Butter lust


Making butter is super quick with super-thick double cream like this

Butter is my dark secret. I eat it every day at breakfast, and sneak smears of it while cooking or just passing through the kitchen. I don’t do this at other people’s homes … unless I can get away with it.

While I appreciate good bread, it’s largely just camouflage for my butter habit – it’s the brown paper bag an alcoholic wraps round a bottle of Wild Turkey; the copy of Horse & Hound a teenage boy uses to conceal the latest issue of Big Jugs.

I’ve met people who only eat butter once a month, believing it’s really bad for you. Fortunately, the research is equivocal on the dangers of (high quality) saturated fats, and there is evidence that replacing butter with margarine or with carbohydrates may be even worse for you. There’s also some suggestion that butter can be good for you, with all its vitamins and such. This gives me a bit of solace … but it’s really only a justification for what I will continue doing – enjoying butter.

As Mary Oliver says in my favourite poem, “Wild Geese”: ‘Let the soft animal of your body / love what it loves’. Well, the soft animal of my body loves butter. However, my pleasure is usually off-set by worry: What happens if my arteries harden? If – with all my knowledge of healthy eating – I end up dying of diet-related disease? Each day at the breakfast table my knowledge-stuffed head does battle with ‘the soft animal of my body’. The animal always wins.

Butter promotes democracy (sort of)

I was encouraged to admit my love of butter after reading this recent post by Michael Moore, where he, too, admits to eating butter daily, and associates the practice with remedying some big social problems. That same week, I came out of the butter-lust closet in a big way, at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). At this year’s ORFC I heard about food as a human right, the imperative to let cows and sheep eat grass, and how communications technology can support food democracy. I also met filmmaker Anne Cottringer and got a copy of her latest documentary ‘Tune for the Blood’, about the passion and persistence of young farmers in the UK.

Over lunch I shared a table with a volunteer from the Youth Food Movement, who explained that she would be leading a butter-making workshop at 3:30 that day. ‘Wha-wha-what?’ I asked, halting mid-chew, as a piece of pasture-fed pastrami fell from my lip. It’s like I had just been told Johnny Depp would be arriving at 3.30 and really, really wanted to meet me, because he wants to make a movie based on my blog, and thinks I’m really good-looking. Suddenly, my plans to attend some important sessions about research on genetically modified foods were dashed – the soft animal of my body wanted to make some butter.

Butter boogie

Early butter

This is what I got after shaking the cream (not a euphemism) for about ten minutes

Before I moved to Europe I was familiar with ‘heavy cream’, whipping cream, Half & Half and Cool Whip, which in fact has no cream. Moving to Europe was like finding myself inside a game of Candy Land, only this was Candy Land for dairy fetishists, where cream comes in single, double, extra-thick double, clotted, whipping, créme fraîche and a few other luscious varieties.

Today we were using super-thick double cream from North Aston Dairy. Me and my dairy-loving compatriots were each given a small plastic container with a sturdy lid, and two big dollops of cream, along with a generous sprinkling of salt. We put the lids on our containers tightly, and then shook them for an uncomfortably long time (at least without a sports bra). At one point, me and another butter-maker broke out in some Latin-inspired dance moves; but mostly we just stood and shook.

Soon we became like nine-year-olds in the back of a station wagon, asking every few minutes if we were there yet. Our guide would peer at our shaken cream and say patiently, “Not yet. Keep shaking”. There was only one small blow-out, when someone’s container lid sprung a leak and droplets of buttermilk sprayed the crowd. One person delicately wiped the droplets off her blouse with a damp towel, while I ungracefully licked the droplets off my sleeve. (The other participants were lucky I didn’t lick their sleeves, too.)

Butter and buttermilk

After a few more minutes of shaking, the buttermilk separated from the butter

Sea salt

I added this coarse French sea salt to my butter at home, but I’m not sure it made much difference to the taste (except that it was too salty … funny that)

I shifted my container from one hand to the other, until, after about ten minutes, I could hear something solid bumping around. I opened the lid to find a lump of pale yellow butter and some white liquid at the bottom, which I was told was buttermilk. I was offered a slice of bread so that I could taste my butter, but instead I just stuck my finger in and licked the salty elixir straight-up. I was out of the closet now.

