Chicken, Chiles, preserving, Q&A, Southeast Asian

Bumper crop.

A reader in Australia asks for suggestions to use a bumper crop of basil. An easy pistou recipe for freezing basil, plus a take on a Thai classic, on the Basil page.

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Pork Products, preserving, Southeast Asian

Sweet and sour pork.

For most of the 90s, I lived in south Minneapolis. Back in those days, kids from Wisconsin often looked to more glamourous destinations, and for a kid from Milwaukee, Minneapolis was a pretty exciting town. Within five blocks of my apartment near the law school, there were Eritrean, Thai, and Indian restaurants; just a little further away, downtown, sophisticated Italian, Japanese, and Vietnamese beckoned. I’d never had Indian, Thai, or Vietnamese before, all being in short supply in Milwaukee’s western suburbs (and which, to be honest, I was just too chickenshit to try in college).

One of my favorite things to eat, as it turns out, is Vietnamese food. Something about the combination of lemongrass, ginger, fish sauce, palm sugar, and acid is almost engineered to please. It’s sweet, sour, salty, floral, savory, and pungent – add in some herbs for freshness and a little bitterness, and it’s one of the most complex cuisines around. On top of all that, Vietnamese food is pretty light, even as it manages to be hearty. A fatty piece of pork is offset by light rice noodles and pickled vegetables; a hearty cut of beef is freshened with herbs.

You may recall that, a few months ago, I answered a reader question about a cut of ibérico pork called the presa. Located between the shoulder and the loin, it was touted as featuring some of the best qualities of each. At the time I answered the question, I hadn’t had the chance to actually cook the presa. Last week, though, I picked up a small piece for kicks from Iberico USA. It was as I expected – a rustic cut with distinct muscle striation, interspersed with bits of creamy fat.

Sometimes you just don’t have a lot of time to prepare dinner – you work long hours, the traffic is terrible, things happen. Don’t give up and order sweet and sour pork from your local Chinese-and-subs place. Look in your fridge and pantry and work with what you’ve got. Maybe you have canned tomatoes, and some garlic. Make it into a sauce for pasta, with meat or without. Perhaps you have frozen peas and shrimp – add some rice, and you’ve got a quick pilaf. In my case, I had thirty minutes, a piece of presa, and a serious case of the hungries. In the refrigerator, I found some carrot and daikon pickle from making banh mí earlier in the week, and two stalks of lemongrass. Within that half an hour, I was able to marinate and cook the pork (and some mushrooms), and cut its richness with the fresh tartness of the vegetable pickle.

Presa de ibérico de bellota, Vietnamese-style, with pickles

Even if you don’t already have a batch of ready-made pickles, you can make this from start to finish inside an hour.

It’s worth picking up the ibérico for this dish – there doesn’t seem to be a commercially available analog in regular pork. If you can’t or won’t splurge for the ibérico, use beef skirt steak instead.

1/2 lb presa de ibérico
2 large carrots, shredded
1 medium daikon, shredded
3/4 c filtered water
3/4 c distilled white vinegar
1/4 c granulated sugar
2 tbsp kosher salt
1 tbsp palm sugar
1 tbsp minced lemongrass, bulb only
5 tsp fish sauce, divided
4 oz maitake mushroms
2 tbsp dry sherry or a rich sake like G Sake
fresh herbs, like cilantro

For the vegetable pickle:

Bring 1/4 c each of the water and vinegar to a simmer with the sugar and salt, just to dissolve. Add it to the other liquid and combine well. Pour the vinegar-water mixture over the daikon and carrot in a nonreactive, sealable container and refrigerate at least two hours or overnight. (if you don’t have that kind of time, let them pickle at room temperature for about 30 minutes.)

For the pork:

Combine the lemongrass, palm sugar, and 1 tbsp fish sauce. Marinate the presa in the mixture at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or flash marinate in a chamber sealer for 2 minutes.

Place a small skillet over medium high heat. Remove the presa from the marinade and remove the excess marinade. When hot, dd a small amount (< 1 tbsp) of oil to the pan; add the presa and reduce the heat. Sear well on one side for about 2 minutes; flip over and cook another 2 minutes. Touch the meat frequently to ensure it does not overcook; it should still feel tender and offer little resistance.

Sous vide alternative: If you have an immersion circulator (or a Sous Vide Supreme), bag the pork, seal, and drop into a 130F water bath for about 60 minutes. To finish, blot dry and finish in a very hot pan, with a little oil, about 30 seconds on each side.

