Spread the word: Skye Gyngell shows how to make the best of a nice bit of butter

Never mind the fat police, says Skye Gyngell - butter is an essential ingredient that adds a creamy richness to savoury dishes and soups, desserts and sauces
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Sometimes it almost seems taboo to sing the praises of butter. Considered by many to be a perilous saturated fat, we all happily discuss the virtues of olive oils, but how often do we dare to say how absolutely delicious butter is?

I have long had a love affair with the stuff. Since I was a small child I have loved lashings of it on my toast – I always like to wait a while until the toast cools slightly, so the butter stays firm and creamy. My preferred topping used to be that Australian staple Vegemite, but these days I would choose a bitter, thick-cut marmalade or light, sweetly scented honey. But none of these would be really worth considering if the butter were absent. To me it speaks of something real and enduring and the taste of sweet, creamy unsalted butter takes me places in my memory that are always happy.

Butter works wonders in the kitchen, too. It adds body to cooking juices, it binds sauces and soups, it can be mixed with flour to create a paste to thicken sauces, and when blended with herbs it adds flavour and succulence to grilled meat and fish. In short, it serves to build bridges between ingredients; nothing else mellows sharp flavours quite like the addition of a little, good-quality butter.

At Petersham we cook only with unsalted butter – this enables us to control the seasoning in dishes more accurately. But in Ireland, butter always comes laced with salt – and it has to be said that nothing pairs quite so beautifully with soda bread. France, like Ireland, has become well-known for its love of butter, though the French prefer theirs creamy and unsalted. In the Middle East it is pungently flavoured, in India it is clarified by souring and boiling and then used in just about everything, and in Tibet it is made from yak's milk and used to create a warm drink known as butter tea.

Whatever way you like it, I can't seem to last a day without it. Here are a few of my favourite recipes that showcase the subtle, sweet, glossy beauty of butter.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Pound cake

This American cake is buttery and sweet, with a top that has a little crunch. While it's baking, your kitchen will fill with the most tantalising smell.

Serves 8-10

375g/12oz soft unsalted butter
420g/14oz plain flour
tsp salt
1tsp baking powder
675g/24oz caster sugar
6 large eggs
250ml/8fl oz milk
1tsp vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas5. Grease generously a 10in cake tin and line with parchment paper.

Place the butter into an electric mixer and beat until pale and light. Sieve the flour, salt and baking powder into a separate bowl and set aside. Gradually add the sugar to the creamed butter a little bit at a time, scraping down the sides with a spatula as you go. Continue to beat until you get a shiny, smooth mixture. This should take approximately 3 minutes.

Next, add the eggs one at a time. Then reduce the speed of the beater to low and add the flour mix and milk in three alternate batches, scraping down the sides after each addition. Once all the flour has been added, beat for a minute more.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake tin. Tap the bottom firmly on the kitchen counter to ensure the batter is evenly distributed and place in the hot oven.

Test by inserting a skewer into the centre. If it comes out clean it is ready. It should take about an hour and 15 minutes in total. Leave to cool for 30 minutes before turning out and slicing. '

Indulgent hollandaise sauce

Hollandaise is a rich butter sauce. Here, I have added a small amount of Tabasco to give the dish just the smallest amount of heat and depth.

Serves 4

80ml/3fl oz white-wine vinegar
80ml/3fl oz white wine
1 large shallot, peeled and finely chopped
8-10 black peppercorns
230g/7oz unsalted butter
8 egg yolks
A few drops of lemon juice
A few drops of Tabasco
Sea salt to taste

Place the vinegar, wine, shallot and peppercorns in a small pan and put over a medium-to-high heat. Simmer until the liquid is reduced to approximately one tablespoon – this will take around 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.

In a separate pan, melt the butter over a very low heat, remove and allow to cool. Get another pan, fill it with water and place it on to simmer.

