My flashback started with a little piece about making butter from scratch on The Splendid Table. The writer mentioned how important the quality of the cream was, and I was reminded of my childhood – stepping out to the front porch every morning to find the latest delivery from the milkman sitting in a little wire basket. If I got up really early, I’d hear him coming up the driveway, the bottles clinking together like a chime.
I called my mother, “tell me about the milkman?” She went back to a time much more distant than mine. “When I was about eight, my best friends lived across the street. Their father was a milkman, and on hot days when he’d leave for work, we’d chase his horse and cart down the street, begging for chips of ice from the big block he used to keep the milk cold.”
Food is such a stimulus to memory. Listening to her talk was like stepping into a time machine of my own. I remembered my sisters fighting to get the solid little lump of cream that was at the top of every bottle of milk, but even more, a time when my grandmother would make butter to spread over hot sweet corn or pat into pie crust. I loved to sit at the big oak table in the ranch house kitchen, three black metal ceiling fans buzzing lazily overhead, as I watched her rushing to get it finished before the heat of the day made it impossible.
I never saw grandmother use much in the way of appliances – she said they got in the way of love, and that’s what cooking was all about. However, she did have an old stand mixer that we used for butter. She’d lift me up on the kitchen stool and I’d peer into the bowl, knowing a cold glass of real buttermilk would soon be coming my way.
Not having neighbors anywhere near, grandmother was pretty self-sufficient. Once she taught me to knead the butter, she turned the job over to me, and I’d take the big bowl out to the back stoop with a bucket of water and work away. It never seemed like it took very long; she’d keep me in rapt attention with stories of early days on the ranch, and soon I’d forget everything that was going on around me. One day she excused herself for a moment and without warning, came back with a shotgun and blew the head off of a rattlesnake that had come out of the old steps next to me. We had to start a new batch of butter, as I’d flung the bowl twenty feet in my fright, but first she sat and laughed until she could no longer catch her breath. It turned out to be the biggest rattler found in that part of Texas, and a picture of her holding the remains in one hand and the shotgun in the other ended up in the paper a few days later.
Listening to my mother, I thought back to that day; to the sound the old windmill made pulling up water for the cattle troughs, and the clouds of grasshoppers that rose up as we drove through the fields in the Jeep, honking the horn to call in the cattle. It occurred to me that any butter I could make these days could never be as good as back then – not only would it not have grandmother’s love, but the cream wouldn’t come from the cows just down the road. Still, I put it in the back of my mind as something to try in the future.
Fate intervened. A few weeks later, Nancy Rommelmann called. “I”, she said, “made butter last night from scratch!” I asked lots of questions; what kind of cream they had used, what speed the mixer was on… all of the things I knew were important. I wasn’t happy with her answers (’cause I’m critical of everything), so I made a deal. In a few weeks, I would come over and we would make butter together. I would bring the ingredients, she’d provide gin for sustenance, and we’d make an afternoon of it. Thankfully she said ok, and also agreed to be my “butter model”.
Last week, week we got together, made lots of butter, had a few drinks, and worked out the kinks. This is a great project to do with the kids, but after umpteen batches this winter, I haven’t found any adults who don’t enjoy it either. The equipment is simple: a good mixer (you’ll need the power), a few wooden spoons, a spatula, and if you have an aversion to buttery fingers, a pair of kitchen gloves. The only ingredient in butter is cream and sometimes salt, but get the best you can find. I use Strauss Family cream. It still comes in the heavy glass bottles with a plug of solid cream at the top, and in my informal tests, tastes better than the others I’ve found around town. If I’m salting it, I use Fleur de Sel, which gives crunchy explosive bites. Don’t use ultra-pasteurized cream or cream with fillers. Again, the better the cream, the better your butter. You’ll find the terroir of the farm also influences the taste.
Put your mixer bowl on the stand, install the whisk attachment and add the cream. I use two pints per batch. Two tricks that will make your life easier: I stand the entire mixer in a shallow baking pan to catch any overflow. Trust me, there will be overflow. Next, take aluminum foil or plastic wrap, and make a collar around the bowl. This will also help prevent splashing. You’ve been warned.
Start the mixer slowly so it doesn’t splash, and work up to medium speed. Too fast and your cream will be a bit grainy. Pour a glass of wine, and have a conversation; I recommend a nice Riesling (or some gin and my tonic). Soon the cream will come to soft peaks. Think about fresh spring strawberries with whipped cream and Kirsch, but fight the urge. Stop the mixer for a moment and scrape the sides of the bowl. Turn it back on to medium speed. In a short time, the cream begins to form stiff peaks. Marvel at nature, and pour another glass of wine.
Time will pass; usually about 20 minutes. Keep an eye on the bowl; everything happens quickly, and this is when you’ll find out how effective your preparations were. The cream will begin to get a bit lumpy and take on a pale yellow color. I always think how good it would be spread on carrot cake. In a short time a thin liquid will appear on the bottom and sides of the bowl. This is the buttermilk. Slow down the mixer a bit. In just a few seconds more, the cream suddenly seizes. Yellow blobs of butter form and buttermilk comes pouring out, and unless you prepared properly, all over the kitchen. The first time I made it I thought, “How messy could it be?” I had to clean the counters, the floor, and pull the refrigerator out to get the remains that had run between it and the cabinets.
Stop the mixer, and pour the buttermilk into a bowl – it’s not sour like store-bought buttermilk, and you may actually find yourself drinking it or using it in cooking. It’s great for making biscuits, and the butter itself is great with them – a match made in heaven. I usually restart the mixer and blend it a little bit longer, to help force out any more milk. Now comes the fun part.
Stop the machine. Wash your hands for a good long time (or cheat and put on gloves), and then scrape the butter off the whisk. Put the bowl of butter into your sink, and start running cold water into it. Knead it just like you would bread dough. Fold it over on itself; squeeze it between your fingers. You can do this part with two wooden spoons, but you want love in this butter, right? The water in the bowl will become cloudy; this is the remaining buttermilk. Discard it, and continue kneading the butter and refreshing the cold water. You want to continue until the water runs as clean as possible; otherwise the leftover milk can turn rancid and severely limit the storage life of your butter.
Dump the water, and knead out any remaining. Take a little of that fresh creamy butter and spread it on a piece of crusty bread. Sprinkle on a little salt. Have a sip of wine. Marvel at the smoothness of your hands. At this point you can call it finished, but that’s what separates the cooks from the chefs (and why this is better than the Mason jar method). Throw the butter back into the mixer and whisk it for a short time on a higher speed. This will beat in some air and make it lighter. Add salt if you want, but be very careful – it takes quite a bit less than you might expect. I use a scant teaspoon per pound. Once it is chilled, the salt flavor becomes stronger; but if you accidentally over-salt it, you will find it mellows after a few days in the refrigerator. This is the time you can also add other ingredients, such as finely minced garlic or herbs. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate. Mine lasts at least two weeks, but only if I’m on vacation; otherwise it’s eaten in a couple of days. I get about 14 ounces of butter, and just less than 2 cups of buttermilk.
Once you have done it a few times, making butter is easy; something you can do while chatting with friends. It tastes so much better than the store-bought stuff, you’ll have a hard time using anything else. Frankly, I’m surprised a few restaurants around town haven’t tried it. There has to be an enterprising pastry chef somewhere who wants to impress the chef!
When you make food with your kids and friends, you make lasting memories. My grandmother lived to be over 100 years old and left me with a lifetime of cooking memories. Take the time to do the same with your family. You might turn out a chef, or a great grandmother (you can read more about her in this post). I also have a post about making mayonnaise here.