Butter: What and When?

Since the beginning of my cookie baking career in 5th grade, I’ve always had questions about butter. What happens to my cookies if I melt the butter? What is brown butter and why is it awesome? Why are there so many types of butter, and what’s the big deal about this fancy European brick butter? The list goes on, and I’m still working on getting to the bottom of many questions. As the holidays draw nearer, I thought I’d help demystify the enigmatic fat that is ~butter~. I talked (virtually) with some of the butter and baking experts of the what’s what of butter. Read on to the one of several posts that will help you make better choices in butter.

First: what is butter?
Butter is churned milk or cream, usually from a cow. The first part of churning separates the skim milk from the buttercream. In the churning process of the buttercream, the butter fat and buttermilk are separated. Have you ever shaken a jar of heavy cream until it gets chunky, with thinner liquid running through the lumps? That’s exactly that – the butterfat, sometimes called popcorn butter, and the buttermilk (sold in cartons just like milk). The buttermilk is separated from the butterfat, and more churning yields regular velvety-textured butter.

How is European butter different from American butter?
Regulations in America require butter to have a butterfat percentage of 80% or more. Land o’ Lakes butter is almost 81% butterfat. European butter tends to have closer to 85% butterfat. This means less water in your butter. A good way to see this is when you brown half a cup of American butter, and half a cup of European butter, you’ll come out with a higher volume of butter with the European butter, because the water in the butter evaporates in the browning process. European cows also tend to eat better than American cows, and are often fed grass instead of mysterious corn feed.

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This is a 1 lb block of butter from Plugra

What is cultured butter?
Cultured butter is not fully synonymous with European butter. European butter is usually cultured, but cultured butter is not always European. Culturing the butter doesn’t make for a higher fat content. For example, Organic Valley sells a cultured butter, and a  European-style cultured butter. The cultured butter has a butterfat content of 80% (thank you, Twitter) and their European-style cultured butter has a butterfat content of 84%. According to Cook’s Illustrated, cultured butter is “made more slowly, with cream that’s allowed to ripen for a few days to develop flavor and then inoculated with bacterial cultures before churning.” The bacteria release lactic acid, giving this butter a deeper flavor that some describe as tangy.

Okay, so that’s all great…but which butter does one choose when baking? And is that butter different if baking cookies or pie crust or croissants or ???

Salted vs. Unsalted
First of all, I’ll start by saying that unless I’m in a pickle, I use unsalted butter for baking. Not that I measure every ingredient to the last granule, but it helps keep your salt amounts accurate. Not all salted butter is treated equally; brands don’t have the same salt-to-butter proportions.

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USA vs. Europe
Who’s butter’s better? Consider King Arthur Flour’s shortbread experiment described in their article “Butter for Baking: Which Kind Should You Use?” where they use European butter and American butter for the same recipe. The shortbread with the European butter came out both drier and greasier than the American butter shortbread. Not ideal for cookies. However, these attributes may be just what you need for your buttery, flaky pie crusts and croissants. That being said, with the extra butterfat goes the extra water, which would help pastries rise in the oven during evaporation. The choice ultimately comes down to several factors, and your personal choice. Maybe you’d rather sacrifice some (potentially minor) height for a flakier pain au chocolat.

Cultured vs. Uncultured
My answer to this is simple: since cultured butter costs more, use regular, uncultured butter. The extra money is not worth the extra flavor you probably won’t enjoy anyway. I asked Kye Ameden, author of the King Arthur Flour article from above, why in the article she said cultured butter isn’t the best for baking:

“[W]hile cultured butter is delicious, it tends to have a unique flavor that’s not always welcome in all recipes. Consider your favorite pumpkin bread or chocolate chip cookies; the zippy tangy might seem out of place. It also tends to be more expensive than Grade AA butter, so we like to save it for putting on top of baked goods when we’ll be sure to enjoy the flavor to the fullest.”

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I did a quick cookie test with a simple recipe (no chocolate chips/solid objects) to see if these claims could be proven. In one batch, I used Cabot AA unsalted butter, and in a second batch I used Plugra unsalted butter. My hypothesis going in was that the first batch would come out higher due to the higher water content of the American butter, and the Plugra flatter, and greasier. However, just the opposite happened.

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I wasn’t all too scientific with this experiment. There are many variables that could have been altered unintentionally. For example, the butter may have been beaten more the second time around. This is a good example of all the little things that can make a difference in your cookies. When seeking consistent results, be vigilant and have patience.

Take these truths bestowed upon you to forge head in this holiday season, and bake your friends’ sorrows away. And stay tuned for the next installments of Butter!

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Brown Butter Soft Apple Cookies

It might not be apple season anymore, but if you like apples and cakey-soft cookies, you should take on this recipe – especially if you have a number of holiday parties to show up to with treats in tow (cookies are my “byob”). There are a few different components to this, but it’s worth it in the end for the fun flaavors!