Remove the meat to a cutting board and rest about 10 minutes. Pour the fat from the pan into a small bowl.

On the cutting board.

While the meat rests, wipe out the skillet and return to the heat. When hot, add a couple of tsp reserved pork fat to the pan and then the maitake mushrooms. Saute until tender; add the sake and about 1 to 2 tsp of fish sauce (taste for salt). Continue saute until just golden.

Slice the pork across the grain; serve with the pickles, maitake, and some cilantro (if you like that sort of thing).

Presa, pickled vegetables, maitake.

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Frenchy Things, Leftover Recycling, Offal, Pork Products, preserving, Random Thoughts

Big Hungry Boy.

Recently, the New York Times ran a ridiculous Opinionator column by Virginia Heffernan dividing American women into two categories – “foodies” and “techies” – and bashing the “foodies” while touting the virtues of “life-hacking techies.” I still don’t really know what “life-hacking” means, but the distinction between people who spend their time thinking about food and people who glorify progress and technology struck me as total bullshit. What about, say, Wylie Dufresne? Or Ferran Adrià? What about me?

Heffernan’s piece illustrates the danger in categorizing people. That said, I feel fairly confident saying that some men are Big Hungry Boys – guys who just like to eat, and to eat as much as they can – and others are not. Unlike an ex-boyfriend in Minnesota who once lived for months on almost nothing but bagged coleslaw without complaint, my husband appreciates copiousness and variety. One evening in 2009, during our summer visit to a friend’s home in the south of France, we stopped after a sweaty day in Nîmes for dinner in Andùze, arriving before the rest of our friends at “La Rocaille,” an old stone-faced restaurant in the town square, opposite the site of the ancient covered market. Sitting down to cold Heinekens, we scanned the menu while waiting for our party. La Rocaille’s advantages for a big hungry boy soon became clear. For under 9€, you could get a three course meal of salad or terrine, steak, merguez, or poulet frites, pasta or pizza, and to finish, fromage or ice cream. It was low-budget, of course – the tables were set with paper napkins and mustard packets, which anticipated foil-wrapped wedges of camembert and ice cream in waxed paper cups (complete with the little wooden spoon). Even so, the frites were thin and crispy, and flecked with exactly the right amount of salt. When Nat and our friend Kem both ordered terrine de pâté to start; the waiter brought a knife and pan the size of a loaf of bread to the table. The two of them (by which I mean mostly Nat, in case you wondered) ate more than half the contents – a rustic and surprisingly delicious pâté de campagne – right out of the pan before it occurred to anyone that maybe that whole thing wasn’t just for them.

La Rocaille on the left; weekly market square on the right.

Last summer, on our last night in the same home in France, Nat requested a return visit to La Rocaille. “They have that giant terrine!” he appealed, laying a hand on my elbow.

“You know that whole thing wasn’t all for you, right?” I reminded him uncertainly.

“You don’t know that for sure,” he shrugged. All the same, I agreed that dinner at La Rocaille was a great idea. I wanted to find out if they still had the same mustard packets. Randomness comes in many forms, and on our first visit, it took the shape of a yellow plastic packet inexplicably bearing the name of a former law school classmate. It was a little like that episode of the Simpsons where Homer stumbles upon an empty Japanese detergent box bearing his visage in a landfill.

Coincidental mustard.

Nat was less interested in the mustard than in the potential for unlimited pâté de campagne. It wasn’t the first time Nat’s appetite has conflicted with local practice. On our first trip to Taipei after my parents moved there, we visited Din Tai Fung for their famous xiaolongbao, soup dumplings served with black vinegar and fine shreds of ginger. I placed our order out on the sidewalk with one of the uniformed attendants, who promptly crossed out more than half the items we’d checked off on the paper slip. “Too much!” she exclaimed, shaking her head. In a panic driven partly by my inability to speak Chinese and partly by a concern that we were about to get shortchanged on Juicy Pork Dumplings, I pointed to Nat, a little further down the sidewalk, perusing the window display at Mister Donut. The attendant nodded knowingly and re-checked the items without further comment. On subsequent visits, I learned to bring Nat along when handing off the order form. Big Hungry Boy.

Anyway, when the terrine arrived at La Rocaille, Nat cut a single slice – a thick slice, but still – and slid the pan to the edge of the table for the waiter. I did feel a little bad for him. It seemed to me, after all, that one of the dangers inherent in providing self-serve communal terrine is that any one of your customers will eat far more than his share, up to and including the whole thing. In the law, we call that “assumption of risk.” So at home, Nat can eat all the terrine he likes, sliced up or straight out of the pan. If you have a meat grinder, so can you.

