Forum Holitorium

Month: February, 2013

Better Living through Butter


There is something missing when French toast or blueberry pancakes are naked of a pat of butter melting and spreading all over their surface. This milk derivative also enriches the standard Wiener Frühstück (Viennese breakfast) offered in cafés: rolls with butter and jam (preferably apricot) accompanied by a cup of coffee. Crêpes taste and turn out the best when butter is used to grease the pan. And sometimes a dollop of butter on top is all a bowl of polenta needs on a cold winter’s night.

Butter is predominantly made from milk from cows. When cow’s milk is left to rest, the rich cream will separate and rise to the top. This cream can either be churned directly to make sweet cream butter (common in the U.S. and U.K.) or fermented and then churned to make cultured butter (common in continental Europe). Salt may be added as a preservative. The color of butter depends on the animal’s diet. Grass-fed cows produce yellower butter thanks to the carotenoids in grass. Unfortunately, it is hard to tell just by looking at butter what the cows ate because the food industry regularly dyes butter obtained from grain-fed cows to make it look more authentic to consumers. Milk from grass-fed cows contains more Omega-3 fatty acids and conjugated linoleic acid than milk from grain-fed cows. We are lucky here that Heumilch (literally “hay milk,” referring to milk from pasture-fed cows) products make up 15% of all milk products made in Austria.


I had been wanting to try my hand at homemade butter since reading a book about making all sorts of food at home. Last month I reread the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House books still in my possession, which brought home to me how much I was influenced by the whole DIY pioneer ethic of the series. The first book in the series sets Thursday as the day of the week to churn butter. But it wasn’t just the influence of books that led to this project. One of my goals this year is to reduce the amount of packaging I bring home. Cream at the organic grocery store comes in jars that can be returned while butter comes in packaging that must be thrown away. In short, the time was finally ripe.

I bought a jar of cream (36% fat, 250 ml) and let it come to room temperature. After I had brought the cream to room temperature, got distracted or lazy, and recooled it three times, TC finally took charge of the situation and prepared to churn. Well, mix. Though we have a butter mold lying around from days of yore, no churn has survived. We could have chose to shake, but all our glass jars were busy storing dried goods and jam.


It was surprising how quickly we had butter. In just about three minutes, the buttermilk and butter began to separate.


The newborn butter should be rinsed in cold water and kneaded to force out any remaining buttermilk, whose presence increases the likelihood that the butter will become rancid.


Our butter yield was about half the weight of the cream, approximately 125 g, plus a glass of buttermilk for  master mixer TC. Though it is true that we pay more out of our own pockets to make butter instead of buying it (EUR 1.99 for 250 g organic butter vs. EUR 1.69 for 250 g organic cream yielding 125 g butter), we are planning on continuing to make butter ourselves for a few reasons. First, it’s fun. Second, it decreases the packaging we throw away (and avoids consuming energy to make and then dispose of the packaging). Finally, assuming that our butter consumption remains the same as it was in 2012 (an average of 2.5 kilos per person), the difference in cost between making our own butter and buying it ready made for one year is roughly what it costs for the two of us to go out to dinner one time. In the end, small “sacrifices” (i.e. not going out to eat once, which many times is not a sacrifice at all) can add up to savings (20 butter wrappers that don’t need to be produced and disposed of) somewhere else in the system.


The Festivals of Februarius

Ash Wednesday. I remember going to mass, the priest’s thumb smudging my forehead with grey. “…unto dust you shall return,” he droned over and over. I have no strong memories of how I felt about this ritual at the beginning of Lent. What was more salient was the feast of St. Blaise on February 3, when my class trudged through the cold from the school building past the convent to the church. It was time to get our throats blessed. That seemed much more sensible – after all, whenever I got sick, it was something throat-related. Though I can’t say that the crossing of the candles in front of my throat ever helped much. To this day, when I get sick, it always involves a malady of the respiratory tract.

February has been a month of celebrations for a long time. Februarius was the last month of the year in the Roman calendar. Starting on February 13, the nine-day Parentalia festival honored a family’s ancestors. Thoughts turned to those deceased at the same time that winter gave way to spring, death leading to rebirth. February 15 was the Roman holiday Februa devoted to purification. It was time to wash, clean, and prepare for spring and the new year.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Chinese just welcomed in the Year of the Snake on Sunday, the second new moon after the winter solstice. It is also customary to remember ancestors that have died. Preparations for the new year involve cleaning your house and sweeping out any bad luck from the previous year.

