Bread and Butter

May 21, 2008 @ 6:54 pm | Filed under: , , , ,

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.

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15 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Fe says:

    See, _that’s_ why I read blogs:-)
    I’ve had a vague idea about making butter with Puggle for a while… but had forgotten about it because he was too young. I think he’d really enjoy it now, and this post has reminded me:-)

    I’m with your girls on the kneading… it’s the reason I won’t use a bread maker… I like the idea of dividing the dough to share around the kneading… It’s too big for Puggle to be effective for a whole batch, but he could probably manage a portion—I like your brain:-)

  2. Sarah N. says:

    I’m salivating just thinking of homemade bread and butter. My eldest (4.5yo) and I made bread a few months ago and I intended to keep up the practice because we both had a great time. Now I’m inspired to do it again and make butter too. One of my friends used baby jars to make it with her kids recently and it turned out great.

    The same friend made shaken ice cream in a bag yesterday and now we want to try that too. You fill a gallon bag half way with ice then add 1/2 cup kosher salt. Then in a quart bag, pour 1 cup half-n-half, 2T sugar and 1/2 tsp vanilla. Put the smaller bag in the larger one and shake for about 10 minutes. That made enough for an adult, a child and a toddler to have a bowl.

  3. turtlemama says:

    Lissa, you know what your blog does to people. The heavy cream will be cleared from the shelves by noon today by Bonny Glen fans. I predict a sudden drop in stock prices for Land-O-Lakes, too.

    Can’t wait to try it out!

  4. Meredith says:

    What fun, we love making bread here, need to do a loaf today as a matter of fact!! Love the butter story 🙂

  5. Theresa says:

    Ok, now I’m hungry!
    One tip I learned in our last butter-shaking experiment is that if you put one clean marble in the jar with the cream it goes much faster.

  6. Jennifer says:

    I stopped making bread this winter because it was too cold and the dough wouldn’t rise. I suppose we’re both fair weather bakers. Love the butter experiment. I think Martha did an article on that a few years ago.

  7. Karen Edmisten says:

    No way! *I* beat *you* to the butter-making in a baby food jar?? 😉 We’ve done it only a handful of times, but should do it again soon. This post has me hungry for homemade bread and home-shaken butter, too.

  8. mary says:

    Yum. We haven’t baked bread in ages and I’ve been wanting to do the homemade butter. So happy to have found your blog. My 5 year old and I have been working our way through the Little House Series and after reading a bit of you here I can’t wait to read your books.

  9. Tessa says:

    Yep, I second the marble suggestion! :o) Yum!

  10. MomToCherubs says:

    For making butter with baby food jars, first fill half the jar with the cream, and then add one clean marble. This will speed up the butter’s “gathering” acting as a churn, and will also enable the children (or you) to hear how the shaking is going. The best way is an easy consistant rhythm. (It is also fun to make this “music” while making butter too !)

    Do you have any dairy farms near by ?? One might give you a pint or quart of raw milk to make butter with – it is even better than butter made with heavy cream (and will be more yellow in color too). You could try to request a tour – maybe they will let your family try their hands at milking “by hand” the way the Ingalls did. It is a neat once-in-a-lifetime experience !

    God Bless.

  11. Gretchen says:

    It must have been a butter-making sort of week! We did the very same thing last week, on the very same day! And we were reading in our Little House Cookbook about just how we should make the butter. My girls loved the experience, but only one liked the flavor of the buttermilk. Which doesn’t really surprise me, since we don’t normally drink any dairy 🙂 I love how resourceful I feel when we make our own butter, and then have yummy buttermilk pancakes with homemade butter melting on top. Yum.

  12. Beate says:

    Hey Lissa – your post (and the one about art) reminded me of a simple yet lovely picture book Blue Bowl Down. Even my older dc were inspired not only to make bread, but to use the artists technique after finishing the book 🙂

    We made butter before by giving each of the dc a babyfood jar with cream – everyone got to shake his own 😉

  13. cloudscome says:

    This is a wonderful post. I am enjoying all your commenters too. Such wisdom gathered! I want to try making butter but I am a little leery about giving my boys (5 & 3) glass jars. They are sure to drop them at least once in the shaking. I make gluten free bread, which doesn’t get kneeded, so the bread machine works for us but I heart what you said: “the machine killed the fun”. I suspect that may be true about a lot of things.

  14. Sora says:

    I made all our butter the year we had a cow. I churned it 1.5 lbs at a time in the same Bosch mixer I use for bread dough. Our cow was a Jersey, and our butter was so very brightly yellow that visitors often asked me if I colored it (I didn’t).
    Jerseys, Guernseys, Alderneys, and other “older” dairy breeds have very high levels of carotene in their milk fat. Most store-bought cream is from Holsteins, who – if they are even grass-fed at all – do not pass as much of the carotene from the grass into their milk fat.

    Washing out all the buttermilk with cold water is not a step to skip if you plan to store the butter several days – buttermilk left in the butter will cause it to go rancid more quickly. If you’re eating all the butter as soon as you make it – easy to do with baby food jar quantities and homemade bread – you can just squeeze the buttermilk out without rinsing.

    I don’t really miss the work of hand-milking twice a day and having to make cheese two or three times a week to free up space in the fridge, but oh, do we miss the unlimited home-made pasture-fed Jersey butter. And the cream, to which no store-bought cream could ever possibly compare. And homemade ice cream. And the cheese. Not to mention the incredible milk…

  15. Natalie Rose says:

    This reminds me the time I made bread and butter for a school project. Most of the charm for me is definitely in the kneading. And the wonderful aroma that fills the house as the bread bakes… now I’m hungry:)