Peppermint flavoring, almond extract, gooey candied fruit, thick dark molasses, perfumey cardamom … the list could go mouth-wateringly on and on.
Christmas cooking and Christmas baking demand many ingredients not normally used in everyday cooking. And that’s what makes the holiday season such a sheer delight for those besotted with all things culinary.
But one ingredient stands out, essential in many Christmas dishes, and likely resting quietly in just about every refrigerator of every serious cook. Not because of its exoticism, but because of its almost universal presence in Christmas recipes.
What is this 10,000-year-old ambrosial elixir, this culinary behemoth?
If you guessed butter (or “real” butter as my siblings and I used to call it, distinguishing it from the pasty margarine we ate 362 days of the year — the only exceptions being Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter), you’d be right.
The other day, the local Kroger offered butter at $2.00 a pound, down from the usual price of over $4 a pound, for the higher quality kind at least. Being a natural food hoarder, a questionable trait that I developed while living in several developing countries, I jumped at the chance to squirrel away yet more butter.
You see, in many Christmas seasons past, I simply could not buy butter in the places where I lived. Instead of butter, I experimented with butter flavoring and rancid shortening. No, not so good, but better than going without the butter-rich, fragrant sugar cookies [recipe below] and sandbakkels recipes my mother-in-law encouraged me to make.
How easy it is, now, to just grab a few cardboard-covered oblongs off the shelves in the grocery store, plop them into my cart, and race to the checkout before the butter softens too much.
No need, really, to worry about butter, unless you beat your heavy cream a bit too much while engrossed in the Weather Channel.
No doubt you remember seeing a butter churn in a museum, or, barring that, a picture of one in a book or magazine. But actually using one? Few modern cooks can fathom the labor that went into making butter, an item that became popular in English cookery at the time of the Tudors. Much less do they know just how to churn butter.
Here’s how cookbook author Edna Lewis described the process, actually quite similar in manner to the pounding of grains:
Butter was a homemade product. We would spend a whole day skimming the cream from the top of a number of milk crocks [Note: it takes 21 pounds of fresh milk to make 1 pound of butter, according to Jennifer McLagan in Fat*]. The wood churn had to be scalded and filled with water to swell it in order to close the opening that had developed as the wood dried out. The cream was poured in, and Grandpa usually did the churning, sitting on the front porch in warm weather or before the fireplace hearth in winter. … Mother would spend hours washing the butter by kneading it with wooden paddles.
Given its rather temporary, and temperamental, nature in the absence of cold, butter failed to keep well unless people took drastic steps, which the Irish and Northern Europeans did. Burying salted butter — often for years — in large casks called “firkins,” led to a rather pungent product, redolent no doubt of the peat bogs in which they were immersed and subsequently fermented. People in the Middle East and North Africa still follow this practice: think of Moroccan “smen,” added to tagines to add a depth of indescribable flavor. For people with iffy caloric futures, butter promised a plump supply of easily eaten calories.
A South Carolina plantation mistress, Harriott Pinckney Horry, wrote detailed instructions on proper churning:
The principal art in churning lies in keeping the cream of a due degree of warmth in the churn in giving it a regular agitation. If Butter comes too quickly, it is soft and frothy and soon turns rancid. If too slowly, it loses its flavor and texture. From one to two hours is a proper length of time in churning. If the cream be frothy in the Churn open its mouth for a few minutes to let in the air and give the froth time to dissipate.
An old traditional song— with many variations — from the British Isles, first printed in 1685, testifies to the long history of butter-making there:
Come butter come
Come butter come
Peter stands at the gate
Waiting for a buttered cake.
Come butter come.
That pat of butter on your toast, those easy-to-whip sticks of butter for your cake, the sweet butter melting in your French sauce, all such a luxury, actually. Not really an everyday ingredient …
CHRISTMAS SUGAR COOKIES
(Makes 3-4 dozen)
A favorite Norwegian cookie for any time of the year. The recipe came from a favorite Norwegian aunt who has been gone a long time, but whose memory is invariably evoked by the tantalizing aroma of these sweet cookies when they come out of the oven.
2 cups flour
1/2 t. cream of tartar
1/2 t. soda
1/4 t. salt
12 T. butter
3/4 cup sugar
1 T. cream or milk
1 t. almond extract
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Sift dry ingredients together and set aside. Cream butter and sugar; add egg, milk, and almond extract. Add flour to creamed mixture and mix well, until a soft dough forms.
Roll out dough on lightly floured board, cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheets. Bake at 375 degrees for 7-8 minutes. Do not brown. Freeze and then frost after thawing if cookies are made in advance.
Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations, by Alexander Carmichael (Edinburgh: Printed for the author, 1900)
A Colonial Plantation Cookbook: The Receipt Book of Harriott Pinckney Horry, 1770, Edited with an Introduction by Richard J. Hooker, 1984
“Come Butter Come: A Collection of Churning Chants from Georgia.” Foxfire, vol. 3, 1966 (A collection of 72 chants, collected by Chuck Perdue.)
*Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient with Recipes, by Jennifer McLagan (2009)
Glossary of Northamptonshire Words and Phrases, by Anne Elizabeth Baker (London: John Russell Smith, 1854)
© 2009 C. Bertelsen