Yesterday was the last day of Fasching, or Carnival. Normally there is a big parade through the center of town, but much to my surprise it was called off this year due to the World Ski Championships. I imagine there must have been a lot of disappointed little kids since this is kind of the Austrian equivalent of Halloween, when (not just) children dress up and party. Well, I’m sure they dressed up and partied anyways, just without the highlight of the parade. In fact, the dressing up and partying has been going on in Austria since November 11 at 11:11 A.M., when Fasching officially started. The height of the ball season – including the famous Opernball at the Vienna State Opera last Thursday – coincides with Fasching.

The last day of Carnival is called Mardi Gras in the Francophone world and parts of the Americas. I remember making crepes in French class in high school, learning to hold a coin in one hand for good luck while flipping the crepe in the other. I often make crepes for Fat Tuesday, but yesterday a steaming bowl of chickpea, Swiss chard, and ditalini soup was more inviting.

So here we are on the first day of Lent. Though it is supposed to be a dreary time of renunciation and penance and mortification, at some point I started to see Lent as a time where you can start over again, break a bad habit, change your life for the better, or simply experiment and do something new. Lent provides a framework for a new beginning. Kind of like a second stab at a New Year’s resolution. That said, I won’t be giving anything up for Lent this year because I have already given up alcohol and caffeine for 2013. Just to see if I can. Well, for health reasons too.

Though I have been thinking about deceased ancestors (the whole discussion surrounding Ratzinger’s resignation brings me back to the death of my grandma several days after the death of Pope John Paul II), my focus has been more on the cleaning and purification aspects of February festivals. For the past month, I have been sorting, decluttering, and organizing absolutely everything in my possession. Friday and Saturday, for example, I tackled my collection of recipes. I tossed a bunch and then put the ones I still want to try in a separate folder. I organized them by the season in which the ingredients can be sourced locally. Finally, I made a list so I can see quickly what recipes are in the folder. If I haven’t tried a recipe within one year, I will throw it away next February. Last night’s soup was the result of this fit of organization. The next step: going through all the recipes I have saved on my computer.

Hope you too get bit by the organization bug and enjoy preparing for the coming explosion of spring!

Barley from Head to Toe

In 1324, Edward II of England decreed that one inch is equal to the length of three barleycorns. If this were knitting and each barleycorn a stitch, I would be in big trouble and the sweater wouldn’t fit. Believe it or not, American and UK shoe sizes also date back to the barleycorn unit of measurement. It looks so simple and demure lying next to the tape measure, but barley hides many secrets. I bet you didn’t know that barley’s genome is 1.3 times larger than the human genome and that researchers have identified 20 different foods and beverages made of barley that are commonly consumed in Ethiopia.


When was the last time you ate barley? Hordeum vulgare was domesticated 10,000 years ago in what is today Israel and Jordan, from where it spread to become a staple food in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, and India. Growing rapidly in a variety of climates, it is a part of the cuisines of areas of the world as diverse as Morocco, India, Tibet, and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. The EU is the world’s largest producer and consumer of barley – though I suspect that the majority of the crop goes into feeding animals and making beer. That is the case in the U.S., where English and Scandinavian immigrants introduced the crop so they could continue to brew in the New World. Barley can be grown as a winter crop or a summer crop. Here in Austria, winter crops yield more and are used for animal feed while summer crops go into beer production. I found a statistic stating that in 2002, the average European consumed 1.6 kilograms of barley per year. While I was way below that average last year, I plan on doing my part to increase my personal barley consumption in 2013.

Beans and Barley Soup

This soup grew out of my (still unfulfilled) desire to reproduce the thick orzo e fagioli soups I have eaten in Italy. I have made three different versions in the past three weeks. The basic bean and barley base doesn’t change, but you can alter the melody by mixing and matching the vegetables and herbs.

Olive oil

1 onion, diced

2-4 carrots or leeks sliced into coins

2 turnips or potatoes, diced

2 L / 8 cups water

400 g / 15 oz. cooked cannellini or other white beans

100g / 3.5 oz. barley

2 sprigs or 1 tsp dried herbs (rosemary, thyme, savory)

1 tsp salt

Optional: a few bunches of Swiss chard, kale, or other greens

In a large soup pot, sauté the onion in olive oil until glassy. Add the carrots, turnips, water, and herbs and bring to a boil. Simmer until the vegetables are al dente. Add the beans, barley, and salt and simmer another 30 minutes or until the barley is cooked through. If you are adding greens, put them in about 5-10 minutes before you plan to serve the soup. Serve with freshly ground pepper.

Now that I’m fortified with barley soup and sporting bright new handknit wool socks on my feet, it will be easier to wait out the rest of the winter. Hope you are enjoying the lengthening of the days!