Pâté de campagne

Pâté de campagne is inherently rustic and thrifty – hence “de campagne.” You don’t make it by grinding up carefully trimmed pork loin – to the contrary, pâté de campagne is a way to use up scraps, trimmings, and offal – anything from the nose to the tail of the pig. So don’t worry too much about the ratio of meats. If you’re not really a meat-trimmer and aren’t in the habit of keeping large quantities of scraps, just be sure of two things – a good amount of fatty pork (and perhaps also veal or duck), and liver. The fat is necessary to keep the pâté out of the cat food realm, and the liver provides flavor ranging from subtle to pronounced, depending how much you use. Your only concern should be proper seasoning. Use 1 tsp salt and a little more than 1/4 tsp quatre épices per pound/450g meat.

You can chop the meat by hand for a very rustic pâté, which provides some textural variety, but realistically, it’s far easier to pass the meat through a grinder fitted with a coarse die. I don’t recommend using store-ground meat. You can dispense with lining the pan with foil/clingfilm (especially if you intend to serve straight from the terrine), but it does make it far easier to remove, and definitely makes it easier to weight after cooking.

About 4 1/4 lbs fatty pork trimmings and offal, including liver, in a 3:1 ratio, or:
2 1/4 lb / 1 kg pork shoulder or butt, preferably a really fatty slab
1 lb / 450 g fatback or pork belly
1 lb / 450 g pork liver
2 large shallots, diced
3 bay leaves
8 sprigs fresh thyme
4 juniper berries
1/4 c dry sherry or cognac (sherry will be drier, cognac sweeter)
1/4 c dry white wine
1 1/2 tsp quatre épices or a mixture of 3/4 tsp white pepper and 1/4 tsp each ground ginger, nutmeg, and cloves
scant 1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
one large egg
optional: caul fat
optional: whole black truffle
optional: lobe foie gras, trimmed of all veins and connective tissue, cut into strips about 1″ x 1″
optional: 2/3 c lightly toasted pistachio nuts

Dice the meats and offal (1″ or slightly less is good) and combine with the shallots, bay, thyme, juniper and the liquids. Combine in a shallow pan and cover the surface with clingfilm. Cover the pan tightly and refrigerate for 1-2 days.

Chill the worm, blade, and coarse die of your meat grinder (freezing is best). Remove the bay and thyme from the marinade and run the rest of the contents through the grinder into a chilled metal bowl. Combine with the egg, salt, and quatre épices. If using pistachios, add to the mixture as well.

Mixture with egg and salt.

Oven 225F/107C.

Line each of two terrine or loaf pans with aluminum foil and then with clingfilm. If using caul fat, line the pan with caul, overhanging the edges by about 3″ (you will trim it later). Fill the pans with the mixture. If using truffle, fill the pan halfway, shave the truffle, and layer the shavings across that layer; finish with another layer of meat. If using foie, fill the pan halfway, lay the foie in the center lengthwise, and finish with meat. If using, fold the caul over the top of the terrine and trim. Fold the clingfilm tightly over the top, and then the foil.

Caul.

Wrapped.

Slide the terrine lid in place. If using a loaf pan, cut a piece of cardboard to fit and wrap in two thicknesses of foil; place on top. Place the terrines in a large roasting pan (with about 2″ between them) and fill with boiling water to a level halfway up the sides of the pans. Place in the oven and cook until the mixture reaches 160F in the center, which depends on the looseness of your mixture and whether or not you are using convection. At the convection setting, you should be done in about 1 1/2 hours; up to three if not using convection.

Remove the pans from the water bath and, when just cool enough to handle, weight down with heavy cans. Place in the refrigerator weights and all and chill for at least a day and up to three. When ready to serve, turn out onto a board and unwrap. Brush cold fat and jellied meat juices from the surface of the pâté and slice. Serve with cornichons and mustard.

Pâté de campagne, cornichons

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Duck, Frenchy Things, Game, Offal, preserving

Ducked up.

In his 2003 autobiography “The Apprentice: My Life in the Kitchen,” Jacques Pépin relates an anecdote about stopping by a duck farm during a mushroom-picking outing with his friend Jean-Claude and Jean-Claude’s daughters. The little girls select a live duck for dinner, money exchanges hands, Jean-Claude wrings the duck’s neck, and the four of them are run off the property for their cruelty. “[E]ven in a rural area,” Pépin awesomely understates, “my attitude toward farm animals caused some misunderstandings with the neighbors.”

