We had just finished an epic lunch—a menu of ribeyes cooked sous vide, homemade creamed corn, big spoonful mujadara, and lemonade made from lemons fresh from a tree out back—and decided we ought to walk it off. Dan and I were in Arizona, and lunch was in the kitchen of cousin Jim.
He’d told me about his sous vide conquests last summer, and I couldn’t stop asking another question and another question about the superiority of this method of cooking. Typically the sous vide has been the secret of fine dining restaurants (see the film Burnt), but leave it to my cheffy cuzzy to bring it home and master sous vide there with everything from steaks to lobster.
On our walk through Jim’s neighborhood after lunch, we stepped over what appeared to be small smushed black berries on the sidewalk. Watch the olives, he said. Olives? I was shocked. Turns out every single tree in the neighborhood is black olive, with their thin wispy olive branches and the beautiful, inky fruit.
This was wonderment for a Michigan girl whose experience with olive trees is limited to a trip to Umbria, and a bit of time in Napa. Even on my brief trip to Lebanon, I didn’t see much in the way of olive trees, but I know they are there in force. Here they were in Arizona force, some of them manicured Japanese-style into ornate shapes, and all of them familiar to me if only because of the impressions of olives we love on our kitchen towels and pottery , and our blessed branch of peace.
I figure it is Jim’s natural inclination to cook (and years of restaurant experience), combined with the fertile abode that is his home that inspires him to do things like the sous vide, or the limoncello he makes with this lemon surplus, or the homemade cultured butter he started raving about to me a while back.
You have to try it, he said. HAVE TO.
His way with words reminded me of me talking with all of you here, or on Facebook, or Pinterest, or Twitter. It wasn’t one of those casual “this was darn tasty” comments. I understand the darn tasty. And I understand the HAVE TO.
So when he asked me on our walk through the olives what we should cook together while I was there, I had the butter idea ready and waiting. I have had a thing for fresh cultured butter for all of my adult life. Just read this, or ask any one of my siblings, and I’m certain they’ll gladly tell you all about it. And it won’t be kind.
We’ll do the butter, he said, but that’s so easy. What else? How about a big tunjura of grape leaves? Of course, he had fresh frozen leaves on hand, which he can buy in season at his unbelievable local Lebanese market. This is truly the land of milk and honey, despite its desert status. I’m already working on Dan to fire up an auto dealership out there so we can relocate.
Given that the last two batches of my grape leaves have been the finest of my life (so good they converted my 9-year-old nephew John), and I’ve been all about YOU HAVE TO to anyone who will listen to my newest methods, how could I refuse? We’d grape leaf, and we’d butter.
The thing about the butter is that there’s nowhere to hide an imperfection in the cream. It’s all, and I mean ALL, about the cream. Jim’s was thick, fragrant cream from his local dairy. It was already like butter before it was butter. We enriched that with a shot of laban, or labneh, which is better than plain yogurt because it has so much more tang and flavor. Let it sit on the counter for up to 36 hours (this is the culturing), chill, then beat as you would whipped cream. But keep right on going until the little curds of butter separate from the buttermilk, which is in and of itself a glory.
Every Thanksgiving when I whip big batches of cream for pies, I have the urge to go all the way to butter, but not knowing how to handle it when I get there has kept me at whipped cream (which is certainly no consolation prize).
There is agreement across the board (this, and this, and much more) that cultured butter, of the sort that is made in Europe and no doubt elsewhere around the globe, tastes so much better than our standard American grocery store butter sticks. This butter has depth, aroma, a hint of tang, all tied up with a bow of sea salt.
This butter is like…well…buttah. Of the sort that inspires baking talami, or fresh bread of any kind. Put the pats of butter with a nice sprinkle of Maldon salt over them right there next to the rolls, your own or King’s Hawaiian or any others. There will be joy! I might even have to clarify some to make my baklawa this Christmas. Yes.
It’s so simple, you can add homemade to your holiday repertoire without giving it much of a thought. Come to think of it, it’s so simple, I might just have some extra time to try my hand at the sous vide…
- 1 quart good local heavy cream (not ultra-pasteurized)
- ½ cup laban, whole milk yogurt, or labneh
- Maldon salt
- Stir a few tablespoons of the cream into a small bowl of the laban, loosening it so it will more easily combine with the rest of the cream. For the labneh, do this several times.
- In a 4-cup measure or large bowl, combine the cream with the loosened laban. Cover loosely with a damp paper towel, and let the cream rest on the counter for at least 24 and up to 36 hours.
- Chill the cream to about 60°F. Fine if you leave the cream in the refrigerator longer and it chills down more than that (I ended up leaving mine for several days). Just leave it out on the counter to warm it up to 60°F.
- Using an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the cream all the way past whipped, until small curds of yellow butter separate from the buttermilk. Pour off the buttermilk and save for another use (such as drinking, or biscuits).
- “Wash” the butter of the buttermilk by pouring about ¼ cup of ice water at a time over the butter. Use a spatula to fold the butter with the ice water, then pour off the milky liquid. Repeat this until the liquid is nearly clear.
- Use your hands to knead a few large pinches of sea salt into the butter. Taste and add more salt if needed.
- Lay the butter out on a sheet of parchment (or two, or three, depending on how large you want your round butter slices to be). Roll the butter with the parchment into a tight log, using a bench scraper if you have one to tighten the log by pushing the edge up against the log from the parchment side. Twist the ends and tie off with twine if you like.
- Chill. To serve, cut the butter into small discs and serve at room temperature, sprinkled with more sea salt.