ADVERTISEMENT

Jeannie Murphy already has a degree in art history, but she is back at school, this time studying pre-med at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, where she maintains a punishing schedule.

And yet smack in the heat of midterms recently, Murphy threw an impromptu dinner party for her physics study group, during which she served jumbo stuffed shells and artisanal Italian bread with fresh sage butter.

She got the bread at the market. Everything else she made herself, from scratch. Including the butter.

"It's amazing how much better fresh butter is," she explains.

Murphy has been making butter for about a year. She hardly needs to be making more work for herself, but the lure of making her own butter proved too strong.

"I've always been extremely curious about food and how everything is prepared -- I think partly because I grew up in a time where a lot of foods came out of a box," Murphy says.

At 28, she doesn't believe she is alone among her peers in her curiosity about how food works. "When I was a teenager, we started to see things on the Food Network. There was this whole generation of people who wanted to learn about food again. It's almost like we're learning to feed ourselves again instead of letting other people feed us."

Murphy may be on to something: Type into Google "make your own butter" and dozens of sites pop up, many with step-by-step images of the process, which is really just a matter of agitating fresh heavy cream to the point of "breaking" -- when the curds separate from the buttermilk.

A similar DIY enthusiasm surrounds peanut butter, mustard, granola and more.

Like fresh butter, homemade peanut butter, mustard and granola are far superior in flavor and texture to store-bought versions. They are free of preservatives and other additives and, depending on the ingredients used, they also can be less costly.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is how easy they are to make.

>An ultradifference

There are two types of heavy whipping cream available at most supermarkets: pasteurized and ultra-pasteurized.

The two are not interchangeable in cooking. Pasteurized cream has been heated to 167 degrees for 15 seconds, then chilled. It has a shelf life of about 18 days.

Pasteurized cream tastes fresher and whips up quickly into stiff peaks. It separates easily into solids and buttermilk for butter-making.

Ultrapasteurized cream has been heated to 280 degrees for 2 seconds and then chilled. This gives it a longer shelf life -- up to 60 days,

unopened. But it won't whip up as easily or hold peaks as long as standard pasteurized cream. Some creameries add stabilizers to their ultrapasteurized cream to help it whip up better, but it still may not reach stiff-peak stage.

Ultrapasteurized cream has a "cooked" taste and won't separate easily into large curds and buttermilk for making butter (or cheese).

To achieve satisfying results when making the recipes here, it is important to use only standard pasteurized cream.

Unfortunately, standard pasteurized cream is becoming harder to find. Fewer creameries are making it and more stores are stocking only ultrapasteurized cream.

>Butter recipes

Self-taught butter expert Murphy has made butter using all three methods described below and knows the pros and cons of each: The Mason jar, her preferred method, is the cleanest but requires a good arm; the stand mixer is easier on your muscles, but watch out for splatters of buttermilk when the cream reaches its breaking point; the food processor separates the cream quickly and also whips the butter to a lighter consistency, but it isn't nearly as fun as the other two methods. It also doesn't work as well as the jar or mixer when making smaller batches.

>Homemade Butter

2 cups fresh heavy cream, not ultra-pasteurized

1/4 teaspoon salt (optional)

Method 1 -- Mason jar

Step 1: Ripen cream by placing it in a 1-quart Mason jar and letting it sit, lightly covered but not sealed, until it reaches room temperature. Cream can sit for up to 6 hours.

Step 2: Seal jar tightly. Shake vigorously until cream separates into 1 cup butter solids (curds) and 1 cup buttermilk. This will take 20 to 30 minutes. (Have an assistant nearby to relieve you!) Butter curds will be a lovely pastel yellow and resemble ricotta cheese.

Step 3: Pour off buttermilk into a separate bowl and save for another use, such as Herb Cheddar Biscuits (see recipe).

Step 4: Turn butter curds into a fine strainer lined with cheesecloth. Run cold water over curds while gently rubbing a spatula through them to rinse off all traces of buttermilk and water runs clear, about 3 minutes. This will keep butter from going rancid too quickly and bring out the sweetness of the curd -- the acid in buttermilk gives butter a sour taste. Curds will gradually come together as you work spatula through. Enshroud butter in cheesecloth and gently squeeze out excess moisture.

