Updated August 2010.
What do Santa Claus, Richard Nixon, Elvis, and the unofficial mascot of a midwestern state fair have in common?
Each has been sculpted in unsalted butter.
I'm not sure why unsalted butter is the choice of sculptors. Perhaps unsalted butter is more predictable. That's certainly why it is the choice of bakers. With unsalted butter, you know just what you're getting.
The amount of salt in regular butter varies with each brand, but can be up to three percent, or 3/4 teaspoon per 1/2-cup stick. According to Joy of Baking, you can replace unsalted butter with salted butter, but you should reduce the salt in the recipe by about 1/2 teaspoon per cup of butter used, calculated as follows:
The USDA National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference shows one cup of "Butter, salted" as containing 1308 mg of sodium and 1 cup of "Butter, without salt" as containing 25 mg, for a difference of 1283 mg. They also show table salt as containing 2325 mg of sodium. Dividing 1283 mg of sodium by 2325 mg sodium per teaspoon of salt gives 0.55 or just over 1/2 teaspoon.
Originally, salt was added to butter as a preservative. Even today, with modern refrigeration, salt can mask the freshness of butter, as guests at one of my summer picnics found out a few years ago, when I unknowingly slathered some beautiful ears of sweet corn with butter that was no longer, well, sweet.
Now I use unsalted butter as a matter of taste, whether I'm baking sweets or preparing savory dishes. And nothing beats unsalted butter on fresh crusty bread with slices of tomato or smoked salmon.
Except, maybe, a butter bust of Richard Nixon.
Gwendolen's scotch shortbread
In the same little black notebook where I found Chocolate Outrageous Pie, I came across an old, slightly stained piece of paper folded up in one of the pockets. This recipe, typed many years ago on a manual typewriter, was my mother-in-law's holiday specialty. Here's the recipe, exactly as she wrote it. (Notations in parentheses are mine.) Be sure to read the notes at the end before you start baking.
Shortbread is a buttery cookie usually associated with Christmas and New Year celebrations. There are many variations in the way the ingredients are measured, prepared and cooked, but the same three ingredients are always used -- butter, sugar and flour.
A basic recipe consists of
1/2 lb butter (I use unsalted butter and a pinch of salt, to taste)
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups flour
Butter: make sure the butter has been left at room temperature until it is soft.
Sugar: This can be superfine granulated sugar, or a mixture of sugar, light brown sugar and/or icing sugar. I find 2/3 white and 1/2 light brown sifted well together is satisfactory.
Flour: All-purpose white flour. Part of this can be rice flour.
Method: Add sifted sugar a little at a time to the softened butter until both are thoroughly combined -- no gritty feel under the spoon. A wooden spoon is best. Add flour a bit at a time until all is absorbed. This should give a soft but workable dough. Gather into two lumps and knead each on a lightly floured board until smooth and no cracks appear. Roll or pat into shape and cut with small cutter, keeping dough about 1/4 or 1/3 inch thick. Gather up cuttings and reroll into shapes. If dough gets too soft, refrigerate for a while. Place on lightly greased cookie sheet.
Bake: 300 to 325 degree oven for 12 to 15 minutes. Some ovens take longer, but don't let the shortbreads brown. They should be quite light and they deepen in color after cooking.
Put on rack until cool. Store in tightly covered container. May be kept for several weeks.
A small piece of cherry can be pressed into center of cookie before baking, and it is customary to prick shortbread with a fork -- not deep enough to break the cookie, but deep enough to leave an impression.
I also find it worthwhile to refrigerate the shaped cookies on the cookie sheet, before baking. I put them in the frig before I set the oven. Also -- the cookie dough can be rolled and wrapped in wax paper and kept in the refrigerator until ready to bake, then sliced into circles etc.
After you have read this, just remember: Mix butter, sugar and flour, knead, shape and cook for a short while in a slow oven.
Other recipes that use unsalted butter:
A mean chocolate chip cookie, from Megnut
Brown butter green beans with almonds, from Andrea Meyers
Fresh strawberry tart with lemon cream, from Technicolor Kitchen
Browned butter whole wheat blueberry muffins, from Guilty Kitchen
Peach-raspberry galette, from Use Real Butter
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