It's about the Culture

Culture is folded in to every thing we eat.  So imagine with me a simple cake  whose taste-memory evokes centuries of pastoral life. It ushers you into milk houses, smoky hearths and lush meadows. Follow it to the shores of the Celtic provinces where salt is gathered from the sea and used to preserve the butter featured in this cake. The butter's name- Beurre de Baratte Salé- tells of rustic churning methods and folds of briny whey holding flavors unique to this place.

Now zoom over to Madison Wisconsin, where I got my first real job in 1972 at the Ovens of Brittany. I was 19 and I didn't have a clue why its founder Joanna Guthrie named her restaurant after Brittany. Did she like their sea salt perhaps?

"She wanted to highlight Celtic culture"  an older employee told me, "something about planting old traditions in the new world". Here in landlocked Wisconsin the only seas I could see were corn and alfalfa. I set that mystery aside for another day and threw myself into learning how to cook from scratch in the French style from the books of Julia Child.

The people of Wisconsin were rediscovering from-scratch cooking in that decade too. Back to the landers were repopulating farms that had been marginalized to near extinction during the Cold War's push for industrialized food. Understanding locality's essential role in this return to real food, Joanna started her farm in 1968, intending it to supply the future Ovens of Brittany with vegetables and lamb. She located her Farm in the heart of Wisconsin's Driftless region. The farm struggled because no precedent existed to teach organic practices, but it was a forerunner for hundreds of small family farms in the area that would follow.

Also in the 70's,  some farmers came to Madison's Capitol square to sell produce from the back of their trucks to State office workers.  Legend had it that parking enforcement would ticket the farmers for "loitering". At night the square saw some action at the Dangle Lounge, a couple gin joints and an old-timey steak house, but was mostly abandoned after 5pm for the suburbs while streets closer to campus roiled with protests.  In 1974 Bruce and Andrea Craig located a French inspired café on the Square. Simple and sublime, they could open today and it still would be perfect. They were ahead of their time for a community in turmoil, and sadly, it closed. 


Meanwhile a friend named Jim Casey and I were feeling restive at the Ovens of Brittany. Joanna had moved on years ago due to deteriorating health, but not before revealing the mystery of her restaurant's name. Indeed, it was to recall the Celtic wisdom traditions of fealty to the land;  the patient arts of the soil and the loving work of restoration.  It called for small farms to return and rebuild their communities, for cooks and artisans to fire up their ovens and hone their tools, for the people to rediscover the pleasure of cooking and eating. Joanna's vision wasn't exclusive to her one restaurant; it was intended for an entire region. To be sustainable it needed the visions of others and a vibrant mix of cultures to thrive.

We, I mean Madison's cooks and eaters, and the region's farmers, had our work cut out for us. Those entrepreneurial  farmers organized to form one of the first farmer's markets, perhaps with a twinkle in their eyes that it would also become one of the largest and finest in the country. Jim Casey (Bless him, does anyone know where he is?) talked me into taking over the Craig's space with him. I convinced my father to co-sign the note and conceived L'Etoile's logo from a blossoming wild carrot radiating into ever more tiny blossoms. It also looked like a star bursting into fractals of light, or maybe it was both. Jim started a Jazz club to follow the dinner service and managed the front of the house. I did the baking and chalked up each day's menu with truly appalling spelling. During these years I would mail my father troubling progress reports and he would send me his reassuring shortbreads. At my repeated requests he jotted down his recipe, but my versions never had the savor of his. It took years before I found the issue. By default I was using fresh sweet cream butter, the highest quality of course. Dad's recipe just said "butter". When I finally thought to ask I learned he used the butter of his generation; salted for longer shelf life. His butter had continued to develop flavor. It's like so many things about cultures and Culture.

Threads that weave the micro cultures of my family with those of Brittany and L'Etoile emerge as the beautiful fractal patterns of our culture's future.  And so it is a matter of generations as more Wisconsin dairy artisans produce rustic butter with unique and deep flavors of salty whey and milk-house cultures. My hunch is that they will be doing it at the behest of dedicated chefs like Tory Miller, and for enduring restaurants like L'Etoile, and for entire regions like Wisconsin. Perhaps they will find a local salt, or perhaps they will use the venerable grey salt of the Celts. Either way our cakes will be uniquely special, for when the work of our many cultures binds us so intimately together across space and time, local is a distance best measured by our hearts.

