Monday, October 4, 2010

In praise of baking with buttermilk . . .

I tasted buttermilk once. In elementary school. Out of curiosity.


Because there it sat like a dare, nestled among the other milk at the end of the lunch line.

 I bought. I tasted. I gagged. And that was the end of my interest in buttermilk until, a couple of decades later, my then-partner and I opened a restaurant, needed a muffin recipe at the last moment, and I decided to try one that called for -- yuck! -- buttermilk.

Wow! I cannot begin to fathom how many thousands of buttermilk, whole-wheat muffins I baked over the five years I co-owned that restaurant. And I never for one minute failed to think that buttermilk is what made  Martha's muffins, Martha's muffins.

This was the beginning of my ongoing romance with buttermilk baking. And this Monday morning, since the weather's once again cool enough to turn on the oven, I thought I'd pass along two related -- and buttermilk-tinged -- baking staples; one of my own invention, and one borrowed from a downtown Charlottesville breakfast institution.

Two caveats:
  1. I'm not much of a measurer. So, my suggestions will not contain exact amounts of any ingredients. But I'm sure that if you are a measurer, you can figure out exactly how much of what to use by tinkering around with your own recipes.
  2. As I wouldn't dream of drinking buttermilk and usually bake only on weekends, I often use powdered buttermilk, mixing it in with the dry ingredients and then using water as the moistener. 

Baking staple #1: Buttermilk, whole wheat pie crust.
I invented this (at least it was new to me) back during my restaurant days, when I had to come up with a daily special. Quiche (it was the Age of Quiche) was already on the menu, but I did occasionally invent some kind of hearty, main-dish pie to serve as the special du jour. One day, on a whim,  I decided to use half whole-wheat flour in the crust, cut in half shortening/half butter, toss lightly with ice water.

The crust came out disappointingly tough. So, as buttermilk tenderizes, the next time I decided to toss the whole wheat flour/white flour/butter/shortening crumbles with that. The resulting pastry was in my opinion as perfect as Baby Bear's porridge. Tender, with just a hint of tartness and crunch.

I've used  buttermilk crust for apple pies and for breakfast pies (quiche variations). I give buttermilk, whole wheat pie crust all the stars I'm entitled to give as a pastry cook.

Baking staple #2: Buttermilk, whole-wheat biscuits, Bluegrass Grill & Bakery style.
I was in Charlottesville last week to have lunch with a new friend, and, as she works just off the Downtown Mall, we took ourselves to the Bluegrass Grill and Bakery.

It is, as I'm sure a lot of you know, a great place. Non-demanding decor, scratch-cooking, nothing nouvelle in sight, plenty of butter. And the Bluegrass Grill and Bakery turns out to be partially owned by J. Lalah Simcoe. And I'd done a story about Womenfolk, a 60's folk group -- of whom Lalah used to be a member.

I cannot resist biscuits and ordered one with my omelet. It came looking more like an enormous, square, soft dinner roll, than the round, crusty biscuits I make. And it was light brown through and through, obviously not made with all white flour.

Now I am a prideful and accomplished biscuit maker, having baked them professionally when I (in that other restauranting life) co-owned Charlottesville's Blue Moon Diner for a while. Before last week, I'd  modestly thought no one could ever touch me as a biscuit maker. But that huge, brown Bluegrass biscuit was the best I've ever tasted.  

What is this thing? I asked Lalah (pictured right).

Nothing special, she said. Just half-whole wheat flour in a standard buttermilk biscuit recipe.

I thought about those biscuits most of the weekend and concluded that Lalah's description might be a bit over-simplified. First of all, Bluegrass biscuits are both buttery and tender, so I suspect that the shortening used was half-butter. I also suspect that their fine texture came from the shortening being cut into dry ingredients extra quickly and extra finely so as to leave the shortening granulated but still hard. The biscuits were then rolled and cut twice normal biscuit size and baked closely enough together to give them their square shape and soft edges.

Buttermilk (often accompanied with a pinch of baking soda) also gives tartness to all-things chocolate.Don't ignore it in the kitchen just because it tastes soooooooooooo buttermilky. . .

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