I made butter this way at home and it worked a charm. The cream I bought (again, from North Aston Dairy) was really, really thick, which made the job extra quick, and I added some crushed up French sea salt to see if it made a difference to the taste (not really). This isn’t the most efficient or cost-effective way to make butter, but it’s a fun way to get better acquainted with one of the foods I love most, and to practice some Latin dance moves.


Giving trick-or-treaters the finger

Demon hand made of cookies! Yum!

I haven’t blogged in ages, but today I just had to share. I love Halloween, and really miss celebrating it like I did when I lived in the USA. Here in the UK it’s not widely celebrated nor even welcomed by many people, and there are very few trick-or-treaters on the streets.

Instead of bellyaching about this (as usual), I looked for a culinary way to celebrate Halloween that was in accordance with its ancient roots … to honour the connections between life and death, and revivify a sacred Pagan or Celtic ritual to usher in the long, dark nights to come, or protect the crops from plague.

I stumbled upon some ancient wisdom from — you guessed it — Martha Stewart! Thanks to her, anyone who stops by our house looking for a treat this year, will get the finger …

Try the recipe yourself, and happy hauntings…

Unbaked fingers, ready to be glazed

My hubby glazing the unbaked fingers with green-tinted egg white

Just-baked fingers, with extra red food coloring

Sunshine in a jar

Lemon curd

Homemade lemon curd

It’s been ages since I posted here, quietly awaiting the end of winter and the ‘hungry gap’ — the period between the end of winter crops and the new produce of spring. Surprisingly, we’ve had some brilliant warm, sunny weather in the UK for the past two weeks, and it feels like spring even if the Earth has only just started sending up its tender green shoots.

With all this sunshine, inspiration hit me like a big yellow lightning flash — a lemon-flavoured one to be exact.

Nothing embodies warm weather and sunshine for me like lemon. I realize lemons aren’t exactly a traditionally British fruit, but even I get a taste for the exotic, and can’t do without lemons (especially Spanish lemons, which have a lovely taste and are grown close-ish to home).

I love lemony desserts, and especially lemon-infused cakes. My dad’s favourite cake has always been a white sponge with lemon filling and a marshmallow frosting. His mother made it for him for his birthday every year, and then my mother took over the tradition (with much cursing, as the seven-minute frosting can easily go wrong and become a sticky glob; mom always triumphed in the end, though). The cake was filled with lemon pudding made from a box, which was the only way I knew to make lemon filling. Then I discovered lemon curd – sunshine in a jar. My mother-in-law told me it was easy to make, which I hardly believed, considering it’s awesomeness. But I decided to give it a go.

Lemon curd

A bubbly concoction of lemon zest and juice, unsalted butter, caster sugar and eggs.

Reality TV for cake junkies

Having misplaced my mother-in-law’s recipe for lemon curd, I found one on The Pink Whisk. This is the site of Ruth Clemens, a once-amateur baker who competed in BBC’s The Great British Bake Off, the only reality TV show I like to watch. Each week, amateur bakers — ordinary folks — compete to make beautiful breads, delicate cupcakes and innovative tarts and cookies. I was mesmerized – honestly! It was exciting to see real, unpretentious people doing something they love, and wondering if they were any good at it, sometimes screwing up, often doing ‘good enough’, and occasionally baking something brilliant and (according to the judges) delicious. It was humbling and inspiring for an amateur like me. Ruth Clemens came second in the first series of the Bake Off, and now she bakes, teaches and writes about baking full-time at The Pink Whisk.