I still don’t get what that farmer thought was going to happen to those ducks if she didn’t expect them to wind up as dinner. That outcome seemed pretty obvious – a couple of French dudes in a pickup on the way back from mushrooming? Don’t kid yourself, lady – those ducks weren’t going to be anyone’s pets.

Duck is inherently festive and restaurant-y. Think Peking duck, canard à l’orange, caneton à la presse. I think that’s because people don’t like to cook it at home. To the uninitiated, duck can seem like a huge production. Whereas a roast chicken is universally comprehensible and manageable – season with salt, tuck a lemon and some herbs in the cavity, and throw it into the oven for an hour – duck presents multiple challenges. First, there’s the fat. Roasting a whole duck generates huge quantities of fat, which smokes up the oven like crazy, and if you don’t separate the skin from the breast before roasting, great pockets of jelllyish fat can cling to the meat, which is kind of gross. Second, there’s the doneness problem. Chicken legs and thighs do take longer to cook than the breast, but not much, and you can roast the chicken whole without sacrificing the quality of either. In contrast, it’s virtually impossible to roast a whole duck and end up with a medium-rare breast and properly cooked legs. Duck legs are fairly rich in connective tissue and require fairly long, slow cooking or they seem sinewy and tough; duck breast, other than the fatty layer of skin, are lean and tender, and long cooking not only toughens them but makes them taste livery. And third, duck seems super expensive considering the yield. With the exception of magret from force-fed ducks, the breast is skimpy relative to the bird’s overall size. A five pound duck really only yields enough meat to feed two or three people.

The solution? Break it down. Even though few things are better looking than a whole mahogany-glazed roast duck straight out of the oven, a broken-down duck tastes better and offers more cooking options. You can roast, braise, or confit the legs; cure the breasts as “pastrami,” score the skin and grill them, or cook sous vide; make stock from the generous frame; reduce the skin to fat and crackling. You’ll find that you can use every part of the duck – when I broke mine down, all that was left were a couple of pieces of sinew holding the tenders to the breasts. And even those got thrown into the stockpot. You should have no waste at all.

Duck breast:

Thanks to Andrew Little of Sheppard Mansion B&B for the inspiration – I saw the photo of this duck preparation on his Facebook page and initially thought he’d scraped the fat from the skin and re-rolled it around the breast, until he told me it was cabbage.

In this preparation. the skinned duck breasts are rolled in blanched savoy cabbage leaves and cooked at a controlled temperature sous vide for a uniform medium rare doneness. Or actually, just past medium rare – the breasts are an even pink throughout. To form the cylinders of duck, I used Activa GM transglutaminase to bind the duck to itself; otherwise, the natural shape is flat and oblong. You can skip this part of the exercise and just wrap the breasts as they are. Don’t fold the duck into a cylinder and wrap it in savoy if you don’t have transglutaminase, though, because it won’t hold together. Just wrap them in their natural shape.

4 duck breasts (from 2 ducks), skinned and deboned
salt and pepper
2 tsp transglutaminase Activa GM
4 large leaves savoy cabbage, washed well (make a few extra for good measure)

Place a large stockpot of water over high heat and bring to a boil. Blanch the savoy leaves. Remove with a skimmer and drain on clean kitchen towels. Blot off as much water as possible.

Place four pieces of plastic cling film on a clean surface. Each one should be large enough to accommodate the duck and be rolled over several times.

If using Activa, sprinkle on the inside (tender side) of the duck breast and roll to form cylinders. Season the outside of the cylinders with salt and pepper, on both sides. Otherwise, just place each duck breast in a savoy leaf, running perpendicular to the center vein, and roll tightly. Place in the cling film and roll it tightly, twisting off the ends to form little packages.

20110412-035715.jpg

Place in vacuum bags and seal. If you don’t have a vacuum sealer, place the cylinders in double-zip freezer bags, three or four to a bag, and partially lower the bag into a large stockpot full of water to displace as much air as possible. Seal the bag tightly. You can double-bag if you’re worried about leakage.

Cook in an immersion circulator at 140F/60C for 25 minutes. Alternatively, bring a large pot of water to a simmer on the stovetop and turn off the heat. Add the bagged breasts and cover the pot. Leave off heat for about 15 minutes (note: this varies from 12-20 minutes based on thickness). Remove from the water bath.