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Brown Butter Soft Apple Cookies
Yields ~35 cookies

3 cups chopped tart apples (around 2 medium sized apples)
3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 butter (1 1/2 sticks)
1 egg
1/3 cup raisins

Brown the butter on medium heat, stirring just until the milk solids turn brown, and pour in a bowl to let cool. Cook the apples with 1 tablespoon of sugar on medium heat until soft, and let cool. In a small bowl, combine the dry ingredients. In a large bowl, combine the butter and sugar until smooth, then add the egg and mix together. Alternate adding the dry ingredients with the cooked apples. Lastly, add the raisins.

Drop the dough onto cookie sheets and bake at 400° for 10 minutes, or until the cookie edges start to brown.

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Have one or five, bring them to your next holiday gathering. People will thank you.

Halloween Chocolate Fire Cookies

Happy Halloween! This was the first year since 2011, when I created a deadmau5 head, that I decided to get into the holiday. This was largely in part because I had an event to go to in costume with enough advanced notice to prepare. Naturally, this event was at the rock climbing gym. Being known there for my cookie sharing, I thought it would be clever to somehow incorporate cookies into my costume, which was none other than Carmen Sandiego. If you’re not familiar, she is a video game villain of the 90’s who stole world treasures and monuments. The player’s goal was to catch her with impossible-for-10-year-old-me clues about the country she was hiding in. Her popular tagline is “Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?”

It was a simple costume to put together with a bit of  Amazon searching, and it had the added bonus that I shared the character’s name. But how to make it interesting? Since Carmen’s game was world travel, why not get a world map tote and fill it with country facts? Because that’s lame…so were born cookie countries! Each cookie was individually wrapped and labeled with a country, its location, population, and a fun fact. Hello, best interactive costume award…free cookies usually are a hit around there. But as it was Halloween, I thought I would switch it up to go with the trick or treatedness of the holiday. I decided to add some *cayenne pepper* to the chocolate cookies I made for the occasion. I wasn’t expecting the pepper to go over as well as it did (this is not to say I wanted people to dislike them!). It takes at least 7 seconds for the heat to kick in, so first impressions would likely be positive and without heat detection. However, to my amazement, friends and strangers were pleasantly surprised by the late kick, and I was impressed. Growing up in a West African household, I was subjected to dishes engulfed in the flames of Scotch bonnets and other healthily fiery spices, so I would say that my tolerance for heat is higher than that of the average American. After sampling the cookies, I became concerned for my climbing comrades and their palates. Turns out there was nothing to be afraid of. On top of that, the cookies passed the melt-in-your-mouth test, and people learned stuff! Just trying to keep the people fed and woke, you know?

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Committed to the craft. Countries included: Suriname, Tajikistan, Timor-Leste
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I ended up painting a tote bag since I have so many that I don’t use anyway

 

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I firmly believe that it was thanks to cinnamon that the enjoyable flavor of the cookie was not compromised
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Velvety smooth before dry ingredients (above) get added

Chocolate Fire Cookies
yields around 45 cookies

Ingredients
1 stick unsalted butter
1 1/3 cup sugar
1/2 cup Nutella
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup cocoa
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1 1/2 cups chocolate chips

Directions
Sift or whisk the dry ingredients together in a small bowl and set aside. Cream the butter and sugar until soft and fluffy. Add the Nutella, vanilla and eggs, one at a time. Gradually at the dry ingredients until just barely incorporated, then add the chocolate chips. Let chill in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

Drop scant tablespoons of dough (they will spread) onto baking sheets and bake at 350° for 8-9 minutes, or until the cookies edges bounce back when you poke.

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Whether you decide to warn your subjects about your cookies packing heat or let them discover on their own, this easy dessert is a fun party trick and party treat. Enjoy the reactions and have safe festivities!

Pumpkin (Spice) Sugar Cookies

What is it about the word “spice” following the word “pumpkin” that automatically makes a recipe sound cliché? Is that just me? Thanks to Starbucks and the seasonal pumpkin spice latte craze, every fall everyone and their recipe developers try to come up with the best pumpkin spice whatever. A quick perusal through Pinterest will offer you recipes for PS cream cheese, PS muddy buddies, PS chex mix, PS French toast, PS “bedtime drink” (curious?). Wasn’t there a time that pumpkin flavored sweets kinda just implied “plus spices”? Cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves, and allspice, in some combination or other? When I think of pumpkin muffins, I don’t exactly picture chunks of squash peeking out of the tops like apples. Whatever we have ultimately decided to name these seasonal orange treats, some are worth further investigation and appreciation.

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I recently tried a riff on this annual phenomenon with my favorite baking vehicle (cookies): soft and chewy with just enough pumpkin flavor to remind you of your mom’s pumpkin pie, without having to dust off the pie dish.

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Pumpkin (Spice) Sugar Cookies
yields around 40 cookies

Ingredients
1 1/2 cups sugar
3/4 cup butter, at room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract1 egg
1/2 cup pumpkin purée
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup bread flour (all-purpose flour will also do)
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger

1/4 cup sugar for rolling cookie dough
Instructions
Whisk together the dry ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg, vanilla, and pumpkin purée. Gradually add the dry ingredients. Chill the dough in the fridge for 2-4 hours.