Curd, curd, curd … curd is the word

I took an hour away from doing my work today to try my hand at Ruth’s lemon curd recipe. It was really easy, and based on the puddles of it I licked off the counter (after discovering that the pouring spout on my pan was useless), it tastes really good. In fact, to my surprise. it tastes like lemon curd. It’s still cooling on the counter, so I’ve yet to find out if it has thickened as I expected. I hope so, because I’ll need it for tomorrow’s springtime baking adventure: a vanilla sponge-cake with lemon curd filling and piped cream on top.

NB: I’m no friend of a piping bag, so this will be something of a challenge. I expect a tasty cake with some very interesting cream sculptures on top. If it’s as artistically interesting as I anticipate, I’ll be sure to post a photo. I know I can’t compete with the 12 Ugliest Cakes or the beauties at Cake Wrecks, but I’ll do my best!

Find the lemon curd recipe I used at The Pink Whisk.Lemon curd

Wombat lebkuchen

iced lebkuchen

Glazed lebkuchen wombats and koalas with slivered almonds

This year, Christmas dinner will be low-key: just me, my husband and Harvey the Corgi. So there are no pressures to cook anything in particular.

No pressure to prepare my maternal grandmother’s stuffing made with dried white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and chopped turkey livers; or my paternal grandmother’s stuffing made with white bread crumbs, a truckload of butter and celery. Not a turkey or goose in the style of my husband’s British family, nor Polish kielbasa as my dad’s mom used to do. And for one of the first times in a decade, we won’t be having Christmas dinner in Australia, eating winter foods in the heat of summer.

Instead of enjoying this freedom to do things just the way we like, I find myself befuddled trying to choose among the many culinary traditions my husband and I bring to the table.

Fortunately, there was support and inspiration from the BBC last night, via a programme called ‘Jerusalem on a Plate‘. It was a chef’s tour of the ancient city, featuring Arab and Jewish cuisine and the evolving, exciting fusion of the two. One chef remarked that the fusion of cuisines in Jerusalem is a way of creating a national identity and peace at the table, in a country struggling for both.

“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you who you are”

Betty Crocker CB with grandmas notes

My main source of holiday cookie recipes: my late grandmother's 1950 Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, with hand-written notes and recipes

This is a famous quote from one of history’s most famous foodies: Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, circa 1825. It reminds me why food goes beyond sustenance for many of us — it is linked to our identity and sense of belonging. I find this most striking during holidays like Christmas. What might Brillat-Savarin have said about the Christmas menu of a Polish-Hungarian-Swiss-German-American living in England, married to a half-English/half-Welsh man, with family ties to Australia? … especially when I serve up my first Christmas culinary offering of 2011: Wombat Lebkuchen.

Lebkuchen are traditional German honey-flavoured cookies, usually spiced similarly to gingerbread. There are as many variations of lebkuchen as there are decades since it was supposedly first made, in the 1200s. I’ve heard stories about strained arm muscles after stirring the stiff dough, and frustrations when rolling it out as it sticks to everything. The biggest challenge, though, is not eating them all at once: the longer they mellow, the better the taste and texture. With its long history and huge variation, lebkuchen seems appropriate for my experiment in culinary and cultural fusion.

The (grand) mother of all cook books

Cookie tab in BC cookbook

The worn out and then replaced tab for 'Cookies' in my grandmother's cook book

My choice of lebkuchen is something of a tribute to my paternal grandfather’s roots in Germany and Switzerland. But the recipe I’m using comes from my Polish grandmother’s American classic: the Betty Crocker Picture Cook Book, published in 1950. The book has tabbed sections for breads, cakes, salads, meats and desserts, and one tab has fallen off from overuse: cookies. My grandma replaced the tab with a sturdy bit of card on which she wrote COOKIES, and reinforced with a tiny bit of wood. She taped it all together with multiple layers of tape. She also added comments to some of the cookie recipes, such as ‘Delicious!’ next to the Russian Tea Cakes and a post-it on the Thumbprint Cookies page saying she added chopped nuts and chocolate chips when she made them in 1985.

