I once worked service in a jazz bistro downtown. It was fraught, as all restaurants are, with its fair share of problems, but it introduced many lessons, objects, practices, and tastes that would follow me through the years, not the least of which was my discovery of brown butter.
Brown or browned butter, or Beurre noisette for the casual French, is simple to make, highly aromatic, sweet, and nutty. As far as recipes go, it’s harder to find one more simple: melt butter in a pan and keep it bubbling until it browns. Thus, browned butter. I’m told that brown butter used for baking confections prefers unsalted butter, while meats and desserts favour salted butter as a base, but each produces a similar result that sizzles with sweetness and hints at hazelnuts.
There I was, scampering back and forth from bar to the bistro’s kitchen, when one of the line cooks saw how hungry I was about the shadowed eyes and gaunt face. They asked me for an end from the dinner rolls, split it open, and slathered the crusty bread’s interior with brown butter. Handing it back to me, they nodded in encouragement. I asked what it was, and they told me to shut up and shove it in my face.
The delight and rapture that washed through me, partially from being fed, partially from the mix of fresh out of the oven baguette, sweet and salty fat, from memories of crushing hazelnuts for a family torte, from these and more bred a hunger that could not be matched. Each service to follow, my head and pleading eyes would pop up under the salamander’s red light, hungry and begging for a spoon, a fork, a soup bowl full of my new favourite sustenance. The line cooks would laugh and dole out what they could spare, confused or amused at my insistent request.
It would be years later until I would make my own, and for months I would spend afternoons browning all of my butter for use in every dish. Of course, brown butter shouldn’t be used in everything. Dishes that abhor a sweet palate, that are ruined by the intrusion of nuttiness, where butter acts as support, preforms its chemical task then fades away leaving only a smile and a faint lick of the lips, these dishes should shy away from my brunette obsession. But there was a time when brown butter could do no wrong in my eyes; thankfully those days are behind me.
Until I had White Brick Kitchen’s brown butter hollandaise last weekend, and I seem to have relapsed. Now I have two pounds of brown butter rendered and sitting in my fridge, waiting for me, taunting me, and I fear that it shan’t survive another week.