Offered on the occasion of L'Etoile's 40th anniversary wiith love and gratitude to all of Madison and L'Etoile's many guests, farmers and staff, past present and future. 

Odessa Piper    August 7, 2016


Recipe for Brittany Butter Cake - by way of Wisconsin      

Adapted by Odessa Piper 

Recipe note: Over the past year  I have made every version for Brittany Butter Cake in the French recipe cannon that I could find. For a base recipe, I have yet to find a version that does not leak butter. Raising the flour proportion makes the problem go away, but this leaves the cake too heavy and the magical butter flavor too diminished.  In desperation I've substituted a portion of my base recipe's all-purpose flour with coconut flour. Understandably, coconut flour is as far away from Brittany as an ingredient can be (the maple I call for is a little closer), but the absorbent nature of coconut flour binds the butter nicely and gives a yummy crumb. It was the closest thing to the revelatory butter cake I had in France prepared by a Brittany-born chef.  (Constraints of time and language prevented me from getting his recipe, but when I return to France I will persist! ) A baker friend wryly noted that maybe Brittany's bakers also use coconut flour. More likely they have access to a much more absorbent pastry flour than the pastry flour I tried and failed with. Meanwhile for those of us in the states;  I hate fussy recipes with odd ingredients, but this adaptation really works. I've also listed ingredients by weight because small variations matter.  Besides, it's time we all own a scale.

Serves 10-12

350 grams Salted Cultured Butter (12.3 oz) : Highly recommended- Beurre Baratte Salé from France

200 grams castor sugar (7.05oz) about 1 cup  :Castor is what the Brits call finely ground white granulated sugar  

100 grams  light brown sugar (3.5 oz) about ½ cup packed

1/2  C egg yolks (about 6 large eggs)- save what coats the cup for glazing the top of the cake

1 & ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract and 3 drops maple extract
275 grams  All Purpose flour (9.7 oz) equivalent to about 2 Cups

75 grams Coconut Flour  (2.6oz) equivalent to about 1 Cup 

9" to 10"  flan ring or pie pan set on a rimmed cookie sheet

For the glaze and topping:

1 teaspoon milk or cream
12 Hickorynuts or pecans
1 Tablespoon Maple Sugar granules, or 1 Tablespoon granulated Turbinado sugar
¼ teaspoon Fleur de Sel (French grey sea salt) ground to size of a flax seed, or Malden Salt flakes

To make the Cake:

Cut butter into pieces, soften with a cookie paddle, and incorporate sugar(s) thoroughly. Scrape bowl.

Separate yolks from whites into a measuring cup (Use whites for another purpose). Add yolks to butter/sugar and beat 3 minutes till fluffy. (Reserve a coating of yolk in the measuring cup to use for glazing the cake surface)

Add extracts to butter/sugar/yolks and mix till incorporated. 

 Scrape bowl again, then add flour sifted with the coconut flour.  Mix till all flour is just incorporated. The batter will be cookie-dough texture and sticky.

Grease baking dish lightly with butter. Press dough in evenly. Combine a teaspoon of milk or cream in the cup that holds the egg yolk residue, and brush over cake surface.   Use the back of a fork to press alternating stripes to create a star pattern onto the surface. Sprinkle surface with maple sugar flakes followed by the grains of sea salt. (To distribute the sea salt evenly rub pinches of the salt with your hand held high over the baking dish.) Press in the hickory nuts. Place raw cake in cooler for 45 minutes (important for butter retention).  Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees.

Set cake on a sheet pan and bake on middle rack of oven for 35-45 minutes (baking time varies based on how  your pan's diameter sets the thickness of the cake). Cake is done when center lightly rebounds to a light tap.

This dense cake keeps well, wrapped in tin foil in the cooler, and even get better over several days. Serve thin wedges with whipped cream and berries, or just savor each buttery crumb!