The hot golden sun meandered lower in the sky, like a ball of butter being pierced by the jagged peaks of the mountains. In the kitchen of the Crazy Bee I readied to give the third and last cooking class in the fish and sauces series to my student, Rudolph.
The purple shallots were chopped. The beautiful iridescent flounder sat on a sizzle platter in the fridge ready to broil. Lump crab rested in a bowl, relaxed and for mixing with minced fresh fennel and herbs. The Plugra butter was on a plate, also in the fridge, ready for The Sauce.
I was relieved to have the prep part in the bag, so to speak. Not because we couldn’t do it during the class - Rudolf was an excellent chopper, but I could tell his patience to get to the good stuff at the stove, had been wearing thin. This, our last class the focus would be on Beurre Blanc. And I wanted it to be the best class yet.
Another reason I had prepped was because my mise en place seemed to transform when I got behind the line, the flat-top and 8 burner stove, the eye-level stainless steel shelves, and the tight corners of Rudolph’s kitchen. And my mise seemed to shudder all the more from a simple flick of a finger.
Rudolph entered and tied on his apron. It wasn’t long now. It was coming. But I was ready. This time, I was ready for it.
Rudolph reached out, his hand was in slow motion, and just like clockwork, and as in the other two lessons, he flicked on the fan; this time to rid the air of the "spicy fumes wafting up off of the onions that were saute-ing in butter with cayenne pepper" he said. And just as before, amidst the whir this kitchen blurred with every other commercial kitchen I’ve ever been in. Was my hair standing on end yet? That’s not an easy feat to begin with. I couldn’t hear Rudolph, even though he stood next to me. I watched him out of the corner of my eye; to check if he was ok with what was going down, it was his kitchen after all, his roaring buzzing kitchen. The noise seemed normal to him. But I still checked carefully to see if he was bored or crying, laughing, or maybe he had been commenting and speaking non-stop for the last three minutes or three hundred years since the fan had been turned on; relaying a very personal and important tale about his kitchen. Had his mouth had just turned down in annoyance because I was ignoring him? Right before he poked me with that same finger that had flicked on the fan, as in - hey, you - I turned and gasped, and nodded quickly as if I’d heard everything.
And I had, more or less as his comments blended with the orders for more parsley being called out from the past, by Chef Henin in the Escoffier Kitchen or from Chef Ryan in the American Bounty Kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America, who also had kitchens where the huge exhaust fans muddled a lot of my mise back then.
But back to Rudolf’s kitchen in the Crazy Bee. I looked again, his mouth was moving.
“I’m sorry, what?” I asked.
He fairly shouted, “Why do you use unsalted butter?”
I grabbed the cool counter of stainless steel. I slowly turned to look at him, stirring the pot of shallots and wine, as if I had become Linda Blair in the exorcist. I sighed. He wasn’t really angry, this was what normal people did to be heard above the fan. But also because of the fan, it seemed like if I shouted back, the butter might curdle, not to mention the cream. Delicate, delicate movements were required to undo this moment of excessive voicing and questions about butter.
“Why unsalted butter?” I repeated. He nodded.
Unsalted butter was the bane ~ and beauty ~ of my existence, and many other chefs who had come before me. WWJD? Julia, help. Julia Child loved butter. That’s all, I wanted to say. But he was a factual person. He wanted facts, I could tell by the way his lips pushed out in defiance. If I insulted his Land O Lakes butter, did I insult him? But wasn’t I a teacher?
I mulled over the story, in about a nanosecond, that I had written about the butter archivist in Paris. The silky Irish dude I met from the Cork Museum of Butter at the IACP conference in Chicago, and the butter tasting, afterwards. The butter that was cut from slabs in fromagier stand in the Raspail Sunday market in Paris. The butter’s perfume hinted of grass and that one nasturtium the blind cow had eaten, been surprised by, and loved.
Salted or unsalted, seems to be a very basic question. I loved this question. I hated this question. I had been asked so many times that my very skin now had transformed into a papery sheer parchment shroud protecting the heart of blonde silky butter that was me, and I was decidedly unsalted.
Butter, I begged, could you please tell the story of my life in the kitchen if I am too weary to answer, and when, if, I died in the next minute from not explaining this, this ethereal notion that can’t be put into words, it’s okay when they would roll me over and find ‘unsalted si’l tu plait’ tattooed on the small of my back.
