Wednesday, December 9, 2009

As if plain butter wasn't great enough

I thought I'd write a bit about browned butter, seeing that it's one of my favorite substances in the whole wide world, along with diet coke, cocktail sauce, and the gravy in the shrimp chow mein at Joy Yee Noodle. I make it as often as possible, most recently, this morning in browned butter pancakes (recipe to follow).

My introduction to browned butter was one of those my-dessert-life-is-about-to-change-forever affairs, and I thank my former boss at the pastry shop for showing me the way. She made a tart filling called browned butter custard, and it was light and chewy, almost cakey, with a depth of flavor that was about as mind-blowing as Meredith Baxter declaring she now likes gals. Whenever there was an extra finger tart filled with the stuff, I would secretly put it in my mouth, chewing as unobtrusively as possible as I went about my daily tasks. I believe the term "pleasure bomb" would not be an overstatement.

I could live on browned butter custard alone, as long as I chased it with a multivitamin to avoid getting scurvy, rickets, anemia or any other malady associated with poor nutrition. BBC, as we came to call it, is all fat and sugar and white flour - a baker's holy trinity - with not even a scoche of good-for-you ingredients.

Browned butter is made by cooking butter until the milk solids turn brown and fall to the bottom of the pan. The remaining clear butter on the top is clarified butter, also known as ghee in Indian cooking. Clarified butter is great for making anything that you don't want to brown - like an omelette - because the part that can brown - the milk solids - have been removed.

But the flavor of browned butter - rich, nutty, intoxicating, devastating - comes from the browned milk solids, so they're left in. I devised a recipe for pancakes using browned butter because hell, I can't think of one thing that can't be improved by the addition of it.

Browned Butter Pancakes

Makes about 12 good size pancakes

1 1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose unbleached flour
3 Tbs. sugar
1 1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
pinch kosher salt (1/4 tsp if you want to be exact)
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
Optional: 2 Tbs. flax meal (I add flax to everything, the thinking being it's going to healthfully counteract the ill effects of the butter)

Let the egg and buttermilk sit at room temperature while you make the rest of the recipe.
To brown the butter: put the butter in a small saucepan or skillet, and heat over medium heat. After the butter melts, you will see a white foam rise to the top. These are the milk solids. They will bubble furiously, but as they cook, the bubbling will get slower and eventually stop. The butter will start to turn an amber color, and the milk solids will turn golden and then brown and fall to the bottom of the pan. Turn off the stove. To stop the cooking, transfer the browned butter to a glass dish or measuring cup, being sure to scrape all the brown stuff out of the pan. This is where the flavor is. Now inhale deeply and let cool a bit.

In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients. In a medium bowl, whisk together the buttermilk, egg, and the just warm browned butter. Add the liquid ingredients (and flax meal if you're using it) to the dry ingredients and whisk just until mixed. It will be lumpy. Let it sit for about ten or so minutes before you make the pancakes.

I ate these without syrup, and they were tasty - almost good enough to go nude, but maple syrup is another one of those delicious amber liquids that I can't get enough of. It's your call.

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