Homemade Butter

IMG_9184In this amazing age of supermarkets and convenience stores, why would anybody want to make their own butter? For the food nerd in me, the answer is simple: to see if I can. But I came to home butter-making for a practical reason, too — I had a couple of baked potatoes almost done in the oven and not a stick of butter to be found. Now yes, there are several places to buy butter nearby, but those taters were ready to GO, and I was hungry for the New York strips I had coated with pepper and ready for the skillet. So I had resigned myself to butter-less potatoes when it hit me: I had a half-pint of heavy cream in the fridge leftover from another recipe I had made a few days before. And what is butter made from? Cream. Lacking a proper butter churn, I took down the Kitchen-Aid, slapped on the whisk attachment, turned it on and within a few minutes I had a ball of pale golden butter, perfect for my potatoes. It’s a fun process, so if you want to play Little House on the Prairie (with a Kitchen-Aid Mixer), keep reading.

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First off, you’ll need that cream and your stand-mixer. Dump it right in, and put on the whisk attachment. You can make this stuff in bulk, but we like to just make small batches of table butter — there’s only two of us, and we like the stuff too much to make a lot. Turn your mixer on high-speed, around an 8. Let it whirl.

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Soon enough, the cream will thicken and you’ll have one of the most wonderful things on earth: whipped cream. You may be tempted to add a touch of simple syrup and vanilla to the pot now, mix, and eat with a spoon — but stay with us, we’ve still a ways to go.

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Keep beating, and soon enough the cream will get kind of gnarly looking. We call this the “steakhouse butter” stage because it looks a lot like the whipped margarine you get at cheap steakhouses (but it tastes a lot better). Whipping the cream has forced the fat in the cream to cling to itself, which first allowed air to be trapped (whipped cream) and now the fat globules are getting so big that they are losing their fluffiness and beginning to turn into real butter. There’s still a lot of moisture here, though, and we want to get it all out so that we only have the pure butter-fat. Keep beating.

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There will, at last, come a magical moment where the fat finally turns loose from the water. This happens rather suddenly, and if you’re not careful, the liquid — buttermilk — will splash everywhere. Turn the mixer down until it looks like no more fat will separate. Strain the butter from the buttermilk — and take a taste of that buttermilk. You’ll find it’s nothing like the cultured product sold in the supermarket (it’s quite yummy). You can return your butter to the dry bowl and beat it some more; more moisture will come out. Finally gather your butter together and rinse it with ice water, changing the water until it stays clear. This gets the last of the water out of the butter and keeps it from going rancid. Add a touch of sea salt if you like, or add herbs, or leave it unsalted for baking. They say necessity is the mother of invention, and in this case, the need for butter on my spuds made for a fun discovery. Happy cooking!

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Restaurant Memories: The Bohemia

bohemiaThere’s still a restaurant called Bohemia in Hot Springs, and by all accounts it’s a fine a wonderful place that serves some of the best food in the Spa City. I haven’t eaten there for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I just don’t find myself in that part of town to eat very often these days. That wasn’t always the case, though, because the Bohemia, the original Bohemia, was not only one of the best restaurants the state of Arkansas has ever seen, it remains one of the greatest restaurants I’ve ever eaten at anywhere. I don’t recall my first meal at the place, nor my last one, but I can think of several spirited dinners that took place over sauerbraten and schnitzel, and it remains the only place I’ve eaten a Baked Alaska worth talking about.

Fans of the old Bohemia will remember Adolf Thum, the gruff and garrulous owner and chef who, along with his wife, kept a clean restaurant and ran a tight ship. Always eager to strike up a conversation with his diners, I can recall many a night where he would regale us with tales of his exploits as a Merchant Marine in the 1950s, cooking for upscale hotels in New York and Chicago as a slightly older man, and how he used to only pay his own son $20 for an entire weekend’s worth of work in his kitchen. I was a younger man then, and ate several meals with friends who might kindly be described as “hippies” — long hair and afros were the order of the day. Thum gave those guys no end of hell about their hair, swearing up and down that if any man during his days at sea had let himself go like that, the other sailors would steal his clothes and shoes, telling their scruffy compatriot that “the Holy Ghost took them.”

Apart from his quirky, yet friendly nature, the man could cook. Homemade bratwurst, Bavarian style sauerkraut, roast duck, and the aforementioned sauerbraten and schnitzel were all favorites of mine. It was Thum who taught me the difference between the cuisine of Western Germany and his homeland on the border between Bavaria and the Czech republic in the east. It was Thum who explained to me the first time what it meant to braise a cut of meat, and how soaking a piece of beef in wine could both tenderize its texture and temper its flavor. And it was Thum who came to his restaurant at 5am every Sunday to prepare his specialty: a steamed dumpling that is still the most perfect platform for any kind of sauce I’ve ever eaten. These dumplings were, in size and shape, like slices of French bread, but steamed. The texture was silken, pillow-soft and while neutral in flavor, Thum would share the method of their eating with all newcomers: let the thing soak in the sauce of your dish until you were almost done, then eat with gusto. It became the favorite part of any meal I ate there.

Thum retired and closed his restaurant in 2007; I found this out only when I went to take my then-new girlfriend (and future wife) to dinner there just a few weeks after the shutdown. I can honestly say that it was a moment of pure loss for me, and the grief I felt was like that of losing a friend or loved one. That may sound silly to some of you — but I’ll bet you never had Thum’s pickled beef. I wish I had some pictures of the food from those days, but I had yet to stumble into this whole food-writer career. What I do have is memories, of a warm dining room, good food, and one of the most unique men whose food I’ve ever had the privilege to eat: Adolf Thum.