Step 5: Turn butter onto a plate or wide-mouth bowl and work spatula through it to force out more moisture. Pour off liquid as necessary. Taste and, if desired, add salt.

Step 6: Transfer to a glass container or roll in parchment or wax paper. Butter keeps in fridge for up to two weeks.

Method 2 -- stand mixer

Follow as for Method 1, except Step 2: Pour ripened cream into a deep bowl of a stand mixer. If you have one, use a splash guard. Start whipping cream on low to minimize splatters, increasing speed as cream thickens. After about 6 or 7 minutes, cream will become very thick and have a pale yellow hue. This is close to the breaking point (or point of separation). Continue whipping until cream separates into curds and buttermilk.

Follow remaining steps as for Method 1.

Method 3 -- food processor

Follow as for Method 1, except Step 2: Pour ripened cream into bowl of a food processor fitted with chopping blade. Pulse until cream separates into solids and buttermilk. Pulse once or twice more to whip butter, if desired.

Follow remaining steps as for Method 1.

Note: Mixture comes out of food processor resembling butter almost instantly and with a greater separation of curd and buttermilk. This means remaining steps go faster.

Murphy likes to make cheddar biscuits with her fresh buttermilk. This recipe is adapted from "The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The Original Classics" (Clarkson Potter, 2007).

-----

>Herb Cheddar Biscuits

3 1/2 cups unbleached flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter, cubed

1/4 cup cold solid vegetable shortening

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme

1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

In large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Using pastry blender or two knives, cut in butter until well mixed. Cut in shortening until mixture forms pea-size lumps. Stir in parsley, thyme and cheddar.

Form a well in center of ingredients and pour in buttermilk. Stir quickly until mixture just comes together. Do not overmix.

Knead mixture gently in bowl with one hand for two or three turns. Then turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead gently five or six times, until mixture forms a light dough. Don't overknead or biscuits will be tough.

Lightly grease or line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Gently pat out mixture into a rectangle roughly 4 by 8 inches and 3/4 -inch thick. Cut out biscuits with a

2 1/2 -inch round biscuit cutter. Gather scraps, pat out and cut out more biscuits until dough is used up.

Bake in preheated oven 12 to 15 minutes until well risen and golden brown. Makes nine to 10 biscuits.

-----

>DIY Peanut Butter

2 cups shelled raw peanuts

1/4 to 1/3 cup peanut oil (divided) (see note)

2 to 3 teaspoons salt (divided)

1/4 cup honey (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.

Place peanuts in a bowl, drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and mix until all nuts are well coated. Pour out peanuts onto a baking sheet and arrange in a single layer.

Roast peanuts in preheated oven for about 20 minutes, checking often to make sure they don't get too dark. Remove from oven and, while still warm, sprinkle peanuts with 1 teaspoon salt. Mix lightly. Let cool completely.

Pour cooled roasted nuts into bowl of food processor and grind until mixture is consistency of gritty sand. With blades turning, gradually pour in remaining oil and honey, if using, until peanut butter forms a cohesive ball and sits atop the blade, similar to a dough ball. Pulse again, adding in remaining salt to taste. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Peanut butter keeps in fridge for about two weeks.

Note: Untoasted sesame oil or vegetable oil can be substituted.

-----

This is adapted from a recipe by Emeril Lagasse at foodnetwork.com. It is looser than store-bought mustard.

>Rustic Mustard

3 tablespoons yellow mustard seeds

1 tablespoon dark mustard seeds

1 tablespoon ground mustard

2 teaspoons ground turmeric

1/3 cup drinking-quality white wine

1/3 cup white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar

Pinch of ground allspice

1/4 teaspoon salt

In bowl, mix all ingredients together, cover and refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Pour mixture into a small blender or mix with a stick blender until well blended. Makes about 1/2 cup.