We haven’t baked bread for a really long time (witness my neglected bread blog). Lately the reason is because it’s been too hot. Yesterday our heat wave broke and I had a breadish impulse, and I thought I’d better act on it because it’s bound to get hot again soon and who knows when I’ll feel like baking again. The girls mixed up a batch of dough (Wisteria’s recipe) and I read to them while they kneaded.
Later, after the rising and shaping and second rising, we put the bread in the oven and I had another impulse. Someone blogged recently about making butter—I can’t for the life of me remember who it was. Years ago, summers during college, I had a job as a tour guide at a prairie wildlife refuge where, in addition to 2,000 acres of open prairie full of pronghorn and owls and snakes and prairie dogs, there was a small sod village. Sometimes my job was to give tours to school groups, and in the sod house we always baked johnny cake on the iron stove and churned butter to go with it. We had a jar with a special hand-crank churn blade attached to the lid, and the kids would take turns cranking while I gave my talk and mixed up the johnny cake. When the butter was ready I’d turn it out into a wooden bowl and mash it with a wooden paddle, squeezing out the buttermilk. Even in hot Colorado July weather, the warm johnny cake and sweet, creamy butter was heart-stirringly delicious.
So you’d think with all that buttermaking experience under my belt, not to mention the whole Little House motif threaded through our lives, I’d have made butter with my kids a zillion times. Not so. I think I was spoiled by the fancy churning gadget; I always figured doing it the shake-it-in-a-jar way would take a really really long time and be one of those experiments with a spotty success rate.
But this blog entry I read (my apologies for forgetting where) described it as a simple and sure-fire process that took about 20 minutes. So when I put our bread in the oven to bake, I grabbed a clean spaghetti jar I’d save for rinsing paintbrushes and poured in some heavy cream. Filled it about half full. Called the girls. Commenced a-shaking.
We took turns and everyone was very giggly and excited. Of course we had to pull Little House in the Big Woods off the shelf and read the churning passage there:
At first the splashes of cream showed thick and smooth around the little hole. After a long time, they began to look grainy. Then Ma churned more slowly, and on the dash there began to appear tiny grains of yellow butter. When Ma took off the churn-cover, there was the butter in a golden lump, drowning in the buttermilk.
We couldn’t resist unscrewing the lid every little while to check our progress. At first the cream got very thick, just as Laura described. Our shaking had whipped it, and when we shook the jar we couldn’t hear or feel it sloshing around anymore. Then, about ten minutes later, it began to thin out again, and we felt the sloshing. We peeked inside and it really did look grainy. Another five or six minutes, and it looked lumpy. Right after that it happened to be my turn to shake the jar, and all of a sudden I felt a thunk inside from something solid smacking the lid. We had our butter.
The girls erupted in squeals. We opened the lid and there it was, not golden like Laura had described, but the faintest of pale yellows. I scooped it into a bowl, and Rose and Beanie took tastes of the buttermilk. They liked it. I mashed the soft butter to get out the rest of the liquid. Ma washed hers in cold water, but I didn’t bother doing that. I mixed in a little salt, and the timer beeped on our bread, and we couldn’t bear to wait for the bread to cool. Thick slices, slathered in butter; a blissful hush in the kitchen. Mmmm.
You are not to be impressed with my industrious domesticity on this day because 1) if such a state occurs in this house, it is a passing fluke; and 2) it turns out making butter is incredibly easy. Come to think of it, it was easier than, say, loading all the kids into the minivan and running to the grocery store to buy butter would have been. You know how those grocery-store runs can reduce me to a frazzled wreck.
I have since poked around a little online and it seems baby-food jars make excellent mini-churns. Just remember to only fill the jar half full, leaving plenty of sloshing room. And I wouldn’t give each kid his own jar because your arms do get really tired and it’s good to be able to pass off to the next shaker down the line. It sounds like it only takes ten or eleven minutes to go from cream to butter in a small jar like that. Ours took about 24 minutes, which I only know because the bread timer was set for 25. From (I’m guessing) 6 ounces of cream, we got about half a cup of butter, maybe 2/3 cup.
Oh, a last note about the bread—we did NOT use my fancy mixer with the dough hook because the children object to the way it usurps their favorite thing about breadmaking: kneading. In retrospect I realize that’s one reason we cooled off on breadmaking after our wildly enthusiastic beginning. My co-bakers drifted away because the machine killed the fun. So yesterday, I just set a mixing bowl and the six simple ingredients on the table, and the kids went to town. Yeast, water, flour, honey, salt, melted butter. They can mix this dough all by themselves. I gave each of them her own cutting board (nothing fancy; two of them were plastic, and one of those was quite small, but Beanie asked for it because she wanted to make a small loaf for herself) and divided the dough into three lumps. It’s better if they don’t have to take turns for the fun part. We stuck it all back together for the first rising. The kitchen table works better for kneading than the counters, because they can get above the dough and push down. This is stuff I figured out as we went yesterday, but it’s the kind of fiddly logistical stuff that can make or break an experience for us, and I share it under the assumption I’m not the only mom for whom that’s true.