Food writer Nicola Miller extols the virtues of butter and creates her own version of a beautifully buttery Gateau Breton using lavender and lemon
We were so wrong to demonise butter back in the eighties and nineties in favour of butter substitutes: what on earth were we thinking? Butter is glorious and good for you. I love it so much that two of my most-disliked descriptive words, ‘toothsome’ and ‘buttery’, become more tolerable if I think of toast piled high with the stuff. (My husband likes toast with his butter.)
We’re lucky because here in the UK we have some excellent butter made by smaller producers and even though I adore French brands like Brittany’s Bordier and Beurre D’ Isigny Sainte-Mère from Normandy, my absolute favourites are Fen Farm Dairy’s cultured version (made in Bungay) and Abernethy Irish butter. However, dairy snobbery is not my thing and I do have butter from Aldi in my kitchen along with the more rarefied kinds.
Recently there was a debate on Twitter about the relative merits of salted versus unsalted and I was surprised to see a few people loftily declare that unsalted butter should always be used in preference to the salted kind. Fortunately, there were plenty of cooks and food writers happy to admit to using salted butter for most things and I am one of them. I know why chefs like to control the amount of salt they add to food and with salted butter, you are at the mercy of the palate of the butter maker, but at home? Honestly. . . If you fancy baking a cake or making pastry and you only have salted butter, bake them anyway and enjoy it. Your life will not be the worse for having a cake made with salted butter, I promise you. I realise there’s an irony in declaratively telling you that I am becoming intolerant of declarative butter-dictates from people in the food world who should be more concerned about the fact that a lot of people cannot afford to buy butter at all, but there you go. Most butter is lush and compared to lower-fat spreads, all butter is lush. That’s good enough for me.
Walking into a Breton bakery where the display cabinets are piled high with delectable butter and egg yolk-rich cakes is to feel as if you’ve died and gone to that great dairy in the sky. In such a stony, wind-tossed and seemingly austere part of France, hewn from granite and strewn with menhirs, the Breton affinity for butter making becomes clear as you taste their local brands and see how cleverly these reflect the terroir of this rugged salty coastal region where lambs graze on the salt marshes, fat shucked oysters sit in briny liquor, and blue and white tins of salted caramel line the shelves of stores, big and small. The Bretons know that magic happens when sweet, creamy, and salty flavours collide. This is the land of Celtic myth, magic, and storytelling and this extends to the food on their plate. Alongside Corsica, it’s my favourite part of France.
Eat pastries or cake in Brittany and you’ll notice a complexity in flavour that can be missing from patisserie made with unsalted butter where the cook adds salt during the baking process. This is especially noticeable in the Gateau Breton which has relatively few ingredients, all of which need to be ultra-fresh. I have made it with unsalted butter and added salt to the flour, according to baking convention, and found this produces a cake which is delicious but lacking in complexity. I asked Richard Bertinet, the celebrated Breton baker and author of Crumb who told me that when he bakes food from his native Brittany, he always uses salé or demi-sel butter – especially for pastries.
“For me, salted butter is better for a Gateau Breton,” he said.
As with all judicious creative processes, the art of salted butter-making means the product is far more than the sum of its parts, no matter how humble these might be. Blessed are the butter-makers.
So, Gateau Breton. A fat disk of shortbready cake which is sometimes flavoured with rum or filled with sliced apples, cooked apricots or prunes. I did hesitate before deciding to leave out the fruit, but if you fancy trying the fruit-filled version it’s really simple to divide the dough into two, press one half into the tin, smother this with the fruit preserve of your choice and then top with the remaining dough before crimping its edges to seal. Instead, I have (probably) scandalised the Bretons by flavouring their famous cake with the Provençaux flavours of lavender and lemon. You must use English lavender instead of the French variety though; the latter is too resinous for this wonderful cake which sings out for a wedding, christening or summer celebration despite its visual plainness.
GATEAU BRETON WITH LAVENDER AND LEMON
240g salted butter
220g golden caster sugar
¼ tsp fresh lavender petals
Zest of 1 medium unwaxed lemon
1 tsp vanilla extract
6 beaten egg yolks, plus 1 more egg yolk for brushing
375g ‘00’ plain flour (usually used for pasta but here it keeps the crumb silky-soft)
Double cream to serve
Runny honey to serve
Cream butter and sugar in an electric mixer until very pale and light. You can beat it by hand, too. Add the lavender petals and the lemon zest and mix to combine.
Pour in the vanilla and 6 of the yolks then beat until combined. Now add the flour and mix again until well incorporated. You will have a soft, golden dough.
Press the dough into a 24cm greased, loose-bottomed tart pan and refrigerate for 30 minutes. I have also used a 24cm springform pan to make this.
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F.
Remove the cake tin from the fridge and use the tines of a fork to mark a crisscross pattern on the top of the cake. Don’t worry if the dough clings to the tines like a recalcitrant toddler, this is normal. Just scrape it off,pat it back onto the cake’s surface and continue.
Beat the 7th yolk and use it to glaze the top of the cake, then bake for 40 minutes until it is cooked and golden.
I start checking it after 35 minutes. The texture you are aiming for is somewhere between shortbread and cake.
Cool slightly, remove from pan and leave to cool completely on a wire rack. Serve with thick cream swirled with runny honey.
The divine food at the Brewers Arms in Rattlesden. Chef Dan Russell and his team wowed us at a recent tasting dinner and I especially adored a dish of peach, strawberry, and elderflower. Also, the new menu at No4 Abbeygate, the café attached to Abbeygate Cinema. Chef Alex and his team are consistently inventive and produce the best diner food in town.
I’m looking forward to
The opening of Woosters Bakery in Bury St Edmunds which is due to start trading early August in Langton Place. Use it or lose it!
Elaine Khosrova’s book Butter: A Rich History. The author travelled the world researching this book which marries lore, history, recipes, and travel writing.
Follow Nicola on Twitter: @Nicmillerstale