake, buttery shortbreads or rich yeast breads are regulars.
Though I can buy butter at supermarkets and BIO shops, the beurre fermier sold at the fromagier (cheese) van at my local marche is simply unsurpassed — I’m addicted! It is prepared from unsalted raw cream and moulded into a pale lemon 10-kilogram wheel, from which the assistant will cut a triangular wedge, wrap the piece in waxed paper and advise you to use it quickly as it is highly perishable.
Its flavour is sweet and delicate, with an acidity that gets stronger as the days go by, though that’s unlikely to happen in ma maison! All other butters in France must be prepared from pasteurised milk, as is our Kiwi butter — but with one big difference. Once separated from the milk, the cream will have active ferments — culture — added, then be left fora minimum of 12 hours to thicken, mature and become slightly acidic before being churned into butter.
Other factors influencing French butter include the terroir and the different animal breeds that winter indoors and are fed on a diet of dried feed like maize. With little grass to colour the cream, the butter, known as cultured butter, has a very pale lemon colour with a unique, ever-so-slightly acidic note and sublime flavour.
Salt is not a standard addition as it is in our butter. Beurre doux — sweet butter — is preferred here, especially for baking as it does not contain salt. Its texture is softer and it whips easily to a voluminous cream, trapping air bubbles that expand during baking, raising pound cakes lightly and creating gateaux with a tender, yet dense, moist crumb.
Baking powders are not commonplace here, so butter-based cakes and gateaux need to be thoroughly whipped. Beurre doux carries the flavours of spices, flavourings and dried fruits with gentleness, and when browned in the frying pan brings a sweet caramel hazelnuttiness to the foods it is drizzled on— pan-fried fish, or added to — crepe batter.
Demi-sel — half salted butter — contains 0.5-3% salt, while beurre sel — salted butter — contains 3-10% salt. These are occasionally used for baking, but more commonly to accompany breads. Beurre fleur de sel— butter with the finest white flaky salt crystals — is a specialty and used rarely; best when it can be sliced and the crunchy sweet salt flakes can be savoured, accompanying foods like oat crackers, radishes or jamon.
Some time back in the 80s, cultured butter was made and sold in New Zealand, but its taste was too different from our deep golden-coloured salted butter, and lack of sales saw it withdrawn. I am sure it would be different these days: it would be truly wonderful to have it back.
You can decorate the loaf simply with a few walnut halves and a few slices of crystallised lemon rind if wished. For a delicious sharp lemon flavour, use thick-skinned lemons. Get the recipe