Butter Like You've Never Tasted

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When in a weakened state due to anxiety, an impending cold, or working too hard, I take solace in butter. I stand at the kitchen counter and eat shavings of cold butter on toast, or even crackers, with a few grains of sea salt. Good butter is like a perfect cheese to me but better in these moments: purer, simpler, direct, and voluptuous.

The quality of the butter is critical. My bottom line is Vermont Butter and Cheese Company's Cultured Butter, which is reliably fresh, or French butter from a store with a good turnover, both of which I can get easily. Mass-produced stick butter like Land O'Lakes -- even unsalted -- won't take me where I need to go, unless I'm in a serious bind. [Curator's note: For more on cultured butter, including Allison Hooper's in Vermont, and why it's so different from other butters, see this Atlantic column -- I'm in love with it too.]

Mass-produced stick butter won't take me where I need to go, unless I'm in a serious bind.

I dream of the butter I used to buy from three old ladies known as the Balli Girls, who lived on a remote mountain farm in the West Virginia Appalachians. It was the color of a sunflower, dense from the high percentage of fat, deeply creamy, pleasingly salty, faintly grassy, herbal, or oniony (from wild leeks) depending on the season. They made their butter with cream from the Guernseys they milked themselves in a jerry-rigged electric churn: a huge canning jar attached to a clanky motor that powered the paddle. Its frayed cord was a mass of taped repair.

These days I am haunted by the butter a friend brought by a few weeks ago, made by Pamplie, a cooperative of dairy farmers in Poitou-Charentes, France. It had little crunchy flecks of fleur de sel folded in: sweet, creamy, faintly floral butter with bright bursts of salt. We ate it as an hors d'oeuvre while we cooked dinner, slabbed onto bread.

Though I hunger for that butter, I am too busy these days to schlep uptown to get it. So I made my own version of crunchy fleur de sel butter one morning, mixing creme fraiche and heavy cream to get that cultured ferment taste, then kneading in fabulous salt after it chilled. It is the urban person's version of a great butter, far better than just about anything I can buy easily.

To really understand butter-making with a delightful read, check out Anne Mendelson's Milk, The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. The blog What Geek's Eat has detailed instructions of butter-making with photos.

Homemade Butter

This recipe seems involved but isn't. It takes no time and the butter you get will be a revelation.

Although you can make satisfying butter with vin ordinaire non-ultra pasteurized cream, the impact increases proportionally to the quality of the cream you use: super-fresh, un-homogenized, bio-dynamic, or organic cream from a farmer's market, for example, will blow the roof off.

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Sally Schneider writes The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog about improvising as a daily practice. Her cookbook The Improvisational Cook is now out in paperback. More

Sally Schneider is the founder of The Improvised Life, a lifestyle blog that inspires you to devise, invent, create, make it up as you go along, from design and cooking to cultivating the creative spirit. It's been called a "zeitgeist-perfect website." She is a regular contributor to public radio's The Splendid Table and the author of the best-selling cookbooks The Improvisational Cook and A New Way to Cook, which was recently named one of the best books of the decade by The Guardian. She has won numerous awards, including four James Beard awards, for her books and magazine writing.

Sally has worked as a journalist, editor, stylist, lecturer, restaurant chef, teacher, and small-space consultant, and once wrangled 600 live snails for the photographer Irving Penn. Her varied work has been the laboratory for the themes she writes and lectures about: improvising as an essential operating principle; cultivating resourcefulness and your inner artist; design, style, and food; and anything that is cost-effective, resourceful, and outside the box.

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