Slice the rolls, still wrapped in plastic (to facilitate clean slicing). Remove the plastic and serve with your accompaniment of choice. In the picture below, the rolls are plated on Puy lentils in a golden turnip and butter puree, accompanied by a reduction of white wine and duck stock enriched with butter, and powdered duck crackling. Yeah, a little rich, but the duck breast is lean.

Duck breast, savoy, lentils. Powdered crackling in the foreground.

Duck legs:

Been there, done that. Use this recipe for duck confit. Bonus: you can use the confit for rillettes.

Duck liver:

Duck liver pâté:

1/2 lb duck livers (about two), veins removed
1 small onion, minced
1 leek (white only), julienned
several sprigs thyme
1 tbsp cognac
3 tbsp dry white wine
salt and pepper
3 oz butter (3/4 stick. or 6 tbsp)
1 tbsp vegetable oil

Sweet onion confit:

1/2 c caramelized onion from this recipe
2 tbsp sherry vinegar

For the onion confit – combine the caramelized onion and sherry vinegar in a small saucepot. Bring to a simmer and stir until the vinegar is fully incorporated into the onion. Set aside.

Place a sauté pan over medium low heat and, when hot, add about 1 tbsp vegetable oil. Add the onions and leeks and sweat with the thyme until tender. Add the duck livers and cook, turning frequently, until the livers are warm throughout but not cooked hard. Do not brown. Add the cognac and wine and continue to sauté until the alcohol cooks off. Cool somewhat and transfer to a vitaprep or blender.

Blend the pâté ingredients. Add the butter in chunks and continue to blend until smooth. If you are inclined, pass through a tamis or sieve for a smooth texture. Chill.

Serve on toasted pain de campagne with a quenelle of onion confit.

Duck liver pâté, sweet onion confit

Duck skin:

This is where duck fat comes from. A standard-sized duck yields about a quart of duck fat (if you count the legs). The resulting crispy skin, or crackling, is a delicious fatty addition to salads and a nice garnish for poached or roasted meat.

For novelty, you can turn the crackling into powder. You need maltodextrin, specifically one formulated for a very low bulk density like N-Zorbit from National Starch or Malto from the Texturas line. If you use the stuff from the health food store, which I don’t recommend, you’re going to get a heavy, sweet, starchy product.

skin from 2 ducks (except for the leg quarters)
salt

To render the fat from the skin, prick the fatty side of the duck skin all over with a fork. Place in roasting pan a 300F/150C oven. Roast until the skin is crisp and golden, and most of the fat has rendered. Pour off the fat and reserve.

Cut the skin into smaller (1″) pieces. Freeze in a ziploc bag until ready to use; then roast in a pan in a 375F/190C oven until crisp and deep golden brown.

If you want to make really pretty, thin, crispy duck skin chips, first turn the skin fat-side up and scrape off as much fat as possible, in an even layer. Use that fat for rendering as described above. Trim the skin into rectangles or squares and place on a silpat-lined sheet pan. Season with salt and cover with another silpat and another sheet pan. Bake until the skin is crisp, flat, and golden brown (usually about 20-30 minutes depending on the thickness of the residual fat). Drain on paper towels.

Powdered duck crackling:

1 oz (28 g) duck crackling, roasted as specified above
12 g tapioca maltodextrin (N-Zorbit or similar), plus extra (you may need up to 40 g total).
salt

Blitz the duck crackling in a food processor until ground to an oily powder. Incorporate half the maltodextrin in the food processor, scraping down the bowl if necessary. It probably will resemble a thick paste. Don’t panic. Scrape it down and add more maltodextrin and blitz again. If the powder and fat are at all moist, add more maltodextrin and blitz again. Repeat until necessary for a powder. Store tightly sealed (with a dessicant packet if available).

Cracklings.

Grinding.

Powdered duck crackling.

Duck stock:

Duck stock is pure gold. Once you’ve made stock, re-use the bones for remouillage (literally, re-wetting) and reduce that to glace. You’ll be able to add ducky goodness and body to your sauces.

5 lbs duck bones (from 2 ducks)
One leek, washed well to remove all dirt and grit and roughly chopped
One medium onion, peeled and halved
2 carrots, scraped and cubed
2 stalks celery, diced
1 star anise
3 cloves
1 large or two small bay leaves
About 4-6 sprigs fresh thyme, tied together
6-8 black peppercorns

Place the bones in a large stockpot. Cover with filtered water, making sure there remains enough room for vegetables. Bring to a simmer. Be sure not to let the stock boil as agitation makes the stock more cloudy. As scum rises to the surface, skim it off with a spoon into a small bowl and discard. Simmer in this manner for about 20 minutes.

