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Creative chefs churning artisanal butters

Whether it's the butter on their bread or the rich tastes of the croissants and puff pastry delicacies served in the dining room at Langdon Hall Country House Hotel, guests often comment on how delicious they are.

It all has to do with the butter, says Rob Howland, pastry chef at the 5-Diamond Award-winning restaurant in Cambridge, Ont. About a year ago, he embarked on hand churning his own European-style butter "because it has a better flavour and a higher fat content."

The category is artisanal butters, and more and more creative chefs are pushing the envelope to achieve distinct flavour in the foods they prepare and the methods they will use to achieve that outcome.

Cows that graze on pasture produce tastier milk than cows that are penned and given feed. And the region where the cow grazed as well as what it is fed makes the flavour of the milk and thus the butter distinctive.

Supermarket or industrial butter combines milk from many areas and producers to make one homogenous-tasting batch.

At his family's Toronto firm The Cheese Boutique, Afrim Pristine says they are stocking more Canadian-made artisanal butters alongside imports from Europe.

"The French butter from Normandy is the best on the planet," he says.

The fame of Isigny French Normandy butter goes back to the 16th century. And it all has to do with a mild damp climate and being near the sea and the Bessin and Cotentin marshes. The cows grazing there feed on grass rich in iodine and beta carotene. No wonder the butter is so flavourful.

The fat content of most artisanal butter is a lot higher than industrial butter (the foil-wrapped bricks found in supermarkets), says Pristine.

"If you see a really good-quality butter you will actually notice the bits of culture running through it and that provides the flavour," he adds.

Another butter that contains 80 per cent or more milk fat from cows and goats is from Portugal, says Pristine.

"What people don't understand that this is milk fat and it is healthy to eat, in moderation," he says.

Shoppers pay much more for artisanal butters, Pristine says. The Normandy brand costs over $16 for 250 grams (a half-pound), "but it's great for someone who appreciates it because it's worth it."

Ruth Klahsen, owner of Montforte Dairy near Stratford, Ont., is a chef and more recently a cheesemaker, but she has caught the butter-making bug as well.

In about a year she hopes to be making unsalted cow and sheep butter.

"By making my own butter I'll get more flavour, and isn't that what life is all about?"

Howland says when he began making his own butter at Langdon Hall he bought a few litres of organic cream "and sort of played around and made some rudimentary butter."

"It was a beautiful golden colour because of what the cows were eating at the time. I can almost tell the season by the colour of my butter."

Judy Creighton welcomes letters at 9 Kinnell St., Hamilton, Ont., L8R 2J8, but cannot promise to answer all correspondence personally. She can also be reached by e-mail at jcreighton(at)

Artisanal butter made by hand in contrast to industrial techniques

Some facts about artisanal butter:

-It can be made from milk from cows, buffalo, goats, sheep or yaks.

-It is made from cream that is beaten until the fat in the liquid separates from the liquid.

-Traditionally, milk is left standing until the cream rises to the top and it is skimmed off.

-The cream is then churned by hand - placed in a tall cylinder and stirred vigorously with wooden paddles or poles using a method that is common from Tibet and Nepal to the farmhouses of North America and Europe.

Source: "Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World" by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Random House Canada).

One traditional and another quick method to make butter-rich puff pastry

If there is one area of baking that requires quality butter, it is in the making of puff pastry.

The French call this rich, delicate, multilayered pastry pate feuilletee.

It's made by placing pats of chilled butter between layers of pastry dough, then rolling it out, folding it in thirds and letting it rest. This process, which is repeated six to eight times, produces a pastry comprising layers of dough and butter.

When baked, the moisture in the butter creates steam, causing the dough to puff and separate into hundreds of flaky layers.

Puff Pastry

This traditional recipe for puff pastry is from "Larousse Pratique" edited by Lewis Esson (Paul Hamlyn Publishers).

425 ml (1 3/4 cups) flour

30 to 45 ml (2 to 3 tbsp) superfine sugar (optional)

125 ml ( 1/2 cup) water

165 ml (11 tbsp) butter

Pinch salt

Pour flour into a bowl and make a well in middle. Add sugar, if desired, along with 125 ml ( 1/2 cup) water and pinch of salt. Start mixing flour into liquid using a wooden spoon, then use hands, pulling flour in from the edges and working as quickly as possible.

Form dough into a ball and weigh it. Let dough stand for 20 minutes in the bowl, covered with a cloth.

Flour work surface and roll dough into a rectangle slightly thicker in its centre.

Weigh out exactly half the weight of butter as there is dough and mould it into a square. Put butter diagonally in the middle of the dough; fold in the 4 corners to cover and seal edges.

Roll pastry into a rectangle about 1 cm ( 1/2 inch) thick and 3 times as long as it is wide.

Fold rectangle into 3, folding first third inwards, then fold the other third over top of that. Give the pastry one quarter-turn to the right. Roll it out into a rectangle and fold it again as above, then let it stand in a cool place for 20 minutes.

Classic puff pastry should be given a total of 6 "turns," i.e., 3 sets of 2 turns, with a standing period every 2 turns. If preparing in advance, give it the final 2 turns just before using.

Puff pastry baked blind (without a filling) needs 20 minutes in an oven preheated to 250 C (475 F). If the pastry case is filled, the oven should be cooler, 240 C (465 F) and the baking will take 30 to 35 minutes.

Note: The butter used should be of the same consistency as the dough. Flatten the butter between 2 sheets of parchment or greaseproof paper, then place it in the centre of the dough.

Quick Puff Pastry

This Quick Puff Pastry is from pastry chef Nick Malgieri of New York.

300 ml (1 1/4 cups) butter

125 ml ( 1/2 cup) cold water

5 ml (1 tsp) salt

500 ml (2 cups) all-purpose flour

Cut butter into 1-cm ( 1/2-inch) cubes and refrigerate. Combine cold water with salt and refrigerate. Place flour in food processor. Add 50 ml ( 1/4 cup) of the diced butter and pulse 12 times. Add remaining diced butter and pulse twice just to distribute into flour. Drizzle salted water over flour. Pulse 5 or 6 times. Turn mixture out and gather into a rough rectangle.

On a floured surface, roll dough into a 45-by 30-cm (18-by 12-inch) rectangle. Fold into thirds lengthwise. Roll up from short end and press into a rough square. Wrap well and refrigerate for a few days or freeze.

Makes about 750 g (1 1/2 lb) or enough for two tarts or pizzas.


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