Since starting on this journey, 9 months ago, I’ve learned a lot about making pastries (you would hope!) and a lot of that knowledge I’ve applied at home. Sure I’ve learned a lot of things about technique and handling equipment properly, but I’ve also learned not to underestimate the quality of the ingredients and how that can affect the end product.
A lot of things that go wrong in cake/pastry making do come down to technique and experience, but you also need to think about the ingredients, think quality, temperature, handling etc what you are putting into your cakes and biscuits at home.
I’ve come up with a list of some of the key ingredients that go into pastry making (I use the terms pastry making to define all things sweet made at home) and how the product and handling of that product can affect your end product.
I’ve broken it down into: Butter (which I’ll cover in this post), Flour & Eggs (which I’ll cover in subsequent posts.)
Just in case you didn’t know:
“Butter is a dairy product made by churning fresh or fermented cream or milk. It is generally used as a spread and a condiment, as well as in cooking applications, such as baking, sauce making, and pan frying. Butter consists of butterfat, water and milk proteins.”
Real butter is made from pure cream with a fat content of at least 80 per cent milk fat. The cream, separated from milk, is agitated (traditionally in a butter churn) until the solids combine and the liquid buttermilk drains off. Salt content is one of the factors that affect the butter we choose to use, but more importantly is it’s source. Dairy products are seasonal and depend on cow lactation. In Australia, our cattle are lucky that they generally get to feed on green grass all year round which means our butter is more yellow than the white butter imported from countries such as France.
I think butter is one, if not the most important item, when it comes to patisserie. Butters differ in their water content, so if you are thinking about making a short-crust pastry think really carefully about buying a fresh butter high in fat content rather than a supermarket packaged butter with a higher water content i.e. less fat. Think what using a butter with a higher water content is going to do to the final product i.e. it won’t be as crispy or flaky
Most of Australia’s packaged butter has been frozen (or some of the milk partially frozen) and then re-worked prior to packaging. This is why I would recommend buying butter fresh and keeping it in small quantities, at room temperature if it’s going to be used for spreading on toast or in the fridge if being used to make pastries.
When you make a short-crust pastry it’s best to use chilled butter cut into small cubes that you then rub into the flour. The action of “rubbing” coats the flour in butter and shortens the gluten naturally contained within the flour. This is also the reason why it’s vitally important to rest pastry between each process, rubbing, rolling etc, each time the pastry is “rested” the gluten settles and you’ll get a nice crisp flaky pastry. When you make a short-crust, as mentioned a fresh butter with no salt and little water content is preferable.
When you make a puff, rough puff or even croissant pastry you are laminating the layers of dough with butter. The more times you fold puff pastries, the more layers you are creating between the dough and butter. When the pastry is put into the oven the butter melts and creates air-pockets, hence the beautiful flaky layering of a perfect croissant. Butter melts at blood temperature, which makes the eating of a croissant so enjoyable, it literally melts in your mouth. It is also why when you are “lamination” stage you need to ensure your pastry and butter are at the same temperature. Ever had a croissant and had that waxy after mouth taste? That’s a sure sign an imposter has been used and not the real deal, faux butter (gasp.)
Butter when melted can also be used as a thickening agent in many savoury sauces, it forms an emulsion. But that’s for someone else, this is about the sweet stuff.
There is argument that the packaged butters like Western Star are actually rancid and the milk used to make this butter is not always fresh. As mentioned previously, cows lactate seasonally, to overcome this, some butter manufacturers like Western Star freeze milk to ensure there is ample supply. Ever bought a piece of Western Star or the like and see it get that dark yellow outer layer, that means your butter is rancid.
In terms of restaurant quality butter, most notable Australian restaurants still use imported, mostly French butter, as there is not considered an equivalent product in Australia, yet. This is changing, Shannon Bennett of Vue De Monde uses Echire a French butter, it’s 14% water where most Australian butters are 16%.
Ok, so what is available:
Made by hand using European style cultures this butter has about 84% fat. It is available at various Farmers Markets (Abbottsford Convent and I got some on the weekend at Debney Park.) You an also buy buttermilk, excellent for cake making, it will give a nice soft crumb – um “yum crumb” I’d call it. It comes in 250gm bars, there are salted and unsalted varieties. I’m using this butter for my competitive baking this year, wish me luck. Also, the packaging is really cute.
Available fresh from Curds & Whey at the Queen Victoria Market. You can select salted, mildly salted or unsalted and select your desired weight. This fresh butter has about 84% fat. I’ve baked with this butter a lot in the past with happy results.
Western Star & Girgar Butter
Made by the New Zealand company Fonterra (it also makes Ski branded yoghurt & Mainland cheese), Western Star butter was a company that originated in Victoria’s Western District. There is an individual website for Western Star awash with Masterchef logo’s (George Calombaris is a Western Star ambassador.) Western Star butter is made using about 80% butterfat and Girgar about 82%. Girgar butter is a European style cultured butter.
The website tells me this butter is made from the milk of cows that graze on organic pastures. I can’t see a fat %. I have used this butter previously and found it too watery and it didn’t seem to have a long shelf life.
Harmione Organic & Lurpak
Both of these packaged products are made by Danish company Arla. At the time of writing I am waiting for a response from Arla on where the milk comes from that is used to make the butter for both the Lurpak and Harmonie brands that are sold in Australia. From the map on their website, they don’t have a production factory in Australia and the closest factory would be Thailand. I’m also unsure what % butterfat is used in this butter. I have used the Harmonie brand, and found it ok. It is the most expensive brand on the supermarket shelf.
Aldi, Woolworths Homebrand, Coles Australian Butter all have around the 80% fat mark, with Aldi leading at 81%. I have never tried any of these butters personally so cannot comment on taste etc.
What about the price?
This is what a $250gm block costs on average.
Devondale – $2.28
Girgar – $3.75
Harmonie – $6.36
Myrtleford fresh hand churned butter – $8 (direct at a farmers market, may be a little more at a deli)
Warrnambool – $4 – $5
Lurpak – $5.19
Woolworths Homebrand – $1.39
So I guess you can see that the cost of getting a superior product isn’t that much more. I suggest next time you are baking something special or even want to enjoy a nice piece of crusty bread seek out some fresh butter and see the difference for yourself.
Also, treat your butter well and you will be rewarded. At room temperature for creaming and nicely chilled for making pastry.
If you have a favourite brand or recipe using butter as the hero I’d love to hear about it.