Add the vegetables and aromatics and add additional water to cover if necessary. Return to the simmer and skim additional foam or scum. Simmer, partially covered, for about five or six hours. Longer simmering won’t necessarily hurt, but you don’t enjoy that much additional benefit. Add water if necessary.

Strain through a chinois or a fine sieve, lined with cheesecloth if possible. Cool quickly; I generally use a bain marie filled with ice, but you can make an ice bath by stopping up your sink and fill it with ice and cold water about 1/3 the height of your container, place the container in the sink, and stir continuously until the contents are cool.

To store, ladle into freezer-safe containers, perhaps 3-4 cups each, and freeze. A layer of solid fat usually rises to the surface. Remove the fat before using the stock, and set aside.

Note: To pressure cook, throw everything into the pressure cooker with about 8 quarts of filtered water. Cover tightly and pressure cook for 30 minutes (at 15 psi; don’t include the time it takes to get to 15 psi or to cool down).

After straining the stock, return the bones to the pot and cover again with cold water. Bring to a simmer and skim additional foam or scum. Continue to simmer, partially covered, for at least six hours and up to twelve.

Strain through a chinois or a fine sieve, lined with cheesecloth if possible. Return to a clean pan and bring to a simmer. Reduce slowly, watching as the stock approaches the level of a heavy syrup once about an inch or less is left in the pan. Pour the stock into a small shallow pan and refrigerate to cool. When the glace has cooled, it should be quite solid. I generally cut the glace into cubes and freeze on a sheet pan before storing in a bag.

Remouillage.

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Chicken, Dessert, preserving, Random Thoughts

Butter Queen.

Invariably, at some time between kindergarten and second grade, every Wisconsin child learns to make butter. I don’t think this is universal in other states – a quick poll of my contemporaries on the east coast yielded mostly fond, pity-the-rube chuckles and in one case, a pat on the head – but in Wisconsin, it is an essential part of the dairy industry’s youth indoctrination program. I’m not sure when California surpassed Wisconsin as the nation’s number one milk producer, but I assure you that California has not assumed the America’s Dairyland title, and it never will. That indelible association belongs to my home state, which will release its kung-fu grip on the moniker when California stops being the land of hippies and market-flooding high-alcohol Cabernets. (Crazily, Idaho is the nation’s third largest milk producer, right behind Wisconsin. Everyone knows that Idaho is the potato state, not the dairy state, so to avoid upsetting long-held commodity/geography associations and causing the universe to collapse on itself, let’s just shake our heads in disbelief and move on.)

Before you get too excited about Little House on the Prairie-like visions of Wisconsin children taking turns plunging a broom handle up and down an old-fashioned wooden butter churn, let me tell you how we did it in 1974, because the process probably hasn’t changed since then in first grade classrooms around the state. The teacher pours a quart of heavy cream into a giant bowl and plugs in an electric hand mixer. The kids crowd around in a circle and murmur excitedly at first as billows of whipped cream form. This early enthusiasm fades to disappointment and a certain loss of focus as the cream ceases to resemble Cool Whip. “Is it butter yet?” a kid invariably will call out after some minutes, tense and worried that the thick smear of cream will never become butter and that he’s going to have to stand there forever, watching the teacher circle the bowl with the beaters, and maybe miss recess. It is true that this intermediate stage takes kind of a long time. To keep this kind of kid from ruining everyone’s fond butter memories with crying, teachers with risk-seeking personalities may let the kids take turns holding the mixer and bowl. Mine did, which increased the fun quotient considerably, although in today’s bike helmet-wearing culture I doubt anyone would chance it. All of a sudden, the cream, which until that point had seemed to become thicker and thicker like whipped butter, collapses into a pool of liquid. The butter-making experiment seems to have gone horribly wrong. Moments later, though, a thin, milky liquid sloshes around the bowl and the teacher turns off the mixer. The beaters emerge, covered in butter, and after a quick rinse in the sink in the back of the room, everyone, including the panicky kid, lines up for a slice of bread with fresh butter and a little sprinkling of salt. And that, my friends, is how we party in Wisconsin.

Butter-making: so easy even a kid can watch a machine do it.

