Friday, June 5, 2009

Butter You Than Me

Grilled new potatoes with compound butter and chive blossoms

I have two young children. From time to time, they have, let's say, a little bit of surplus energy. There are days when it seems I'm on a neverending quest to find outlets for this energy, but every so often I find something that works beautifully, and making butter has always been one of those things. If you haven't tried this with your kids, you should. It's especially fun if they've been reading Little House on the Prairie, because they'll get a chance to feel industrious and self-sufficient like pioneer children, but you'll be saved the trouble and effort of some of Ma Ingalls' more bothersome homemaking tasks such as skinning a whole hog.

Little kids like projects. When the projects are messy and also potentially dangerous, their appeal increases dramatically, so I work to emphasize those aspects of butter making. It's really very simple, and you get tangible results fast. I start by putting some nice heavy cream in a glass jar (there's the potential danger) with a plastic top, then tell the kids to start shaking (there's the potential mess). If weather permits, we do this outside, just in case.

When the teachers at our preschool first suggested this activity, I thought we'd be watching little hands* shake jars forever, but it really takes only a few minutes to start seeing results. After some vigorous shaking (with help from an adult every now and then), we see lovely whipped cream:

And then, if you keep going, there's a stunning moment when everything changes. We do this all the time, but it never fails to surprise my kids when, while shaking and shaking and shaking, they suddenly hear a splash as the butter separates from the buttermilk.

At this point, don't shake too much more, or your butter will become hard and nasty. Just agitate a bit longer to finish separating, then strain out the buttermilk and put the solid butter in a bowl. You may have to take over here and "work" the butter a little bit more to get the last bits of water out. This is when you can add some good coarse salt and move on to making a compound butter, which is simply butter with some chopped herbs or other flavoring added. I used our lovely CSA chives for this one, but almost any fresh herb will work beautifully.

Compound butters can be frozen, tightly wrapped in wax paper. This stuff is terrific on potatoes, corn, good bread, grilled fish...almost anything. I like to make cinnamon/nutmeg butter for breakfast.

If you feel like living on the edge a bit, you can make cultured butter, which has a slightly tangy taste and a nice rich texture, and, according to people who think about such things, is full of beneficial probiotics and antioxidants. There are two ways to do this:

- Milk a cow, chill the raw milk, skim off the cream and then let it sit out at room temperature for about 12 hours, or until it starts to smell sour, then proceed.
- Get yourself some culture starter (I like Body Ecology) and follow the instructions on the package insert, which basically just involve mixing the starter into organic cream before agitating.

As we don't have a cow and it's quite difficult to find raw milk, I go with method #2. If you haven't tried cultured butter, I recommend it. The culture starter also makes great creme fraiche.

* If, after seeing this photograph, you'd like to engage my services as a manicurist, please email me. You'll need to spend a few days using Playdoh and digging in a sandbox to get the edgy weathered look on your nails, but I can mix colors with the best of them.

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