Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Cultured Butter

Yes, I've been stuck on a milk theme. But why not? There's so much you can do with milk. Besides, where there's milk, there's cream. And where there's cream, there could be butter.
I've been hearing a lot about cultured butter lately. It just keeps coming up--on websites, in conversation (the conversations I have, anyhow), in magazines--so I thought I would see what it was all about. I followed the directions given on The Traveler's Lunchbox, where you can also find a good description of what exactly cultured butter is and why. Basically, it is butter made from cream that has been cultured--introduced with bacteria and allowed to ferment overnight. Basically, it is delicious.
To make butter, one needs cream. I first asked my milk man if I could get cream from him. He sort of hemmed and hawed, so I took that as a no. A few days later I was at a talk where samples of local raw milk were on offer, so I asked one of the sample-givers if she knew of a source of raw cream. She gave me a name, told me her number was in the book, and suggested I give her a call. Her number is in the book and I did give her a call. I explained how I got her name and asked if it was indeed true that I could buy cream from her. "Oh, yeah, sure, help yourself, it's on the bottom shelf in the fridge. The very bottom. The cream for sale is on the bottom shelf," she said. Right. It's in the fridge. On the bottom shelf. But where is the fridge? "Oh, well, you go down --- Rd. a couple miles and y'know where --- used to be, well, that's on the left and what used to be --- that's on the left a little ways down and just past that there's a dirt road on the right. We're down that road. You can see the farm from the road. We're just down that dirt road, yeah, just past the bend." On the dirt road. Just past the bend. I've only lived here for a year, so what used to be such-and-such doesn't really mean much to me, but I didn't like to press her for better directions. By the end of the phone call I knew that there was raw cream on the bottom shelf of a fridge down a dirt road just past a bend for $2.50 per quart. And to please return the jar when I was done. I was just glad to have found a source of cream.
Now I just had to find the fridge. I called the farm on Monday and on Thursday I took her directions and my camera and set out to find it. I found the dirt road and its bend surprisingly easily, considering the cryptic nature of the directions and the fact that both of the landmarks I was looking for didn't exist anymore. The only problem was that I still didn't know exactly where the fridge was. When I drove up I saw a house on the right and a barn and a shed on the left. There were two cars parked outside the house so I thought I would ring the bell and ask. I rang the bell twice, but nobody answered, so it was up to me to find the fridge alone. I still wasn't exactly sure I was in the right place, but thought I would look around anyway and see what I could see. The shed seemed like a promising place to start. As I walked up to it I could see there was a note in the window of the door. It was an apology for the low supply of eggs that week. If they sold eggs, it seemed likely they sold cream and that I was in the right place after all. I tried the door, it opened, and lo, there was The Fridge.
As promised there was one jar of cream on the bottom shelf. I left $2.50 in the lock box in the door of the fridge and took my cream.
It felt as if my adventure was over, having procured the cream, but I still had butter to make. When I got home I put the quart of cream in my yoghurt making jar and added 1/3 of a cup of yoghurt. I set the jar on the counter and left it there overnight. The next morning the cream was definitely thicker. Before whipping it, I had to cool the cream, so I put it in an ice bath in the sink. Then, using my KitchenAid, I started whipping the cream. It was a beautiful thing to watch. I don't think I've seen cream so thick before and it didn't take much to get to stiff peaks. I could tell that it was about to break, so I lowered the speed. I'm a huge fan of gently whipped cream on pie, so it was hard to watch a bowl-full of gorgeous cream break, but to make butter you've gotta break some cream. At this point I had butter clumps swimming in buttermilk. I drained off the buttermilk as best I could and prepared to rinse the butter. It is a strange feeling pouring ice-water into not quite formed butter, but that is what was called for. I poured in the ice-water and kneaded the butter with a wooden spatula. I repeated the rinsing several times until the water ran clean. I kept kneading to get as much water out of the butter as possible and then declared it done.
Homemade cultured butter. It is delicious. It was worth the phone call, the drive, the pain of watching beautiful cream break, the awkwardness of the rinsing. I bought some cultured butter to see how mine held up to that of the professionals and I honestly think mine was a bit better. It could be that I wanted it to taste better; that I wanted my cream caper to be an unequivocal success, but I really do think my butter was richer, somehow, and bit tangier.
I have since convinced my milk man to let me buy cream from him, so hopefully I'll be making and eating my own butter indefinitely. And if push comes to it, I know where the fridge is.

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