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Butter debauchery

This is from a “Ravenous” column published in 2006 by Ulster Publishing:

“Eat butter first, and eat it last, and live till a hundred years be past.”

–Old Dutch proverb

A bit of butter (this pic refuses to stand upright)

O wild, depraved and decadent butter, you are so creamy and so sinful. Years ago when the masses turned their backs on you for the sake of frugality, health and sensibility, I stayed staunchly by your side, keeping you constantly near, for purely hedonistic reasons. I just didn’t like the taste of margarine.

Now they’re saying that you’re not only tastier but better for us than margarine, that you’re a natural product free of trans-fats, preservatives, emulsifiers and stabilizers. Although there are still plenty of folks who prefer the new light trans-fat-free “spreads,” I’ll stick to my butter, thanks, until they pry my cold dead fingers off those yellow sticks.

When the topic of garlic comes up, I’ve always said it’s my second favorite food, the first being butter. Butter is not really a food, you may argue, but a fat, a flavoring, but I can think of so few things it doesn’t enhance that I think it’s one of the finest foods anywhere. Is there any compliment better than “buttery”? To call a food that isn’t butter “buttery” or a piece of fabric or music or anything “buttery” is high praise indeed.

Love for butter is as basic as the sweet tooth we’re born with. All babies love it. When I was a kid there was always a stick on our family dinner table and my baby sister Katy used to grab it when no one was looking and stick fistfuls into her mouth.

Maybe it’s my northern European heritage that makes me batty for butter. Traditionally the peoples of the warmer Mediterranean climes looked down upon their barbarian neighbors to the north for being butter eaters. The ancient Greeks and Romans used it as a poultice rather than a food and butter didn’t keep well in the heat anyway. In Italy and France the countries are divided for the most part between the rich dairy dishes of the upper regions and the olive-oil-based dishes of the south.

Recently in a Manhattan supermarket I found nearly a dozen imported specialty butters from various parts of Europe. Although the idea of a “fresh” butter traveling across the ocean and sitting on a shelf for an unknown period of time did not prompt me to fork over the substantial cash for any of them, I do have memories of incredibly sweet unsalted butter on breakfast rolls and croissants in pensioni, B & B’s and petits auberges in Europe, butters I’ll take over any ice cream any day, butters that to top with fresh tart-sweet fruit jam seemed almost overkill (but I did it anyway).

The reason that that European butter is so good is not necessarily because it’s unsalted, as I once thought, or that the cows are special, which I’m sure they are, or that they eat special European grasses, which I’m sure they do, but that European butter has a higher butterfat content than our commercial butter generally does. By law our American butter must be at least 80% butterfat and so is usually just barely over that. In Europe the percentage is more like 85 or 86. Also, for more flavor many European butters are cultured, tweaked for more flavor by churning the cream more slowly and for longer and sometimes adding cultures and/or lactic acid.

Butter is what’s good about so many things, from simple lusty garlic bread to snails steamy with shallots, garlic, parsley and brandy. What’s skate?, what’s brains?, without brown butter, a butter cooked until its milk solids turn a toasty nutty brown. Its cousin black butter is a very dark brown, not black. The paler milder beurre blanc (white butter) is an emulsion of butter with wine or vinegar, and bercy butter has shallot, white wine, bone marrow, parsley and lemon juice. Then there’s lemony Hollandaise. A popular French technique chefs love is to “mount” a sauce with butter by finishing it with a flourish of butter at the end to add gloss, body and flavor.

More simply, a pat of butter is the only way to scramble an egg, as far as I’m concerned.

And then there’s butter rum flavor and butter pecan ice cream. Butter in piecrust makes for best flavor but a less flaky crust than lard or shortening. It’s essential for the best cookies and cakes. There’s hot buttered popcorn that smells like the movies, whether you’re there or not, and homemade bread fresh from the oven slathered with butter. “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts,” said the late James Beard.

There are luscious compound butters spiked with herbs to dot on plain grilled meats or fish, or Indian butter chicken with ginger, garlic and spice. Niter kibbeh is an Ethiopian clarified spiced butter just as good on potatoes or rice as on the spicy exotic Ethiopian dishes that I love to cook. Smen is an aged Moroccan version.

Larousse Gastronomique suggests coating butter balls in breadcrumbs and deep-frying them to accompany poached fish. The equally decadent Italian-American Alfredo sauce is made merely of sick amounts of butter with cream and cheese. I’ll pass on that one. Recipes for mashed potatoes call for obscene amounts of butter, too, like two sticks to a pound of spuds or some such, a philosophy I don’t subscribe to, spiking mine with olive oil often, and using only a tablespoon or two of butter unless it’s a holiday.

I usually keep whipped salted butter in my fridge for toast, for easier spreading, plus sticks of unsalted butter for cooking, in order to control the salt content of my dishes, although it doesn’t keep as long as salted butter.

“Light” butter has water, gelatin or skin milk added. I don’t go there. Just use less. Ghee and clarified butters were invented in the absence of refrigeration to keep butter longer by removing the milk solids but they remove some flavor, too. They are great for sautéing, though, with their much higher smoking point.

There are the original butters before cow (butter happened thousands of years BC, the original made in goatskin pouches), like those of yaks, sheep, goats, mares, donkeys, camels, buffalos, water buffaloes, llamas and reindeer.

Unsalted butter can be stored in the freezer to keep better, but wherever it is it should be well wrapped to keep off flavors from getting in. Some swear by watery ceramic butter bells on the counter; some say they encourage mold. Some English people shell out 34 pounds for the ButterWizard, “the world’s first fully portable Temperature Controlled Butter Dish, which both heats and cools regardless of ambient temperature, ensuring your butter stays at the perfect temperature for spreading – anytime, anywhere.”

Although I often said in my foolish twenties that there was no such thing as too much sex or too much butter on a baked potato, I’ve since learned that a little bit (of butter, that is) can be just enough, disagreeing with butter-eating world record holder Donald Lerman who ate seven sticks in five minutes.

Naughty or nice, when it comes to the creamy spread for your December bagel be naughty and go for the butter. It’s holiday time, live extra large: buy a jewel for someone who deserves it, eat Krause’s chocolate ‘til you feel ill, eat three dozen escargots at Le Canard Enchainée or a fat tub of good butter from Ronnybrook. Whatever you do to be decadent, eat more butter.

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