Spreading the love

Children learn to make their own butter at organic farming conference

Neshima Vitale-Penniman (rear) and Fiona Conway listen to a demonstration on how to make their own butter. (Jason Cucchiara/Northeast Organic Farming Association)


By Aubin Tyler

Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2010

AMHERST — To make very good butter, you need leak-proof jars with lids and a container of heavy whipping cream.

At the 36th annual Northeast Organic Farming Association Summer Conference held at the University of Massachusetts last weekend, Gavin Harper, 19, and his mom Jennifer Byington, led 30 rapt children in a workshop on the ancient dairy art. It turns out to be a great way to entertain them and make food at the same time.

“Tap it against your paw,’’ Harper instructs the youngsters sitting on a lawn. Faces scrunched in concentration, the kids tap, slosh, and shake their sealed jars of cream, passing them on when they get tired. In no time, the first creamy yellow lump becomes visible, floating in a thin, milky-white liquid.

“That’s fresh buttermilk,’’ Byington says. “It’s not sour at all, it’s sweet.’’ She cautions that it’s not the same as store-bought cultured buttermilk, to which an added culture imparts a thick, tart taste. “It smells like cheese,’’ says John Boettcher, 11, of Southbury, Conn. “It tastes pretty good. It’s really fun to make.’’

Some kids don’t wait for crackers and taste right away. “Oh, my God, it’s awesome,’’ says Fiona Conway, 9, of Lakeville. “Really good and creamy,’’ adds 12-year-old Laura Benzing of North Canton, Ohio, who’s visiting her grandparents this summer on their organic farm in Berkley. “It’s kind of cool. You could do it at home.’’

That, actually, is the point of this workshop. Even children can make homemade butter. Byington uses two types of cream: commercially available pasteurized organic heavy whipping cream; and farm-bought unpasteurized (raw) organic cream. Licensed farm sales of raw milk are legal in Massachusetts. “Raw milk cream is thicker and turns to butter more quickly,’’ she explains, “but heavy whipping cream will work just as well.’’ Families are likely to have more access to pasteurized organic cream than raw cream.

“As a child I hated milk,’’ says Byington. “Then my mother brought home raw milk from a dairy. It tasted delicious to me.’’

She also learned butter-making when she was a girl, at a farm museum in New York’s Hudson Valley. The program captured her imagination. “I was 7 at the time.’’ She went home and tried it. “I shook and shook and shook and nothing happened.’’ Store-bought cream didn’t work. But raw cream did.

“I was so excited, I always remembered that,’’ she says.

On the Francestown, N.H., farm she shares with her husband, David Harper, a medical researcher in Cambridge, Byington has made butter for years with their four sons, who now range in age from 10 to 19. “We used to have a family cow.’’

Each child at the workshop has 1/2 cup or 4 ounces of heavy whipping cream or raw cream, which is at room temperature. Byington tells them that the cream has to be labeled “heavy whipping cream,’’ not “heavy cream’’ or “light cream.’’ They fill jars one-third full with cream, screw on the lids, and begin the sloshing process, moving the jar back and forth (shaking also works, but it’s exhausting) until butter forms.

The cream stiffens as it turns to whipped cream. It’s OK to open the jar to sample (but not too much). Reseal the jar and slosh some more. “It will be like magic,’’ Byington says. “Suddenly, there’s a pale white liquid with a clump of butter floating around. Once the butter has separated out, keep pouring the buttermilk off to the side.’’ To keep butter a week or more in the refrigerator, slosh thoroughly to make sure all the buttermilk separates out.

Fifteen minutes later, every tired child is tasting delicious light, creamy, homemade butter.     © Copyright 2010 Globe Newspaper Company.