The lebkuchen recipe is based on a mixture of molasses and honey, but I’ve replaced the molasses (less common in England) with black treacle, a sugar derivative which isn’t quite as dark as molasses but still has a strong, smoky flavour. I made the dough Monday night and let it sit in the fridge until Tuesday. The recipe suggests cutting the rolled out dough into rectangular bars, but I like to take any opportunity I have to make fun shapes. Once again, though, I had forgotten that I don’t have any Christmas cookie cutters  – the result of a transatlantic move and rarely being home at Christmas for the past decade. What I do have, however, is even better: my late sister-in-law’s Australian cookie cutters.

Rolling out the sticky dough

Rolling out the sticky dough required a lot of flour

Spicy German marsupials

Because my sister-in-law moved to Australia nearly two decades ago and even became an Australian citizen, the place has become a second home for our family. Adding Australia into my family cookie mix seems fitting, and so the wombat and koala lebkuchen were born.

Boiling the glazing icing

Making a simple glaze of sugar and water

Once I tackled the tricky rolling out of the very sticky dough, I placed the critters on oiled cookie sheets. The recipe suggested giving them 10-12 minutes to bake, but in my fan oven each batch took about six-and-a-half minutes. As they baked I was meant to be making a glaze of boiled sugar syrup and confectioner’s sugar, then brushing it on the hot wombats as soon as they were out of the oven. But they baked so fast I wasn’t ready. The glaze was a bit gloppy, then it hardened and I had to add more water, which made it runny. Boiled sugar things are not my strong point.

My wombats won’t win any beauty contests and I won’t be crowned most elegant baker, but the cookies are pretty good. I’ve tasted them. Several of them. This whole “putting them away to ‘mellow’ in a cookie tin” isn’t going over very big in our house. (Try the recipe yourself and good luck letting them mellow!)

Sweet remembrance

pre-iced lebkuchen wombats

Baked wombats, ready to be glazed

Sadly, I can’t share these cookies with the two people whose far-flung kitchens inspired me to make them: my grandmother and my sister-in-law. They both passed away within two months of each other, in 2009. I can, however, imagine them laughing at my ragged, badly iced wombats and koalas, over a good cup of Italian coffee (with my sister-in-law) or a filter coffee with a shot of whiskey (with my grandma).

Next up: there’s honey-infused cookie dough made with my grandma’s Betty Crocker recipe for ‘Merry Christmas Cookies’. It’s chilling in the fridge, and just about ready to be transformed into red- and green-iced kangaroos.

Iced kangaroo red

Iced kangaroo prototype

Why Write About Food? | Cook ‘n’ Scribble

As we get ready to sit down at a table with loved ones, friends, strangers or even by ourselves over the holiday season, here’s some food for thought from two inspiring food blogs:

“How we eat, the people we share our food with, the thousand different ways we can wake up to our senses with one small bite — it’s all part of being human. Writing a list of what you ate for breakfast may not matter that much. But sharing with me how you came to be sitting at that table, sharing that food, with those people, in that moment? That’s life. I want to know all about it.”

– Shauna Ahern, Gluten-Free Girl

via Why Write About Food? | Cook ‘n’ Scribble.

Chocolate cake on a school night

Belgian chocolate cake with lemon-peel rose

Quick Belgian chocolate cake (with lemon-peel rose) based on my friend S's recipe

On a crisp, cold Monday evening in Brussels, I waited outside my hotel for my friend, S, to pick me up and take me to her house for dinner. I was met by an entourage of shiny black cars with tinted windows, a small crowd of smartly dressed people and a concierge in a top hat.

Turns out they weren’t there for me:  I’d blundered my way into the arrival of the Turkish Minister of Trade. I nodded and smiled faintly as the Minister and his people looked my way, and I shuffled away from the hotel entrance. I tried not to think about whether the Turkish Minister of Trade might have enemies, and if this would be one of those ‘wrong place, wrong time’ scenarios for me.

