Back to Butter

Photo: New England Cheesemaking Supply Company
I never "left" it, so I didn't have to go back to butter, but I know a lot of people do when they start caring about what they put into their bodies, and once they find out what the new medical studies show about the relationship between what they eat and the cholesterol in their arteries -- or rather, the lack of such a relationship.

If you're a healthy person and you like butter, then eat butter, not butter-flavoured margarine, for heaven's sake! (I once read an interview with Dr. Andrew Weil, where he talked about eating everything [I remember something about pizza for breakfast]. The interviewer asked him if there was anything at all he would never eat, and the answer was "margarine". It had to do with the way they process and refine the oils that are used to make margarine.)

Now somebody's making margarine with virgin olive oil -- a whole 12% of the product is olive oil -- guess what the other 88% is?

I wrote about making homemade butter a while back, and included my own recipe for plain butter and for cultured butter.

However, I don't make my own butter any more because Lactantia brand unsalted cultured butter, made in Quebec, is now available locally, and in addition to being cheaper than homemade butter, there's the nostalgia factor. Quebec is my home, and Lactantia butter is the brand I was raised on.

My own recipe included some yogurt culture, but this morning I got the monthly newsletter from New England Cheesemaking Company, where I get my yogurt culture and other cheesemaking ingredients, and it had a recipe for cultured butter made with buttermilk culture. 

Here is the link to the New England Cheesemaking Company recipe for cultured butter.

What's nice about that recipe is that it is fully illustrated, and the method is exactly the one I used, so whether you use their recipe or mine, you now have a great set of instructions, and you just can't go wrong.

Happy buttermaking!


Shaggy Mane Mushroom Recipe

Shaggy Mane Mushrooms at Different Stages, in the Early Morning Light
I attended a mushroom hunt a few weeks ago, and I came away without mushrooms, but with a shaggy mane mushroom recipe.

The hunt took place in the woods, and the shaggy mane (coprinus comatus) grows in open fields, so it was not included in that day's activities, but I asked the mycologist to tell me how to deal with the abundance of shaggy manes that pop up in my village every October. I had tried cooking them, but I didn't like the way they came out, all black and yucky. (It won't surprise you to hear that they're often referred to as "inky caps".)

The secret?
  1. Pick them as young as possible -- before they start turning black;
  2. Cut them in two lengthwise;
  3. Freeze them on a cookie sheet;
  4. Bag them and store them in the freezer;
  5. Take out as many as you need and sauté them.
  • Cut them in two and sauté them fresh.

WARNING: shaggy manes and alcohol are a toxic combination.


Beware of Recipes You Find on the Web

Like everyone else, I sometimes look for recipes on the Web. The other day I was looking for something to make with the buttermilk I had leftover from making cultured butter.

I found oodles of recipes; eventually, I settled for "Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberry Coulis". It was from what I thought was a trusted source, The Canadian Living Test Kitchen. I live in Canada, and I know Canadian Living magazine from seeing it in doctors' offices. They even have a TV show on the CBC, no less.

It's important to trust the source because most of the recipes out there have never been tested! You'd think a test kitchen would be there to test recipes -- but apparently not.

Here's the recipe; let's see if you can detect the errors:

This recipe makes 6 servings.
1 tbsp (15 mL) unflavoured gelatin
1 cup (250 mL) whipping cream
1/3 cup (75 mL) sugar
2 tsp (10 mL) vanilla
1 cup (250 mL) buttermilk

Strawberry Coulis: 1 pkg frozen strawberries in syrup, thawed

In small saucepan, sprinkle gelatin over 2 tablespoons (25 mL) of the cream; let stand for 5 minutes. Heat over medium-low heat, stirring often, until dissolved.

In a separate saucepan, heat together remaining cream, sugar and vanilla over medium heat until steaming; remove from heat. Stir in gelatin mixture and buttermilk. Pour into six 5-ounce (175 mL) ramekins. Cover and refrigerate until set, about 4 hours.

Strawberry Coulis:
In food processor, crush strawberries until smooth; press through fine strainer into bowl. Run knife around edge of each ramekin; turn out onto dessert plate. Drizzle coulis attractively onto plate.


1. The first thing that bothered me was "1 pkg frozen strawberries in syrup". What size package? What if I have fresh strawberries? Frozen strawberries without syrup?

The worst thing is that they had a recipe for strawberry coulis from scratch elsewhere on their own site; the least they could have done was to link to that recipe.

2. "Sprinkle gelatin over 2 tablespoons of the cream." I was skeptical, but I don't have that much experience with dissolving gelatin in anything but a clear liquid like water, so I followed the instructions.

It did NOT work and I could tell right away. The gelatin could not possibly dissolve in such a small amount of a thick liquid. Eventually, I added all the buttermilk and the gelatin dissolved beautifully. (Had they read the instructions on the package of gelatin, they would have seen that you're supposed to dissolve that amount of gelatin in at least 1/4 cup of water.)

A novice cook might not know better and would have ended up with a lumpy mess.

3. "Pour into six 5-oz ramekins." Something wrong with the math here: six x 5 = 30 ounces, right? But the recipes contains only two cups of ingredients, and last time I looked, 1 cup = 8 ounces, so 2 cups = 16 ounces. Where did the extra 14 ounces come from? Nowhere.

Therefore, the yield of this recipe is either two 8-oz portions, or three 5.3-oz portions, or four 4-oz  portions but definitely NOT six 5-ounce portions! (I settled for the four 4-oz portions.)

4. The serving directions are buried inside the strawberry coulis recipe. They should have a paragraph of their own.


Hey, this is a pretty good recipe, and I would do it again. But I'm a professional cook and I know how to correct recipes.

