Butter me up!

Some kitchen magic today – butter making! The process of turning cream into golden butter is something akin to alchemy. From goats’ milk churned by swinging in skins hanging from sticks, through ritual lamp burning in India, to a Napoleonic crisis brought on by its shortage, butter has played a hugely varied role in humanity’s history.

Like many agricultural developments, butter has its origins in the Middle East thousands of years ago. There are references made to butter in many Greek and Roman texts as well as Arabic and early Eastern writing. Seen as inferior to other culinary oils, it was mainly used for fuel and ritual purposes – the ancient Greeks used ‘butter eaters’ as a derogatory term for Thracians. As something made almost accidentally from cream and prone to spoiling in heat and sunlight, it’s easy to see why it was of little importance in this part of the ancient world (though clarified butter became increasingly used in cooking as it can be kept longer and heated higher). Further north it kept longer and added welcome fat to the cuisine. There are incidences of Norse and Celtic burials where butter was included in the grave goods, and the recovery of ancient ‘bog butter’ in Ireland shows the length our ancestors went to in order to preserve it.

Many of us will have made butter (or almost butter) completely accidentally by over-whipping cream. If you’ve reached that point where your wonderfully fluffy whipped cream starts to look a little granular, then you’re one step away from butter! When cream is whipped/ beaten/ churned for long enough the fat globules will eventually become damaged and begin to stick together to form a solid mass. What was cream a few seconds earlier is now lumps of butter swimming in buttermilk (or the liquid part of the cream that’s left).

As with anything, the quality of the raw ingredients can make a huge difference to the final product but I think butter is particularly rewarding as it is possible to make something at least as good as basic shop-bought with pretty basic resources. I would love to say I make my butter every time with straight from the farm gate raw cream. I don’t. I am lucky enough to have access to fantastic raw milk but really can rarely be bothered to let it stand and then skim off the cream. Using raw cream, especially when it has stayed out overnight to enhance the flavour, makes for incredible butter; but regular cream from the supermarket will still give pretty decent results.

The yield will vary depending on the cream and its butterfat content. I’ve found that typical double cream gives about 50:50 butter to buttermilk. So 1 litre of cream will give around 500g of butter and 500ml of buttermilk.

You will need…

  • Cream (any kind, though of course single will yield less butter than double)
  • Salt – I mostly use normal table salt, but if you were feeling flash then something like Maldon salt gives a lovely texture.
  • Large bowl (remember that the cream will substantially increase in volume as it becomes whipped)
  • Electric whisk
  • Sieve
  • Jug
  • Butter paddles/ wooden spoons/ wooden spatulas
  • Greaseproof paper



  1. Pour the cream into the bowl and begin to whisk into whipped cream. I put a clean tea towel over the bowl and around the mixer which helps guard against pebble-dashing your entire kitchen with whipped cream.fullsizerender-7
  2. Keep whisking past the whipped cream stage until it begins to look granular. Stop occasionally to scrape down the sides so you don’t miss any bits.
  3. The cream will start to change colour, going increasingly yellow as the coagulating fat reflects the light differently. There will be tiny yellow grains that get larger as you whisk.fullsizerender-14
  4. The butter grains start to come together and a translucent liquid will start to pool in the bottom of the bowl.

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  5. Whisk for as long as you can until there is a solid lump of butter sitting in a pool of buttermilk.fullsizerender-10
  6. Pour the contents of the bowl through a sieve, collecting the buttermilk in the jug.
  7. Rinse the butter in very cold water, squeezing and kneading as much buttermilk out as possible. fullsizerender-6
  8. If salting, weigh the butter and measuring out 1/4 tsp salt for every 110g butter. Flatten the butter out, sprinkle over the salt and knead it into the butter.fullsizerender-13
  9. Using butter paddles (or something similar, though it should be wood so it doesn’t conduct the warmth of your hands) shape the butter into blocks and wrap in greaseproof paper. Unsalted, it will keep for 4 or 5  days and salted will keep for around 2 weeks.fullsizerender-8

But what about the buttermilk?! I hear you cry…

Slightly milky, slightly acidic it’s not a wholly unpleasant drink but I think it’s way more useful in the kitchen. It makes an excellent marinade to tenderise chicken – think real, Deep South fried chicken. Its acidity works well with raising agents in baking, especially in American style pancakes or (as I made) in place of milk in scones.