In a large bowl, add the wine reduction, egg yolks and cooled butter. Set the bowl over the simmering hot water, making sure that the bowl sits above the water, not in it. Whisk the mixture as it warms vigorously until thick. This should take about 5 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat, squeeze in the lemon juice, Tabasco and season with the salt. Keep in a warm place until ready to use. I have served it here with poached egg, sprouting brocolli and ham.

Risotto with butter and lemon

This is a rich, comforting dish that can be eaten on its own or alongside dishes such as osso bucco, slow-cooked lamb or beef as well as with grilled white fish.

Serves 4

1/2 litres pints chicken stock
175g/6oz unsalted butter
1 yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
500g/1lb aborio or vialone rice
200g/7oz of Parmesan cheese
The juice and zest of one lemon
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring the stock to a simmer in a small saucepan over a medium heat. In a separate pan, melt a third of the butter over a low heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until soft. This should take about 5 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring constantly until it goes opaque, this should take about 4 minutes.

Next, add a ladleful of the hot stock and continue to stir until it is absorbed. This should take about 2-3 minutes. Then add another ladleful and repeat the process until all the stock is used up. This should take about 25 minutes. Continue to cook the rice until it is just al dente. Finally, add the remaining butter, the cheese and the lemon juice. Season and remove from the heat. Cover and leave to stand for 5 minutes before serving. '

Date and almond cake with warm butterscotch sauce

Serves 8-10

For the cake

335g/11oz unsalted butter
335g/11oz caster sugar
7 eggs
335g/11oz plain flour
1tsp baking powder
A pinch of salt
120g/4oz ground almonds
Zest of one orange and two unwaxed lemons
15 good-quality soft dates
2tbsp Pedro Ximénez sherry

For the butterscotch sauce

120g/4oz unsalted butter
120g/4oz soft brown sugar
100ml/3fl oz double cream

Heat the oven to 190C/375F/Gas5. Line and prepare a 10in cake tin.

Cream the butter and the sugar together in an electric mixer until light and pale. Add the eggs one at a time, beating after each addition.

Sieve the flour, baking powder and salt together and fold into the butter mix in three batches. Fold in the almonds, orange and lemon zest and set aside.

To prepare the dates, remove the seeds and chop roughly. Place in a bowl and cover with 3 tablespoons of warm water to soften for 10 minutes. Now pour over the Pedro Ximénez and stir well to combine.

Spread the date mixture over the bottom of the cake tin and spoon the mix on top, tapping the base of the tin gently on the work surface to ensure you have no air bubbles. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 45 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. Remove, and allow to cool for 10 minutes before turning out.

For the butterscotch sauce, place the butter, sugar and cream together in a saucepan, place over a medium heat. bring to a simmer and stir to combine. Allow to just come to a boil, remove from the heat and spoon over the warm cake.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on where to find the best butter products...

There are many varieties of butter in this country – each with their own distinctive qualities and tastes. These include English farmhouse butter, Welsh farmhouse butter, Cornish clotted cream butter and Irish farmhouse butter. These varieties reflect not only cultural preferences but the respective animal breeds, feed and the season of production.

Pengoon Farm Butter is a Cornish clotted cream butter made traditionally by Edna and Jim Pengoon from their small herd of Jersey cows. It's available from the farm or by post. Tel: 01326 561 219, www.cornishbutter.co.uk

Beurre Cru à la Baratte Bois Moulé à la Main is a delicious example of Continental unsalted butter made from freshly churned raw milk in Normandy. It's available by mail order from www.teddingtoncheese.co.uk

Moorhayes Salted Farmhouse Butter is a classic example of English farmhouse butter made by the Cheddar-cheese artisans George and Stephen Keen. The Keens create this distinctive cultured butter from whey instead of cream, using their Friesian Holstein cows' milk. It's available from www.keenscheddar.co.uk

Other good varieties of butter are available from Neal's Yard Dairy, www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk and The Cheese Place, 69 Main Street, Haworth, West Yorkshire, tel: 01535 647 959, www.cheeseshoponline.co.uk

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