June 8, 2013

Recipe: Compound Butter

So now that we’ve established that saturated fat is not the root of all evil (and, in fact, might be the root of all good), I thought it would be nice to post a recipe that celebrates the beauty of butter. Actually, it’s not so much a recipe as a guide, because even though there are “recipes” for different compound butters, my philosophy when it comes to things like this is, “Everything to taste.” This kind of cooking drives some people crazy, since it completely omits measuring. No exact number of teaspoons, grams, or ounces. But you know what they say: baking is a science; cooking is an art. Exact measurements are more important when it comes to baked goods rising, staying moist, or otherwise turning out the way they’re supposed to. To steal a line from a novel I sort of finished writing a few years ago, “A cook’s best tools are clean hands and a sense of adventure.” The sense of adventure comes in handy with recipes like this, where you just have to trust your eyes, your nose, and your taste buds.

Compound butters are nothing more than butter mixed with herbs, spices, fruit, nuts, or whatever else sounds good to you that day. The most common ones are probably the savory ones, but the sweet ones are awfully delicious and make a fantastic (and deceptively simple) addition to any brunch spread. Wanna impress your friends? Make compound butter. Put a little knob of a garlic and chive butter on top of grilled steak and you’ll fool them into thinking they walked into your dining room but somehow ended up at a fancypants French bistro. Or spread raspberry butter on warm scones and be prepared to have guests every Sunday morning.

I’ve been wanting to try my hand at compound butters for a long time, and now that the farmer’s markets are in full swing again and fresh herbs are everywhere, I decided now was the thyme. (HA! Get it? The thyme! *crickets.*) Well, actually, what really happened was, I bought bunches of parsley and dill to season roast chicken, and it occurred to me that if I made compound butter, it would be a good way for me to use ‘em up before they get soggy and die, which I have a bad habit of letting happen to fresh herbs in my kitchen.

I have no exact amounts to give you. Like I said, this is more a guide than a recipe. I used SMJOR Icelandic butter since I didn’t have any locally produced butter on hand. (Will procure some this weekend from Clear Spring Creamery at the Arlington Farmer’s Market.) Yes, it came all the way from Iceland, so lots of “food miles” there, but I have to assume that they’re still doing things right in Iceland…you know, like feeding their cows grass, the way nature intended. I consider myself a bit of a butter connoisseur, and this is one of the tastier ones you can buy at the store.
Anything that starts with these ingredients has got to be good!

Okay, so the recipe:

I used about a stick of butter, softened (8 Tbsp or 4 ounces). Leave the butter at room temperature for a while before attempting this. Cold butter ain’t gonna mix with nothin’. (Not in this recipe, anyway. For pie crust or shortbread dough, yes. The colder, the better.) I finely chopped about 3 Tbsp each of the parsley and dill, along with 4 small cloves of fresh, raw garlic. Again, this was all “to taste,” so the amounts here are ballpark guesses. Love garlic? (Or hate vampires?) Add more. (But if you have a significant other, make sure he/she loves garlic too, or you and your breath might be sleeping on the couch…) I mixed everything with a fork in a big bowl, but you can use a food processor. (Make sure you use a rubber scraper to get every last bit out when you’re done, though. The people on Food Network drive me crazy when they leave copious amounts of brownie batter or something equally sinful in the mixing bowl. I know they’re pressed for time when they’ve only got a half-hour show, but man, when I cook, believe you me, bits of chocolate are not getting left behind.)

Very herbalicious.

So how’d it come out? Pretty darn good for my first try! Next time, I’d chop the herbs a little less finely, but this was still perfectly palatable. I ended up adding a pinch of salt and pepper, and it made a big difference. Just that little extra somethin’-somethin’ that took it over the top. (Yes, the butter was already salted, but only a little, and when it comes to herb butters, I think we’re going for big flavor.)

Unless you’re going to use them right away, the best way to store compound butters is in the freezer. The way to do it is to put it on a layer of plastic wrap and shape it as best you can into a log shape. Wrap it up tightly and twist the ends so it looks like an old-fashioned hard candy. This is an especially good way to keep it for the aforementioned addition to steak: simply cut a slice off the log and place on top of the meat to melt. Y-U-M. (Why no pictures of the finished product all rolled up? Well, to be honest, it looked a little phallic. Correction: it looked a lot phallic, and I just wasn’t going to go there. (The least you can do is buy me dinner first.) So here's how it looked in a nice, G-rated glass dish instead:

You can make compound butters with lots of different things. For savory flavors, think basil, sage, chives, rosemary, parsley, thyme, garlic – although not necessarily all together! For sweet versions, you can combine butter with fruit preserves (raspberry, strawberry, or apricot/peach would be perfect), or how about honey, cinnamon, and maybe some chopped toasted pecans or walnuts?

So what can you do with these amazing creations? For the savory versions, besides the steak thing, how about:
  • Adding it to steamed vegetables. (Think broccoli’s boring? Not with this stuff on it!)
  • Melting some over salmon or other seafood. (Tip: use lemon zest in your butter!)
  • Making the best garlic bread you’ve ever had. (Try garlic, basil, and oregano.)
  • Melt it, put it in a fancy white ramekin and use as a dip for shrimp or lobster, if you want to impress someone.
  • Two words:  homemade popcorn.

For the sweet ones  (allow to soften before serving for easier spreading if you’ve had it in the freezer):
  • Use to add a special touch to breakfast, especially when entertaining. Fruity butters are awesome with waffles or pancakes (whether regular or gluten/grain-free).
  • Add to other breakfast & brunch treats: scones, muffins, croissants, if you’re the wheat-eating type.

Have compound butter ideas I didn't mention here? Share them with me in the comments!

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