Buttermilk scones spread with freshly made butter and jam

Baby-led weaning, Budgeting, and the Birth of the reverse shopping list…


So, the little one has decided that he’d quite like in on this eating thing the big people keep doing. This is where we get to live in a house now permanently covered in mashed banana in exchange for some really hilarious photos to show his first girlfriend. Luckily (?) last month I took the difficult decision not to return to work but to focus on finishing some studies, teaching about cheese, and doing things like this blog – so of course I have loads of time now to chisel off dried up shreddies from the high chair legs. Hmmm….

These two things are what has inspired this post, as well as a more general sense of how abhorrent the wastage of food is. Whilst we have always been fairly careful about our budget, the drop to one wage has meant some fast arithmetic at the supermarket checkout recently. This of course makes for quite a wrench when several times a day we have to watch a small portion of that food get splattered over the carpet or smeared into big brother’s hair.

Baby-led weaning works on the premise that your baby is in control of feeding himself. They have what you have, and find their own ways of getting what they want to their mouths. It allows them to experiment with chewing and biting food before swallowing and to have experience of different textures and flavours. This appeals hugely to my sentiments that the more exposure children have to food (how it’s made, where it’s from, what is eaten around the world and how, etc.), then the healthier their relationship with food and eating can be. It’s also loads of fun – we can’t be the first people to give their baby a pickled gherkin just to see the face they pull?! (http://www.babyledweaning.com)

Therefore, a combination of trying to save some pennies and a realisation that for quite some time my kitchen will be full of lots of random leftovers has led to the creation of *fanfare* The Reverse Shopping List! This has been a brilliant way to save money and has also cut down on the need to do a ‘fridge cull‘. Come on… admit it…. you’ve all stood in front of your fridge with a bin bag containing liquid cucumber and the lone Petit Filous at the back that was use by last year sometime. Now you need never face that shame again! Well, not so often, depending on your strength at resisting impulse buys.

Basically, the reverse shopping list is a way of planning the family’s meals for the week based on what you have already. I think most people do the majority of their food shop at a supermarket, so no matter how strict you are there is always more than you need. Courgettes, right? It is not possible to buy one small courgette. You want small courgettes? Here, have 3 in a pack! You only want one? Here, they’re all enormous though! Aargh!!!! Ahem, anyway…

I start my list with 3 columns – fridge, cupboard, freezer. I then list everything we have under those columns (except for things like milk that you’ll forget to buy anyway and have to go back for… or the box of ice poles you were bullied into buying in July and now the kids don’t want because all the cola ones have gone.).

I then try to see if there’s anything on those lists that spring out to me as a meal in waiting. I give ‘priority’ to the Fridge list as this is usually the most perishable. For example, my list this week had red pepper, cabbage and celery which made me think of stir fry; and my Cupboard list says I have noodles – winner! The best bit about it is that I get to learn new recipes. So, if I’ve exhausted my kitchen repertoire and there’s still loads on the list I start googling the ingredients to see what comes up. I have half a pot of yoghurt at the moment left over from curry at the weekend and it’s feeling too autumnal to want it for breakfast. I did a search for ‘recipes with yoghurt’ and came up with a Hairy Bikers recipe on the BBC website for shaksuka which I’d never even heard of. It looks great, uses even more of my ingredients list, and maybe, just maybe, the six year old might not find it poisonous. (http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/shakshouka_74716)

It’s not necessary to have all the ingredients for everything as long  as the left overs are no longer left over. Then you can write your regular shopping list for the bits you need for the recipes. This method today meant a weeks shop for the family was only half a trolley full and came in at under £50. I’d love to hear what your reverse shopping lists come up with!