S's pumpkin tart

S's pumpkin tart in puff pastry crust

It all went fine (at least for me … I’m not sure how the Minister got on). S arrived and we walked the 15 minutes to her cozy home, where she regaled me with a pumpkin tart in a buttery puff-pastry crust. She served it with a refreshing salad that included toasted hazelnuts and thinly sliced chicon — also known as Belgian Endive, and one of my very favourite vegetables (baked or roasted chicon is divine). We drank red wine and competed with the youngest member of the household and his band of Napoleonic Lego soldiers to spear olives, cherry tomatoes and rounds of Belgian goat’s cheese on our toothpicks (or swords, in the case of the Lego soldiers).

S making chocolate cake

S preparing her quick Belgian chocolate cake in under an hour

The tart and salad were fantastic, but the real treat was yet to come.

A different kind of fast food

At around 8.30 pm S announced that she would be making a cake. Despite my unabashed reverence of cake, my first thought was: It’s a school night! A cake will take hours!’ But S has a reassuring manner — maybe it’s a Belgian thing, maybe it’s just her. As she got to work in the kitchen I decided to trust that she would, indeed, get me back to my hotel before sunrise.

Baking the cake

Lovely aroma from the oven as the chocolate cake baked

In fact, I only made my way through half a glass of wine before the cake was in the oven. Another half glass (delicately nursed) and the oven timer ‘pinged’. S boiled the kettle for tea (a blend from a special Brussels tea shop), and sprinkled powdered sugar over the cake.

S's Belgian chocolate cake with figs and pineapple

S's Belgian chocolate cake with fresh figs and pineapple

In less than an hour we were sitting down for a delicious Belgian chocolate cake, served with fresh pineapple and figs. The finished cake was very rich, like a light, fudgy brownie, and shallow like a flourless torte, rather than airy like a sponge cake. It’s made of only five ingredients: equal weights of butter,sugar and chocolate, a small amount of flour, and three eggs. That’s it. S told me the recipe demands good, dark chocolate (with a high percentage of cocoa), so don’t skimp on the chocolate.

I took her advice and bought a monster-sized bar of chocolate — a Jacques Bloc dessert cooking chocolate — at the supermarket before heading back to the UK, so I would be ready to try the recipe at home.

Supersize this

Jacques Bloc cooking chocolate

Giant Callebaut Jacques Bloc Belgian cooking chocolate (compared to a puny Snickers bar)

I found the recipe to be just as quick and easy as it looked that tipsy night in Brussels. In fact, I decided to make it again this morning, but with a few ‘American’ tweaks. No, this doesn’t mean making it three times the size and replacing most of the recipe with a box of cake mix, but you would be forgiven for thinking so.

First, I wanted to see if it would work as a pan of brownies rather than a cake — would it hold together in little squares?

Second, it’s common here to line a pan with grease-proof paper (in the US this is called parchment paper), which prevents baked goods sticking to the pan, making it easier to clean up. But I know this is less common in the US, so I buttered and floured the pan instead.

Third, the recipe is measured in weights (grams) rather than volume (cups), so I wanted to see if I could convert it. I’m now devoted to cooking by weight rather than volume — I find it remarkably easier and more efficient. But I know cooking by weight is less common in the USA (and Australia), and I want everyone to be able to make this cake. Fortunately (sort of), when I got to the kitchen this morning I found that our scale needed new batteries, and we didn’t have any. So I had no choice but to measure by volume and hope for the best.

Overall, I think this recipe works best as a cake rather than brownies. Buttering and flouring is fine, except it makes it hard to remove the cake from the pan to serve it — greaseproof paper is far better in that regard. Also, the simplicity of this recipe is somewhat dimmed by measuring by volume instead of weight. The European method is easy to memorize: 150 grams each sugar, butter and chocolate + 50 grams flour + 3 eggs. But see the recipe itself for more on the Americanized version.

The ‘little black dress’ of baking

I gave a piece of my version of this cake to my Swiss friend B, and await her review. If I play my cards right, maybe she’ll share a secret Swiss chocolate cake recipe with me one day (knowing that it won’t be so secret anymore if she tells me …).

