Sometimes epiphanies come in strange packages. Mine came swathed in parchment paper, handed to me by a cheesemaker friend at the farmers’ market. ”Here,” she said, glancing around furtively, ”try this and tell me what you think.” I shoved it underneath a bag of flowering broccoli and headed back to the restaurant, where I opened the contraband. It was not, as I suspected, some rare form of hashish; it was butter.
To be precise, it was butter unlike any I have tasted in this country. Burnished gold in color, it had a dense, creamy texture and an intensely sweet, herbaceous flavor. I couldn’t stop eating it. I immediately called my friend, who told me that she made it herself. By hand.
Hmm. I felt, in addition to the wonder of handmade butter, certain feelings of covetousness. The next week at the market, when I mentioned that I wouldn’t mind buying some of her butter, she sighed audibly. This, I discovered, was the reason for the secrecy — she didn’t want a bunch of chefs bugging her to make butter for them, as the tiny amount she made each week was already promised to one chef.
I did, however, persuade her to tell me her method. If she won’t sell me her butter, I thought, I’ll make it myself.
As she explained how she made her butter, which had assumed a mystical quality in my mind, I felt my face flush: it is one of the easiest, most low-tech cooking processes ever invented. Beat cream until it curdles, expel liquid and presto: butter. What was I doing making warm, jellied consommé when I didn’t even know how to make butter? Over the next couple of months, I started using her technique, discovering a few tricks along the way.
The equipment you will need is an electric mixer, a strainer and a bowl. Leave the cream out of the refrigerator for a little while first (it works best when it’s around 50 degrees). Fill the mixer bowl halfway with cream, insert the whisk attachment and be sure to cover the bowl with plastic wrap, or it will look as if a milk truck exploded in your kitchen. Turn the mixer on medium-high, and then do that thing professional cooks live in fear of being yelled at for: overwhip the cream! As you peer through the spattered plastic, you will see the cream thickening and getting progressively more yellow. This will take several minutes — when it starts to look like a solid mass of golden pebbles, it’s almost done. After another minute or so the mixer will start pelting the plastic with liquid. That’s your cue to turn it off. Quickly.
Two more easy steps will bring you to butter nirvana. Set the strainer basket over a bowl and empty the contents of the mixer bowl into the strainer. The white liquid that drains into the bowl below is real buttermilk, nothing like the cultured, processed stuff that goes by the same name. Its sweet, delicate flavor is great in shakes, oatmeal and soups (see recipes) or even in coffee or tea.
Let the butter drain for a few minutes, then comes the fun part: kneading the butter. This will push out much of the buttermilk and consolidate the remaining liquid and fat. Taste as you go — you will notice the flavor getting less dilute, the texture more lush and velvety. After about five minutes, you should be done. If you want salted butter, you can mix in some sea salt.
The paradox of having become used to butter as a commodity is that, although it is one of the most ancient cooking traditions, the idea of a modern restaurant making its own butter is bewildering; I found other chefs shaking their heads when I told them. What’s next, I could almost hear them thinking, milking the cows yourself? Having somehow acquired a reputation for eccentricity, I thought it best not to mention that we were paying $6 a pound for the privilege of doing so.
Our customers loved it though, both in concept and reality. Our doughs and sauces tasted better. We started going through more table butter, and suddenly the bread wasn’t right, so we began to bake our own rolls. I know this all seems very Martha Stewart (next step: taking a ceramics class to make the dishes to hold the butter!), but the feeling of connecting to the food in such a primal way was real; it was like traveling back to another time.
My cheesemaker friend came in for dinner a few weeks later and told me afterward: ”The butter is wonderful. Even better than mine.” She smiled sweetly at me. I smiled back, knowing precisely what she meant.