Of course, you can buy butter. Salted and unsalted, cultured butter, goat’s butter, the butter made from the cream skimmed off the milk used to make Parmigiano-Reggiano (yes, I know), organic butter, conventional butter. Why am I suggesting that you make your own, with all the options available? Because you owe it to yourself to taste just-made butter from fresh cream, before it’s had a chance to sit in some supermarket inventory for weeks, or even in your refrigerator, going rancid and absorbing all the weird smells of leftovers and vegetables going bad.

I’m not suggesting you make all or even most of the butter you use – that’s crazy talk, especially if you mostly use butter for baking or cooking, and you probably shouldn’t use house-made butter for baking because it’s just not cost effective. But if you compare the cost of house-made butter using a really good fresh cream with the cost of an organic cultured butter to spread on bread or finish a sauce, I think you’ll find that the cost is about even up or lower. For example, pints of heavy cream from Trickling Springs Creamery – an organic dairy just over the Maryland border in south central Pennsylvania – cost about $4.59 at my local organic market, but $2 of that is the bottle deposit, so the cream is just $2.59/pint. I used two pints – a quart, in other words – to make cultured cream, which I turned into almost a pound of butter. Eight ounces of organic cultured butter runs about $6 or so; my eight ounces of butter rang in at well under $3 after the bottle deposit. So this isn’t such a bad deal, and you get buttermilk as well.

Try not to make more than you’ll use in a week. This is about enjoying the freshest product, after all, and why let your delicious butter go rancid? If you make too much, though, it keeps well in the freezer, tightly sealed. Your butter yield will depend on the fat content of the cream, so go for something rich.

A load of rich creamery butter
Ever wonder why certain boxes of supermarket butter say “Sweet Cream Butter” and others don’t? “Sweet Cream Butter” is made from fresh, unfermented cream. Contrary to popular belief, the “sweet” designation has nothing to do with whether the butter has been salted or not – it refers only to the use of fresh cream. Sweet cream butter, when fresh, has a super-clean, pure taste and shouldn’t smell or taste “buttery” when cold; it will smell buttery once it meets a hot pan.

Cultured butter, sometimes called “European-style butter” in the United States, is made from cream that has undergone lactic acid fermentation, the same process that gives us crème fraîche, sour cream, and yoghurt. Cultured butter, when fresh, does have a little of that “buttery” smell and taste even when cold. That’s because lactic acid fermentation produces diacetyl, the compound responsible for butter’s “buttery” quality. In larger quantities – such as in rancid butter, or in artificial butter – it can overwhelm. Diacetyl is one of the principal components of artificial butter flavor; if you’ve ever wondered why movie theater and microwave popcorns have that too-pungent buttery character, blame the diacetyl. Rancid butter – sweet or cultured – also develops butyric acid, a sour milk-cheesy-barnyardy smelling compound. Butyric acid is nasty. So keep your butter in the freezer if you’re not going to use it within a week or so.

One pint of cold heavy cream (50% or more butterfat)
Fine salt (sea salt is best)
3 tbsp cultured buttermilk or 2.5g dried yoghurt starter culture [optional]

To prepare cultured butter, bring the cream to 110F and add the buttermilk/yoghurt starter culture. Place in a jar or similar container and leave at room temperature for 8-10 hours (wrap well in kitchen towels). If the idea of doing this freaks you out, use a yoghurt maker. At this point, you will have crème fraîche. Refrigerate well before using. Feel free to skip this step entirely if you want to make sweet cream butter.

If you have a stand mixer with a whip, use it. And if you have one of those mixer bowl pouring shields (I don’t), use that as well. You’ll see why later. Otherwise, use a large bowl – as large as you can find –and a hand mixer, electric or otherwise.

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Pour the fresh cream or crème fraîche into the bowl. Begin beating (I like speed 6 on the KitchenAid; you don’t gain anything by going slower and I do think you run the risk of warming the cream if you go faster). The cream will form soft peaks, then stiff-ish peaks, and then become overbeaten. In this step, the fat particles form a network with air bubbles.

Continue beating. The cream will continue to thicken and form a mass resembling buttercream, or whipped butter, around the bowl. In this step, the fat droplets clump together and the air bubbles pop. You can scrape it down with a silicone spatula from time to time, but you don’t have to.