Belgian chocolate brownie

The brownie version of this recipe

It’s intimidating making chocolate desserts for friends from two of the most famous centres of European chocolate making: Belgium and Switzerland. But it’s worth the risk. I consider a simple, fool-proof chocolate cake recipe to be the ‘little black dress’ of baking — it’s perfect for any occasion, you can dress it up or down, and it never goes out of style. S’s recipe is the perfect example. I accessorized it with a ‘rose’ made of lemon peel and served it with single (pourable) cream. (In fact, some of the lemon from the ‘rose’ soaked into the cake and tasted very nice. Next time I might try adding some lemon or orange peel to the mix.) It’s equally good with fruit, ice cream or just a strong coffee, and with a few tweaks can be made into brownies.

I’ll be back in Brussels in a month’s time and plan to stock up on more giant blocks of cooking chocolate (hopefully fairly traded chocolate, so my conscience will be as satisfied as my taste buds). In the meantime, check out the recipe. Let me know if you try it and how it goes.

Medicinal, holy and alcoholic? Yes please!

Vintage Benedictine poster

Vintage poster for my tipple of choice

It’s a cold, damp November night. There’s a fire in the wood-burning stove, a dog dozing on the floor, and I’m sipping my version of a hot toddy: fresh lemon juice, honey, hot water and my tipple of choice: Bénédictine. I fell in love with this sweet liqueur after visiting the old monastery where it’s been made, according to some accounts, for more than 500 years.

The Bénédictine Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy was one of the first places I visited in France, eight years ago. I took a tour of the abbey, complete with a tasting at the end, particularly enjoying Bénédictine mixed with grapefruit juice.

I walked through the exhibits and felt the weight of 500 years of history, and the virtue of monks through the ages who first created this drink as a medicinal elixir. The exhibits showed many of the herbs that were used in the original recipe, with descriptions of all the ills they could cure.

Benedictine label

If monks make it, it must be good for you.

Each bottle of Bénédictine includes the initials D.O.M. on the label, which means Deo Optimo Maximo: “For our best, greatest God”. I’m not a Christian, but I feel more virtuous when I drink this holy, golden nectar.

I like a bit of Bénédictine when I’m coming down with a cold. This requires me to ignore my better judgment, as I’m pretty sure alcohol isn’t the best choice when I’m ill. But I pretend that I’m an old lady from an old country: my grandmother said her Polish mom gave her and her sister blackberry brandy when they were ill. An ex-boyfriend’s Yugoslavian grandfather gave me all manner of liquor when I showed up one Thanksgiving with a small burn on my hand, the result of a tragic herbal tea incident. My hand healed nicely … probably because of the booze.

The Bénédictine drinker is a lonely drinker

I have come to realize that I may be among a small group of people who actually enjoys Bénédictine. If it’s found at a bar, it’s likely to be in the form of B&B: Bénédictine and Brandy. The story goes that, in the 1930s, a New York bartender mixed Bénédictine with brandy to make a drier drink (Bénédictine is very sweet), and eventually the makers of Bénédictine packaged and sold that drink as B&B. I’ve asked for straight-up Bénédictine at a number of establishments and watched in slight embarrassment as the young bartenders searched the huge collection of liquors. Sometimes they searched for an interminable time, then got a look of satisfaction and relief, reaching for a dusty bottle at the back of the display, the label faded and the lid sugared on from disuse.

After years of enjoying the myth of Bénédictine ‘s religious and medicinal pedigree, I’ve discovered it’s now produced by Bacardi. This certainly destroys some of the mystique, but I choose to ignore this and hold fast to the Bénédictine of old — curer of ills and bringer of virtue.

What do you drink when you’re under the weather?

Tell me: do you have a favourite drink when you’re under the weather? If you’re someone who follows modern medical advice and avoids alcohol when you’re ill, please allow me to stay in my fantasy world of virtuous, health-giving booze. But if you, too, have a weakness for a tipple when you’re sick, write and tell me so I can try it.

Happy drinking during this cold and flu season!