Please don’t try Roger Farrar Capon’s baklava recipe. He describes it as “french-fried,” and yes, it does involved a large quantity of oil ! which I declare a horrid perversion of the spirit of baklava. This is the first thing I have found in The Supper of the Lamb that has so disappointed and surprised me. I guess no one can be perfect.
But the perfect baklava recipe does exist, simplicity itself for method; and for taste, the divine melding of flavors, of which that of Butter is central. It is the one used in my parish to make umpteen sheet pans of baklava every year for festivals and celebratory meals, and I will eventually make it at home and share the recipe here.
As I write, we Orthodox Christians are in the midst of what is sometimes called Butter Week, the week before Lent properly begins, and the last in which we eat dairy products (but start fasting from meat). The perfect time to tell about Capon’s attitude toward butter, which I am very sympathetic to. For example, at the end of a section on sauces he shares:
One last secret. There is almost no sauce that will not be improved by having a lump of butter whisked into it the moment before it is served. In addition to what it does for the flavor, it provides the sauce itself with a patina, a sheen which delights the eye even before the palate begins to judge. It is an embellishment not lightly to be forgone. Dishes should come to the table vested, robed. Don Giovanni is marvelous any way you can get to hear it. But given a choice between seeing it performed full dress, or on a bare stage with the cast in T shirts and sneakers, no rational man would hesitate. A great sauce deserves a great finish. Whatever you do, therefore, don’t omit the final grace — the loving pat of butter.
Those last words remind me of my grandmother, who showed this kind of love in her kitchen and to those she fed, including herself, and she lived healthily and on her own past the age of 100. I can still picture her standing by the stove and tucking fat pats of butter into the slits she had made in our baked potatoes just before taking them to the dining table.
Capon considers bread and butter, or cheese, to be basic ferial (everyday) food for those meals that one is keeping simple and light, for the sake of being able to enjoy real feasting less often. I’ll write more on that principle later. In contrast to bread and butter, we have what RFC calls “the epitome of baking”: pastry. He gives a lot of time and great detail to teaching us how to make puff pastry and Danish pastry, which must be made with butter, of course. I personally am not interested in this kind of cooking at my stage of life, and am happy to eat my butter in a hundred places other than pastry. Capon explains further that butter
…is not, in any except the merely technical sense of the word, grease. It melts at the temperature of the tongue, and consequently goes down as easily as cream. (You do not like to drink cream? I am sorry. Let us agree to disagree and get on with it.) Any man who cannot tell the difference between butter and margarine has callouses on the inside of his mouth…Butter is a substance in its own right, justified by its own delectability, not by its contributory services. It is a unique and solid sauce; it is apt to more dishes than anything in the world, and it is, like all the greatest sauces, worthy of being eaten plain.
Besides pastry, there are many recipes at the back of the book that feature this blessed food, including what look to be very nice cakes and cookies. I think all of us have plenty of that kind of recipe already, and if you don’t, just look on my own Recipes and Vague Instructions page on this blog. I wholeheartedly agree with RFC that butter “glorifies almost everything it touches.”