How to make butter and buttermilk: a cultured experience

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Synchronicity? A coincidence program running in the background of my life? Whatever it is, this time it brought out the nerdy food geek in me. I wanted to make butter. Not just any butter, but cultured butter.

It started with a trip to The Market, a restaurant in Annisquam, Massachusetts on Cape Ann along the Annisquam River. A turn off the main road that circles Cape Ann descends to the twisted lanes of a postcard village that is almost a parody of itself: a village church, a lighthouse, a one-hundred-year old yacht club, and of course, a footbridge, Add to that, views of boats and rocks and water everywhere. What is unexpected in this, the land of fried clams and predictable seafood, is a restaurant that quietly serves spectacular food from May to October. Chefs Amelia and Nico Monday, with experience between them at Chez Panisse and a few European food meccas, offer a different menu every day and let me just say, you will wish to clone yourself several times over to be able to taste more at one sitting.

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I had a lovely afternoon as a fly on the wall in their tiny kitchen (thank you Amelia and Nico.) I watched them peel shrimp, roast fennel and eggplant, transform carrots into perfect, slender julienne, even make their own butter both to cook with and serve at the table. They take uncommonly tender care of each dish preparation, and you, the diner are the beneficiary. Watching them elicited memories of myself a few decades ago in a small country kitchen, where the produce came from our garden, eggs and milk from a nearby farm, and homemade bread from our own ovens. It gave me an itch, but I’m not about to scratch it.

Here comes the synchronicity part. The drive home from Annisquam was about the length of an episode of The Splendid Table on Stitcher Radio. What should Lynne Rossetto Kasper be talking about that day? Buttermilk! And butter! Nico and Amanda get their cream from an Ipswich dairy farm, so I detoured on my way home to pick up some of that Jersey cow goodness. Back home, I did the food geek nerdy thing, and I highly recommend it. I cultured the cream with buttermilk overnight and whipped it in a stand mixer the next day. It wasn’t such a big science project after all, but it was exceptional. Why do it? Cultured butter has a high fat content and a rich, tangy flavor--great for spreading and baking. I also made it to find out what real buttermilk tastes like. Wowzers.

As the to the itch I’m not about to scratch? Well, maybe just a little. I don’t want my own restaurant (been there, done that) but I’m about to launch a new mini-sideline I’m calling Bespoke Dinners. That’s a fancy schmancy way of saying I’ll come to your house and cook you a fantastic, simple, beautiful meal that we design together (heads up, my local friends!) I have Nico and Amelia to thank for that inspiration. Now everyone, put a trip to The Market on your calendar for next year. You will thank me.

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I took a shot at this and it worked! I made a lot; but you can halve the recipe if you like. I’m not sure you need to bother with the waterbath in the cooler, especially if your room temperature is around 68 to 70 degrees, but I wanted to see if it would work. (It did.) If you have a cold kitchen, then I would suggest using the cooler method (or a yogurt maker, if you have one.)

How to make cultured butter and buttermilk (adapted from Diane St. Claire’s book An Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook)
Makes about 1 1/4 pounds butter and 6 cups buttermilk

4 pints (8 cups) heavy cream (NOT ultra-pasteurized)
2 cups buttermilk (organic is best)

1. Have on hand an instant-read thermometer, a large glass or microwave-safe container, 3 (1-quart) mason jars, and a waterproof, sturdy cooler into which the jars will fit. You will also need a stand mixer or a food processor and a fine-meshed strainer.

2. Run the faucet in the sink to 70 degrees. (Hold the thermometer under the faucet while you adjust the temperature.)  Fill the jars with the water and set them in the cooler. Now fill the cooler with 70 degree water to a level of about two-thirds up the sides of the jars.

3. In a 2-quart microwave-safe container, gently heat the cream to 70 degrees. (1 to 3 minutes, depending on your microwave.)

4. In a separate microwave-safe container, gently heat the buttermilk to 70 degrees.

5. Mix the cream and buttermilk together.

6. Remove the jars from the water bath and dump out the water. Fill them with the cream mixture. Cover them loosely with a lid or plastic wrap. Set them in the cooler in the water bath and close the lid. Leave for 12 hours, or until thick. Now you have creme fraiche with which to make butter. Set aside some creme fraiche for another use if you like.

7. In the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment or in a food processor, pour in the cream. Beat or process for 3 to 5 minutes, or until the butter separates from the cream and clumps together.

8. Set a fine-meshed strainer over a bowl and pour everything into it. Save the buttermilk that falls into the bowl. Pour it into a glass jar and refrigerate.

9. Remove the butter and press it together into a mass. Rinse it under cold water, then place on a cool surface and fold it over and press it a few times to extract the liquid. Repeat a couple more times, until you have pressed out as much liquid as possible.

10. Form the butter into a log and wrap it in parchment or plastic. Refrigerate until firm. Slice into rounds. Butter can be wrapped again in foil and frozen for up to a three months.

11. Butter and buttermilk will keep for up to at least 2 weeks in the refrigerator.

Posted on October 20, 2014 and filed under Odds and ends.