In fact, it makes a decent fake Crème Brûlée and next time I would make a plain sugar caramel, pour it on a buttered cookie sheet, let it cool, then break it into slabs which I would serve inserted into the cream.


Like I said, beware of recipes you find on the web.


How To Avoid Slimy Yogurt

If you google "slimy yogurt" or "why is my yogurt slimy", you will find plenty of people complaining about this, yet I've been making yogurt on and off for more years than I care to remember and never had that problem until I moved to New Brunswick. Must be the way they process the milk here, or the way they feed the cows, or something.

I don't eat a lot of yogurt these days, but I have to make it regularly because I need it to culture the cream that I use to make my own butter, and around here you can't buy plain yogurt.

Then I get to eat the leftover yogurt. My favourite way is with a bit of maple syrup or honey, for dessert. Sometimes I drain it and make yogurt cheese, which I like every bit as much as cream cheese.

So I googled "why is my yogurt slimy", and eventually found the solution: you bring the milk temperature to 185 degrees (Fahrenheit) and hold it there for a while (some say 20 minutes, some say 30 minutes), which does something to the protein structure of the milk. The result is thick, creamy, non-slimy yogurt even if you use just regular milk (3.5% butterfat) and no extra skim milk powder (to give it body).

I tested every electrical appliance I had: the small coffee heater that I use to incubate the yogurt at 110 degrees, (didn't rise above 150 degrees) my crock pot, (reached 185 degrees on "high" but I had to keep playing with the lid to keep the temperature constant) and one of the burners of my stove. Eventually, it was the latter that gave consistent results with no temperature variation at all.

As you can see in the picture, I used a remote thermometer for all my tests. I ran all the tests over several hours, checking every half hour or so to ensure there were no wild variations. I did all the tests with a lid on because it's more hygienic.

So, if you have a problem with slimy yogurt, try heating it to 185 degrees and holding it at that temperature for half an hour or so. After that, you cool it to 110 degrees, add the culture and proceed with your usual method.


French Onion Soup Weather

January is French onion soup weather.

I had some homemade beef stock on hand and lots of onions, and it was winter... all perfect conditions for concocting a batch of my famous onion soup. (I don't wish to brag but in my restaurants, we served what everybody called the best onion soup in the world.)

Onion soup is the easiest dish in the world, but unless you start with first-class ingredients, you may as well buy it in a can.

In fact, quality ingredients are so important that since there is no decent French bread available in my village, I had to start by making a batch of baguette -- no kidding.

Here's the recipe:
  • Lots of cooking onions - 1 large onion per portion
  • Olive oil and/or butter
  • Home-made brown beef stock (recipe here)
  • Home-made chicken stock, degreased
  • Brandy
  • Bay leaves
  • Salt and pepper
  • French baguette bread (recipe here)
  • Clarified butter (recipe here)
  • Swiss-type cheese like Emmenthaler or Jarlsberg
  • Real Parmesan cheese

Slice the baguette into 3/4-inch (2 cm) slices and dry them thoroughly in a 200-degree (100 C) oven. (You don't want to toast it, just dry it.)

Mix the beef and chicken stocks in a separate saucepan and heat them up; keep warm.

Peel onions, slice them in two lengthwise (from root to tip, to get two identical halves), and slice each half thinly along the length.

Heat some butter or a mixture of butter and oil in a large frying pan, add onions and stir and stir until they start to turn golden brown; then add a teaspoonful of sugar and continue frying and stirring until the onions are a deep golden brown. They must not burn. If you're making a lot of soup, do this in batches and transfer each batch to a bowl while you fry the next batch.

Combine all the onions back into the frying pan, sprinkle with a bit of flour and stir around until the flour has browned. Do this on medium heat so the flour doesn't burn. You just need a little bit of flour, just a tablespoon or two.

Pour a splash of brandy and a couple of ladles of stock over the onions, and stir to dissolve the flour and all the brown residue at the bottom of the pan.  Scrape this off well with a wooden spoon, then transfer the whole thing to your soup pot.

Add more beef and chicken stock -- there must be more liquid than onions, about 1/3 more.

Add a bit of salt and pepper, a few bay leaves, and simmer the soup on low heat for half an hour, just to meld the flavours, really, because the onions are already cooked.

The oven should be preheated to 450 F  (225 C) and the rack should be in the centre position.

Heat some clarified butter in a small pan and fry the bread slices on both sides until they are just a nice golden colour.

Taste the soup and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

Ladle the soup into individual ovenproof tureens (or one large one, as in the photo), cover the surface with slices of fried bread, sprinkle grated Swiss-type cheese (not too much, please! This isn't pizza.), and sprinkle a spoonful of real Parmesan if you have any.

Place the whole thing on a cookie sheet or pizza pan or whatever (to catch spills and make it safer to handle when it's ready).

Bake for about 10 minutes, or until the top is like the photo -- brown and bubbly and smelling like nothing else on earth.

Bon appétit!

  •  VARIATION: This onion soup is very good all by itself, or with a light sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
  • The reason I recommend slicing the onions as described above is that this way you get onion pieces in the soup. If you slice them across instead, the onions tend to dissolve and disappear.
  • The size of the pan, the amount of heat, the amount of fat and the amount of onions in each batch must be such that the onions start frying right away, without rendering their water.
  • There's no point in using a crock pot for this; the cooking time is too short.
  • Only white French-style bread has the right body and flavour for this soup. This is NOT the place for your healthy multigrain sourdough bread -- I know, because I've tried it.

    I made the bread too!