Roll the dough into one inch balls and coat evenly with sugar. Bake at 350° for 10-12 minutes, or until the tops start to crack.

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Neat trick: if you don’t have an electric mixer, use a fork to aerate the butter and sugar after you’ve combined them with a spoon.

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Don’t forget your rubber scraper!
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Great with milk

Have you ever had a pumpkin spice latte from Starbucks? Please tell me what it’s like!

The Art of Dining Solo

Some time ago when I went to Portland, Maine, I was able to experience dining for one. There’s something about sitting at a table with a bowl full of hot ramen (or is it pho now) in front of you that you can enjoy without exchanging words with a comrade in between slurps. By default, I’m someone who doesn’t mind doing things unaccompanied. Sometimes I get stressed out at the art museum when I want to see the Modern and Contemporary Art, as a friend trails behind politely waiting for their chance to explore the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Now and then, things are easier flying solo. While I would prefer to spend a Saturday evening at the local haunt with friends over myself, sometimes it’s nice to spend time with your thoughts and delicious food appreciation. And I did just that in Portland, many times, and could not have been more content. Here’s why dining solo can be great, and how to make the most out of your time with *you*.

1. Being seated right away

Most of the places I wanted to check out were pretty bumpin’ spots, not to mention the Bon Appétit spread that had come out weeks previously that brought the masses; so there were definitely waits at almost every restaurant I hit up. Luckily, it’s usually easy to seat one person, particularly if the restaurant has a bar or communal table. Where couples would wait 30 minutes to get into a lunch spot, I would step in after no more than 8 minutes.

 

2. Sitting at the bar

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Sitting at the bar is one of the restaurant power moves, alone or not. Oftentimes this is where the cool kids squat who have insider info on the town and other food spots to hit up. If you’re traveling, ask the bartenders and your neighbors where they go on their nights off and what fun things you can do in the area. If you’re apprehensive about starting a conversation, don’t forget to smile. Someone may just start one for you. If you’re not into conversation (you’re out on your own, after all), you may have a front row seat to the kitchen – check out the action!

 
pdx-2016_carmen-ladipo_191Fun fact: the bar you’re sitting at will most likely have hooks underneath for you to hang bags and jackets (shown above). Genius.

 

3. The bill

No worrying about bringing cash / keeping track of cards / finding someone on Venmo / somehow getting shortchanged because you didn’t get a drink. It will save you time and energy for more local frolics.
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Go forth and dine, no matter the plans of your squad.

 

The Truth is in the Tofu (Pancakes)

Some time ago, my friend Kristen Miglore was testing a waffle recipe of another friend, Hannah Kirshner, for her Genius Recipes column on Food52. You may know that I don’t usually dilly dally with special diet recipes, but this is another one of those recipes that is delicious while happening to be vegan. I agree that this sounds crazy: a waffle whose ingredients include silken tofu, lemon juice, and coconut oil. But not only are the waffles vegan, they’re great. The most distinct characteristic of these tofu waffles is the texture. When they come out of the waffle iron, they are the most crispy on the outside, and almost custardy soft on the inside. But the weirdest thing of all the weird things is that you can’t taste the tofu! This is mostly due in part to the coconut oil taking most of the flavor responsibilities. So if you’re not into coconut, you may have to change the oil.

Being without a waffle iron, I was curious to see if these waffles would act similarly in pancake form.

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And they sure did! I found that after being off the griddle and on the counter for a few minutes, the pancake exterior became soft, but the insides remained like custard in a soft shell. These are the pancakes you’ll want to pour maple syrup all over, to not detract from the texture, and to help enhance the simple flavor.

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Best Ever Pancakes
Original recipe by Hannah Kirshner, Genius Recipe’d by Kristen Miglore

12 oz silken tofu
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup coconut oil
Juice from 1/2 lemon
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Optional: syrup/yogurt/butter to serve

Use a blender to blend the tofu, water and lemon juice until smooth. Gradually add the coconut oil and blend until combined.

In a large bowl, whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Mix the blended ingredients until just combined.

Generously oil a skillet and put on medium-low heat. When the skillet is hot, put your desired amount of batter in the skillet and wait to flip until the edges lose their shine and bubbles form. Keep your pancakes in an oven or toaster oven at 325° until ready to serve. And syrup, yogurt, and/or butter if desired.

 

How To: Muddy Buddies! (Video)

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Also known as puppy chow, this was a college party (read: potluck) favorite back in the day. It takes six ingredients, and it’s a lot of fun to make. I made a video to prove it:

Here’s your recipe

Ingredients
9 cups of Chex cereal, in any variety you prefer
1 cup chocolate chips
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) salted butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar

Directions
Put the cereal in a very large bowl and set aside. Microwave the chocolate, peanut butter, and butter in a bowl until melted and smooth, about 40 seconds. Add the vanilla extract and stir. Pour this over the cereal and combine gently until the cereal is coated evenly. Place the cereal in a gallon sized ziploc bag and add the powdered sugar. Shake well until all the powdered sugar has stuck to the cereal. Lay out to dry for 10 minutes if you can wait,  then serve!

 

It’s great with milk, actually….

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“behind/above the scenes”