Caveat: this technique assumes a fairly well-stocked ‘larder’ – by this I mean herbs and spices, flour, pasta, tinned tomatoes etc. These basics are well worth any initial expenditure as it means something can always be scrabbled together to feed the family. This is something for another post…


Make yourself a happiness pie


This post is in memory of my Granma whose baking was (as far as my cousins and I are concerned) second to none. I remember that I loved her coconut sponge, but my little brother was a chocolate cake fan so whenever we came to stay she’d have baked both. The cakes were good, but it is the pastry I remember best. How flour, butter, and the carrier bags full of blackberries we’d picked walking in the Northumbrian countryside were transformed into golden crusted deliciousness was magical. She had a belief that a person could either make pastry or they couldn’t, and would always tell me I’d inherited her pastry-making hands. Whether or not this is true I’m not sure but I find the methodical act of rubbing in butter to flour wonderfully soothing; and bringing a golden, flaky (usually slightly leaking) pie from the oven for your loved ones is so good for the soul.

Pastry making can be traced back to ancient times, both Greek and Roman cuisine featured sweet pastry delicacies and the use of basic dough to create a case in which to cook meat goes back even further. The etymology of the word pastry seems simple enough, but its use in modern English may have a more convoluted journey. It, of course, has the same Latin origins as our word paste, the French pâte, and the Italian pasta but what’s interesting is that in English paste and pastry seem to have entered the language at different points. Paste is a Roman leftover and serves as a more general description of any soft, granular substance, but it seems that pastry entered the lexicon courtesy of the Normans. It is in fact an Anglicisation of the Old French pastairie (itself a derivative of the Latin pasta that became, in turn, pâté). It initially referred more to the finely chopped and seasoned meat than to the simple dough casing in which it was cooked. We know that the dough used for cooking was often eaten by the servants after the meat was served, so it makes sense that the Anglo-Saxon speaking natives would use the Norman word to refer to the part of that particular dish they got to eat.

So what of those pastry-making hands? When one makes pastry, the tiny grains of the flour are encased in the fat which stops long strands of gluten forming when water is added and the mixture is cooked – the opposite of bread dough. This is what makes the crumbly, flaky goodness known as being ‘short’. Though if the flour is too well coated then the pastry will have no structure at all, and so it’s important that the fat doesn’t become too warm. Whilst I have little experience of making many of the variations of pastry, the simple shortcrust I’m writing about today seems perfectly suited to my long-suffering, poorly circulated, perennially cold hands!

I apologise for the vagueness of today’s recipe but I don’t think I’ve ever measured amounts for shortcrust pastry. Despite my fond memories of Granma Fenwick’s blackberry and apple pie, it was my mum who taught me to make pastry. She would stand me on a chair and let me help with the rubbing in. The thing I most remember about making pastry with mum is that there was always plenty left over which I was allowed to mix with honey and form into shapes, so it would appear that non-adherence to strict quantities may be a family trait!

Shortcrust pastry

(Simple shortcrust pastry is far more forgiving than some would have you believe, it’s actually quite hard to get wrong – the worst you’ll have is something mediocre and as long as the filling’s tasty no one will notice! So while my recipe is pretty vague it shouldn’t matter too much and you’ll very quickly get a feel for it. It’s roughly half the amount of fat to flour. Also, remember, if you make too little then make a lattice top rather than a whole lid and if you make too much, it will always freeze.)

Plain flour – to make a decent-sized fruit pie, I fill a large mixing bowl just less than half full

Unsalted butter – fairly cold, but not so chilled you can’t work it. For this quantity of flour I use around 3/4 of a 250g pack.

1 large egg – yolk and white separated

Cold water

 – Cut the butter into small cubes (around 1cm squared) and add around half into the flour. (I love dropping it in from a height and making little craters… This might be just me.).

