Happy spring—it feels official now, even in Up North in Michigan, where it snowed as recently as last week. While we are far from the first crop of anything here, there is still the sense that the place is waking up and good things are coming our way. There are daffodils, and the cows are grazing a greener field. They must be as relieved as we are. I bet they’re going to give us some great dairy this year.
But try as they might, their butter isn’t likely to be European-style. That’s fine, but when it comes to baking things like the za’atar croissants we’re going for this week (new readers: not to worry, we make mostly simple Lebanese recipes here, with some more complex ones only every now and then), it’s the rich texture and flavor of European butter that we can’t do without.
The distinction of European-style butter is simple but important: it contains a higher percentage of butterfat than regular butter, 83 to 86 percent. Perfect for the pliability we need making croissant dough, and for encouraging the fluffy, airy croissant layers. European butter is also “cultured,” which means that the butter has a more complex, slightly acidic, flavor–better said, it’s luscious. This comes from cream that has been allowed to mature, or ripen, as well as from the introduction of bacterial cultures into the mix. I like to think of good butter the same way I do good cheese—the higher the fat content and the riper flavor, the (much, much) better.
And not for nothing, European-style butter often comes wrapped in a parchment-backed foil. Yes, this creates a barrier to protect the butter from other scents and flavors. But also: Is there nothing more exciting than unwrapping something wonderful to eat from its luxurious foil? It’s my chocolate Easter egg, my golden Wonka ticket (“I’ve got a golden ticket, I’ve got a golden ticket!”).
Which brand of European-style butter to choose may be as simple as what you can find nearby. But you can be sure there are many opinions about which is the finest. Read about some of them at Cook’s Illustrated and Saveur.
I’m using Plugra unsalted European butter, which is produced not in Europe but in Pennsylvania, and whose name is derived from the French plus gras, meaning, appropriately, “more fat” (this butter is excellent, and yet if you can find an organic European-style butter, that’s great too.).
Do we really need more fat in our lives? I mean, my meatless sweetless recent months have me feeling better than ever, and I’m going to keep right on with it. But there are times when more fat is absolutely called for, especially when it comes to making your own croissants (you can do it!!). It’s a special thing, a treat, just like the release of winter into spring, and we’re going to enjoy it wholeheartedly.