You may think a pastry chef's obsession with butter falls into the same category as Paula Deen deep-frying golden sticks or that annoying Julie girl in the Julie & Julia movie who closes the flick with the cloyingly symbolic gesture of leaving a pound of butter under Julia Child's picture. These supposed obsessions with butter are for wow factor. What pastry chefs have is respect for a needed and powerful ingredient, and a desire for the highest-quality butter.
Many American pastry chefs will tell you that butter is one of the areas where we are more reluctant to turn away from our use of European butter. Butter has to have a minimum percentage of butterfat, by law. In America, that percentage is 80 percent while in Europe it is 82 percent. Big deal you say? It's a mere 2 percent? It makes a huge difference as far as workability and taste.
Locally, we have some great people making butter, and they all seem to have started down the butter path at the farmers markets.
Rainbow Valley Heritage Foods - You may have heard of Denise Diederich and Sheri Doramus lately, as they work toward the process of building their own commercial kitchen after many years of borrowing the commercial kitchens of various chef friends. Their creamy flavored butters and farm cheeses fly off the shelf at Wedge & Bottle in Ahwatukee.
Their products, which are made from family recipes, are lactose-intolerant-friendly, as their process removes 90 percent of the milk sugars that apparently cause the intolerance. The milk that they use is locally sourced as well as hormone and rSBT free. I use these on anything. Try the whiskey butter slathered on some toasted brioche, for a buttery overload. My next goal for their butter is to attempt to laminate one of their flavored butters into some croissant dough.
Gina's Homemade - Known for her Italian cheeses, Gina also makes butter. One of the restaurants I used to work for wanted to exclusively use Gina's butter for our pastry program. Quickly it spiraled out of control, not by any fault of Gina's, but because it shot our food cost on simple items like chocolate chip cookies and muffins, through the roof, but we had a hard time getting the large amounts we needed, too.
Gina's butter is fabulous, and I made many a delicious biscuit and pie crust with her butter. I recommend using this butter for any pastry where the butter really stands out. Hello, buttercream!
Arizona Cheese Company - I recently saw this company at the Ahwatukee Farmers Market, and picked up some of their butter. I should have looked at both bricks a little more closely when I received them, for as I removed them from the fridge to use them in a pastry, I realized I had a brick of butter and a brick of Monterey Jack cheese. The butter I did get was good. I don't think it would really make a noticeable taste difference in any of my pastries, but it is definitely a great table butter.
European butter is the standard for my business. I feel bad saying that I am not supplementing with local butter, but it is definitely something I am working towards, and hopefully you will pick up some of these great local butters to play with in your own culinary lab.
Rachel Miller is a pastry chef and food writer in Phoenix, where she bakes, eats, and single-handedly keeps her local cheese shop in business. You can get more information about her pastry at www.pistolwhippedpastry.com, or on her blog at www.croissantinthecity.com.