– Using thumb and first two fingers rub the butter and flour together, adding more cubes of butter as you go. This is hard work but kind of hypnotic. Eventually the mixture will come together and look a bit like breadcrumbs – I find if I reach my hand right to the bottom of the bowl and stir there’s always a either a rogue patch of unadulterated flour or lump of butter, so it’s worth a check.

– With a pallet knife (or, you know, the knife you cut the butter with because it’s one less thing to wash up) mix in the egg yolk

– Make a well in the middle of the mixture and pour in a little of the water. Using that knife again fold the sides of the well on top of the water and very gently mix inwards from the sides.

– Add and mix in more water a tiny amount at a time until the mixture starts to come together then use your (cold, cold) hands to begin forming the dough into a ball. 

– Once you have a (minimally handled) fairly smooth ball of dough, lift it from the bowl, wrap in cling film and refrigerate. Leave it for at least an hour (I usually give it the time it takes me to prep and cook my filling) so the fat can firm up again. If your dough seems really sticky when you lift it out then sprinkle it with more flour.

– Preheat the oven to 180 degrees 

– After resting the dough it’s time to roll it. It’s still important to avoid handling it too much so I find it’s best to portion it before rolling: cutting it into slightly inaccurate halves – the larger for the base and the smaller for the lid. Flour the surface and the rolling pin and roll to around 1/2 cm thickness or thinner if you dare!

– Grease the pie dish and gently lay the pie base over it. Using your knuckles press the pastry into the edges so it covers the dish. Prick holes all around with a fork to allow air to escape whilst baking (it looks pretty cool if you don’t but is rather useless as a pie crust).

– Cover with baking parchment weighed down (if you have those little pottery beans then great, I use a plate) and put in the oven for around 20 minutes, taking away the parchment for the last few minutes.

– Add the filling (cooked fruit, meat and gravy, mincemeat, four and twenty blackbirds…)

– Slick the edges with the egg white to help the two edges stick together and lay the lid on top.

– Glaze the top with the egg whites and cut a couple of slits for the steam to escape (do it in this order or the egg wash will cover the slits up)

– Bake for another 20 minutes or until the perfect colour.


As I said, these are rather vague directions and there are dozens of recipes put together by far more competent cooks than myself if you need a bit more accuracy. I just feel that making pastry is so simple, that everyone should do it and it shouldn’t be a scary thing to attempt. Also, I believe that it’s the imperfections that make a home made pie so appealing – there’s something  ‘come hither’ about the tantalising glimpse of escaped filling bubbling out of the top; and the more ragged the overhanging edges are, the more opportunities for breaking off bits of hot, buttery pastry en route to the table.





As well as the family members mentioned here, I also got some help from the excellent ‘Lab Notes’ blog on The Guardian website and its post by Andy Connelly called ‘Science & Magic of Pastry’ which does include a possibly more helpful recipe than mine. (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/feb/20/recipe-fat-flour-water-science-pastry)


Milking it…


In seeking to write about food and eating I thought it best to begin at the beginning; to start where we all start (gastronomically speaking); with milk.
As a new mum, and as someone who’s spent the last 10 years working with dairy, I’ve thought about milk a lot. Really, a lot.
It’s incredible that we can produce this complete foodstuff to nourish infants and equally astounding is mankind’s adaptation to not only consume the milk of other mammals but continue to draw nutrition from it into adulthood; plus the scientific innovations that make it possible for us to simulate this wonderful stuff to feed infants unable to feed from their mother.

The production of milk to feed the young is a defining trait of mammals and one which has helped mammals to become so successful. In developing a way of feeding the young outside of the mother allows for mammals to have a ‘childhood’ stage of development. Not needing to come into the world wholly ready to go means more of the energy in utero can go on brain size and complexity, and the finishing touches (teeth, eyesight, quills, fur, claws, etc.) can be completed after birth.

