My daughter and I spent our Saturday night watching Cupcake Wars. We watched bakers peel waxy paper from half-pound blocks of butter then tumble the heavy slabs into stand mixers with vanilla extract, powdered sugar, and sometimes mascarpone cheese, or sour cream, or cocoa powder. I didn’t understand how the bakers could refrain from reaching elbow deep into the stainless steel bowls to scoop handfuls of buttercream into their mouths like Veruca Salt scooping the goopy filling from confections in Willy Wonka’s garden.
I bake with salted butter. I like salt with my sweet. I do not adjust the salt in cake or cookie recipes to compensate for the salt in my butter. I am teaching our daughter the same.
Unsalted butter is good too, don’t get me wrong. Creamy unsalted butter on a thick slice of freshly baked bread is one of the simplest, finest foods on earth. In Vienna I breakfasted on fresh rolls and soft butter. No honey, no jam. Just the crisp crust and spongy crumb of a home-baked roll and the satin smoothness of unsalted butter.
When I was nursing my son, I craved shortbread. Butter, flour, and a hint of sugar creamed together, then baked at 350 until golden brown. I made it daily, patting the dough into a rough rectangle and then cutting it into uneven bars. I wasn’t going for pretty — this shortbread was pure function. The rustic bars baked into delicate cookies that crumbled perfectly between my teeth and melted in buttery goodness on my tongue.
I ate shortbread every day for weeks. It is the perfect food to bite into when you need something between your teeth and you want the taste of butter.
A friend in Florida makes an apple pie with a shortbread crust, and I don’t know that I’ve ever eaten a more perfect pie. I tried to recreate it once, he told me how, but working with a butter-based pie crust is maddening. It softens while you’re rolling it out. It tears. It sticks. I ate raw crust to salve my frustration while I rolled pastry. When I finally got it into the dish to fill, the crust ended up not being big enough thanks to all my stress-eating.
It’s a good thing I’m full and it’s late. My mouth is watering now. The kids have all this Halloween candy I keep eating, but nothing will ever compare to a homemade butter-based pastry.