Butter has to be one of the hardest-working ingredients in the Western larder. It makes cakes tender and sauces silken. It's a splendid spread all by itself. It's a reliable fat for pan-frying foods that cook quickly.
But heat it too long and its milk proteins and salts will start to darken.
Some call that brown butter. I call it black magic.
Cooking with brown butter is like listening to Billie Holiday; it adds depth, flavor, mystery and just a shade of burn. Plain butter well, that's Doris Day on a warm sunny afternoon.
I have been using brown-butter variations to sauce fish and vegetables for years. A hazelnutty brown-butter sauce beurre noisette in French goes very well with soft-shell crabs, skate wings, clams and all manner of delicate white fish.
Ditto asparagus, green beans, cauliflower, squash and mushrooms. In just a few minutes, brown butter will turn a plain pasta or chicken dish into something elegant, something luxurious.
Not long ago, I began to discover the pleasure of brown-butter baking. First, a simple pound cake. Then a little experimenting with brown butter in other cakes. Soon, I started to notice brown butter in all kinds of dessert recipes from Rebecca Lang's Brown- Butter Coffeecake with Peaches and Blueberries (from "Around the Southern Table") to Sheri Castle's Browned Butter Peach Upside-Down Cake ("The New Southern Garden Cookbook").
"Brown butter is pretty much like butter plus, butter as an overachiever," said Cynthia Wong, who recently left her job as executive pastry chef at Empire State South in Atlanta to move to London.
"Just the simple act of cooking it until it browns brings out all these wonderful toasted-nut and caramel flavors, and even a bit of a savory edge. It adds a depth of flavor I liken to getting a really beautiful crust on a grilled steak."
As I put out a call for sweets made with brown butter, friends started telling me about their brown-butter oatmeal cookies; apple cake with brown-butter cream cheese frosting; and buttermilk pecan pie with brown butter. And hey, did you see that recipe for winter pear cake with pistachios and brown butter?
Wong turned me on to her rich, dense cake of brown butter, apples and toasted pecans. She said her husband calls it "hiking cake," because you could survive on it for days.
It calls for steeping a vanilla bean in hot brown butter and yields a batter that is worth eating like ice cream.
If you don't like it, take a hike.