Aside from the proverbial ‘cat that got the cream‘, humans are unique in not only drinking milk from other mammals but continuing to drink it outside of infancy. The enzyme needed to digest milk – lactase – normally ceases to be produced in great quantities in the gut within the first year of life. This is to allow for the production of enzymes more useful for the digestion of solid food as the infant moves toward life away from its mother. It would seem that some kind of genetic mutation occurred in mans history that allowed for continued lactase production – these genes would have been passed on in tribes of humans moving northwards as this trait would have allowed them to flourish as they could feed their infants longer in increasingly difficult environments. This mutations success was compounded as animals were domesticated and could be used for a food that didn’t involve killing them. In other words, if your baby could be breastfed longer when there wasn’t much food to go around, they would have a better chance of surviving and having children of their own. Then, if your family could drink the milk of the sheep/ goats/ aurochs you had hanging around but everyone else had to kill theirs in order to eat, you’d probably be around to see the end of the ice age. This development can be seen in the percentage of lactose intolerance across different nationalities or ethnic groups

  • 2% of Scandinavians are lactose intolerant
  • 10% of French and Germans
  • 60% of Southern Europeans and North Africans
  • 70% of African Americans

In our more recent history, we have used to science to assist us in our quest to feed our babies. In spite of the current ‘breast is best’ campaigning, as someone who has struggled to feed 2 tongue-tied babies, watching their weight drop each week (whilst you’re told not to worry as stress effects your milk supply – hooray!), I am eternally grateful to the men and women who took it upon themselves to bring about the innovations that led to the tub of formula milk powder on my kitchen counter.

We have gone from giving a baby goat milk and hoping for the best, through the 19th century concoctions of cows’ milk, flour and potassium bicarbonate, to something as nutritionally close to human breast milk as possible. As someone who studies food labels meticulously (I don’t get out much) when it comes to feeding my family, I was never quite sure I was happy with giving my baby something with an ingredients list that took up most of the tub. It was having the chance to learn a little of what milk consists of during a cheese making lesson, that I realised that if I had to write out the ‘ingredients’ of milk in terms of proteins and sugars etc. then that too would be a pretty hefty list. In our understanding of the composition of both human breast milk and cows’ milk we have been able to add to the latter to replicate the former.

This amazing stuff, giving early mammals an evolutionary advantage and then helping Neolithic man survive an ice age or two, is certainly worth thinking about. It’s the first thing any of us consumed, and thanks to a lucky genetic hiccup we can continue to enjoy it (and all its delicious offshoots) into adulthood. I thought a lot about a recipe to include with this post as I use milk or milk products in so much cooking, but they all seemed too complicated or even deserving of a post of their own so I thought it best to leave milk as a drink. That’s something of a cop out even if good enough for Clockwork Orange’s Alex, or Jean Reno’s hitman Leon, so I decided to continue on the back to childhood theme and make strawberry milk.

250g strawberries
175-200g sugar (depends on taste and how sweet your strawberries are)
475ml water

1 litre milk (preferably whole milk) – this amount will vary according to how strong you like the strawberry flavour. We found it easiest to add the syrup to each glass to individual tastes.

Chop the strawberries and place in a pan with the sugar and water. Bring to the boil and boil for around 10 minutes stirring from time to time until the strawberries start to fall apart and the syrup thickens. Strain through a sieve and cool. Once the syrup is cool add to milk. (Don’t do what I did and ask a 6 year to taste until you got the syrup to milk ratio right – ‘Not quite mummy, it still needs more syrup.’). We drank ours with Rice Krispie squares, this is not essential but rather nice.

EDIT: My old school friend Sumaya got in touch to say her attempt at the strawberry milk was vastly improved by the addition of lime juice. I completely agree – read about it on her blog mamanushka (http://mamanushka.com/srawberry-syrup/)


Many thanks to the wonderful Harold McGee and his ‘On Food and Cooking’ for some of the facts quoted here, also see the 1979 work by R. Jenness on the composition of breast milk (as I said, I don’t get out much). I adapted the recipe from thekitchn.com blog – try it, your kitchen will smell like Chewits. Oh, and the beautiful cows at the top belong to Johnny at Fen Farm Dairy.