Unsalted butter (Recipe: cardamom shortbread)
Here in The Perfect Pantry, I don't always set out to explore the intersection of food and art.
However, there are times when I can't overlook the obvious, when doing so would do you a disservice.
This is one of those times.
Oh, I could have passed up the butter-art connection altogether, and just gone for the culinary. I could have debunked the myth that unsalted butter is always better quality, fresher, and superior for baking.
I could have skipped over the fact that, by law, in North America all butter must contain at least 80 percent butterfat, a maximum of 16% water and 2% milk solids, and that butter is graded according to flavor, color, texture, aroma and body. AA (93 score), A (92 score), and B (90 score) are the letter codes and numerical scores used.
And, really, do you need to know that unsalted butter -- free of preservatives and of the annatto sometimes used to color salted butter -- will keep in the refrigerator for three months, and that salted butter will last a bit longer, because the salt is a preservative? Is it important to tell you that the amount of salt added to salted butter can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, which is why bakers prefer to use unsalted butter, so they can control the amount of added salt?
And do you also need to know that, if your butter is fresh, it almost doesn't matter whether it's unsalted or salted, as they can be used interchangeably -- with a little tweaking here or there in the amount of added salt -- in most recipes, such as buckwheat cookies, butter prawns, apple-bluberry turnovers, green beans with garam masala butter, crispy sage and brown butter pasta, honey and sea salt caramels, and tomato sauce?
What is important is that unsalted butter has been used as a sculpture medium by monks in Tibet since the 15th Century. That the Ohio State Fair has exhibited butter sculptures of astronaut Neil Armstrong, golfer Jack Nicklaus, and movie bad guy Darth Vader.
That the Iowa State Fair has featured a butter cow since the early 1900s, and at last year's fair, a butter sculpture of Harry Potter stood right beside the cow. (I've read all of the books, and I don't remember any scene where Harry meets up with a butter cow. Do you?)
It's important to know, too, that this year's Pennsylvania Farm Show displayed a 900-pound butter sculpture of three kids and a dairy cow boarding a school bus. All made of unsalted butter.
This is art. I kid you not.
Make sure you use very fresh butter for this shortbread; it really will make a difference in the flavor. Leave the butter out on the counter overnight, except in the hottest times of year. This recipe makes approximately 20 cookies.
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups flour
Preheat oven to 325°F. Spray a glass or nonstick 9x13 baking pan with baking spray. In a Kitchenaid-type stand mixer or large bowl with a hand mixer, beat together sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add the cardamom and vanilla, and stir in the flour just until the mixture combines (do not overmix). Put your hand inside a plastic bag, and press the dough into the baking pan, making sure it is firmly packed and evenly distributed. Lightly score with the back of a knife to mark out the final size cookies (approximately 20, depending on the size you want). Bake 20-30 minutes, until lightly browned. When the pan has cooled completely, snap the cookies apart along the scored lines.