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Eventually – if you use speed 6 and don’t scrape the bowl it takes less than ten minutes from the start of the process – a thin, milky liquid will start to collect at the bottom of the bowl and the cream will become more clotted-looking. In this last step, almost all the fat has clumped together, and separated from the non-fat liquid. That liquid is buttermilk. Keep going. Soon after, the solids will collapse into the buttermilk. Don’t freak out – it’s just because the speed of the mixer temporarily has distributed the fat particles throughout the buttermilk. It hasn’t turned back into cream and you won’t have to start over.

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Within a minute or two, you should experience a great sloshing as the butter clumps together, sticking to itself in the bowl and around the whisk or beaters. This is where the pouring shield comes in handy, because the sloshing can make quite a mess. Turn off the mixer.

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Place the whisk or beaters in a clean bowl full of cold water and pour the buttermilk through a chinois or fine sieve into a jar. Save the buttermilk. Combine the butter solids with the rest of your butter in the bowl of cold water.

Remove the butter from the whisk and combine into a mass. Rinse well several times in ice water until your water runs clear. Knead the butter into a smooth, pliable lump, expelling as much liquid as possible. This is a good time to add sea salt, maybe ½ tsp, if you want salted butter. Rinse again.

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And there’s your butter. You should have about 8 ounces from a pint of 50% butterfat cream. Don’t throw out the buttermilk!

Buttermilk

The buttermilk that remains after butter-making is called “churn buttermilk.” It doesn’t really resemble the stuff you buy in quart containers in the store, which is just nonfat or low-fat milk that’s been cultured with bacteria to initiate lactic acid fermentation, and thickened with carrageenan (a naturally occurring hydrocolloid which forms gels in the presence of calcium and is a popular dairy thickener for this reason), and locust bean gum. Churn buttermilk is less tart than this so-called cultured buttermilk (even if a byproduct of butter made from cultured cream), and is thin, like milk, not thick. Most churn buttermilk is freeze-dried for commercial food processing and baking.

You can drink it, of course, or you can use it to make buttermilk biscuits. Or use it to make fried chicken, or buttermilk ice cream!

Buttermilk fried chicken
One whole chicken, cut up into ten pieces (legs, thighs, wings, breasts cut in half with a cleaver)
3-4 c buttermilk from above recipe
1 tbsp kosher salt (plus 1 tsp if using 4 c buttermilk)
1 tsp garlic powder
6 sprigs thyme
1 bay leaf

2 c flour
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp smoked paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp onion powder
½ tsp cayenne pepper

Vegetable oil or lard

Combine the buttermilk, salt, garlic powder, thyme, and bay leaf. Mix well, ensuring the salt is dissolved. Add the chicken, cover the container, and refrigerate overnight.

Combine the flour, salt, paprika, garlic and onion powders, and cayenne in a large bowl. Prepare a sheet pan with a rack. Place a heavy and 2 to 3 inch deep pan (such as a sauté pan or cast iron pan) over medium heat with about ¾” oil. Bring the oil to 365F/185C. Unless you intend to cook in batches, you may wish to cook in two pans.

Drain the chicken but do not pat dry. Dredge each piece in flour, coating completely (leave no wet spots) and shaking off excess. Lower the chicken pieces into the hot fat. Do not crowd the pan or pans. Fry until golden on one side; turn over and cook until golden on the other side. Turn over twice to crisp. The chicken must have an internal temperature of at least 165F/74C at the bone but you may prefer it somewhat more done. I like chicken around 170F/76C. Remove from the oil with a wire skimmer or tongs and drain on the racks (don’t use paper towels; they can trap steam and make your crust soggy). To keep warm, place the racks in a 250F/120C oven.

Serve with biscuits and pickles.

Buttermilk ice cream
Use buttermilk instead of milk in this light, refreshing ice cream, a natural with fresh berries. I prefer the Philadelphia-style ice creams – containing no egg – to the custard type, so like most of the ice creams I make, this one contains no egg. Without the heavy, rich egg yolk coating your tongue, everything else has a more intense taste.

2 c buttermilk from above recipe
2 c heavy cream, as rich as possible
1 ¼ c sugar (caster/superfine sugar is best)
Zest of one lemon, minced
1 tbsp lemon juice
1 tbsp vodka

Combine buttermilk, cream, and sugar in a heavy pot and bring to 170C, stirring to dissolve the sugar completely. Add the lemon zest.

Cool quickly in a bain marie full of ice and, when cool, stir in the lemon juice and vodka. Whisk well to incorporate. Freeze as appropriate for your ice cream maker and scoop into two pint containers. Transfer to the freezer and freeze hard for at least 4-6 hours.

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