He stirred his small pot of shallots and wine. He tilted the pan towards me. “Good?”
I nodded my head and made eye contact. Yes, good, go for it, I sternly said to myself. Let’s see what happens. I stirred my pot, too, for we were making tandem batches - one with salted and one with unsalted - to make enough beurre blanc for 8 people. The wine had reduced from 1 cup to 2 tablespoons.
Then I realized, Rudolph really doesn’t know the answer. He wants to learn. He’s not asking in order to be difficult or to test me in some barbarically buttery way. He’s not pulling my leg. Or my slab or my pat, my quarter, my stick, or my tub. I opened my mouth to speak. Then took up the knife. Taste, I thought. That’s “butter” than all the words.
But wait just a minute. We cut little slivers of each butter. Land O lakes and Plugra. I watched him taste. It dawned on me, that’s not the half of it. If he doesn’t know about unsalted butter - how can he know, gulp, about, Beurre Blanc with two capital B’s. I swallowed and tasted the Land O Lakes. Water. It was like a flood. Like Niagara Falls gushing through me. But I smiled. He was watching me. I wiped the sweat off my lips.
“What do you think?” I ask.
I went back over how I came up with this foolish idea to make a butter sauce. Fish and sauces, that was his requested theme for the weekend. We had done Aioli, the classic Provencale garlic mayonnaise with fish, not with salt cod but with Tom’s black bass. So Beurre Blanc was the next obvious choice, and classic and what? There’s another sauce for this fish? Not in my book.
“It’s not bad, is it?” Rudolf asked.
I glanced away first, like this is no big deal, “There’s too much water in salted butter. And the sauce won’t thicken up, won’t emulsify the same. ” There, it was out there. Let the chips fall where they may.
I sliced the creamy slab of Plugra into 12 pieces. I loved how it looked. Pale under the lights. So very rich, thick and it knew who it was. The best. Except for Irish butter, and that butter from the Loire, where Beurre Blanc was born in Nantes. Or the Normandy butter that had crystals of sea salt in it? That was different - very different from Land O Lakes.
I turned the knife around, and he took hold of the handle, I motioned for him to do the same to the yellow Land O Lakes sticks, that oozed water as we spoke, or rather didn’t speak, but just exchanged knives, spoons and whisks.
I added 2 tablespoons of Maple View heavy cream to each of our pots. We stirred and the cream came up to the boil, then one minute later we turned off the heat.
“Ready?” The moment of truth. About to begin.
I nodded too, and threw in the first of 12 carefully cut tablespoons of butter.
“Here, tilt it on the side, like with the Aioli.” I cringed a bit to myself, because this was point where the kitchen gods could decide anything. Would the sauce emulsify or perish? Oh, I see, you don’t believe in Kitchen gods. OK, well, another story, another time?
The liquid looked like milky melted butter with shallots - it wasn’t yet thickening. Come On, Land O Lakes, Land O Grass, Land O Flower, and Land O Bovine, think of the cow that gave her milk on that sunny day when your butter was born. The one nasturtium. Maybe, as I softened, the butter, would, could become unsalted? I chanted. Unsalt thyself.
I turned the handle of the Plugra pot towards him, and we exchanged pots. But this was complicated too. Would he feel less like working this butter, this foreign unsalted being? Perhaps once they got to know each other? But then, I had to be a good example, accept his butter. I smiled at the Land O Lakes pot. He smiled at the pot o Plugra.
By the sixth tablespoon, the salted Land O Lakes Beurre Blanc was looking better, not unctuous, but butter. Had it been his smile? Had the fan spirited all the emotions away? And more importantly, perhaps the fan had extracted the salt? What do you think?
It would be hard to say what the 8 people at the table decided about the Beurre Blanc. The white moon ascended and the raccoons meandered by.
The next morning as I packed up to leave, I opened the commercial refrigerator to see if I had left a bowl or platter behind. And there they were; boxes upon boxes of Land o Lakes, salted butter. A Kilimanjaro of butter. I kissed the extra pound of Plugra in the yellow and red wrapper, and sat it beside the mountain of salted butter. Not too close. But close enough to begin the change. And then I turned on the fan.
I didn’t look back.
Please find the recipe for Beurre Blanc here.