This time of year, supermarkets usually have a center aisle where you'll find specialty items for holiday cooking.
Bread flour, sugar, baking powder, yeast, sweetened condensed milk and chocolate chips are there, but most importantly, we'll need butter to bring all those ingredients to the taste level desired for holiday goodies.
When it comes to cooking and baking for the holidays, there is no substitute for real butter.
"Anything worth making is worth getting the maximum flavor possible. Whether it's the sweet potato casserole or traditional Christmas cookies, butter really is better," said Kathy Belcher of Louisville, a registered dietitian and program director for the Southeast Dairy Association.
"When it comes to choosing between butter and margarine, I don't waste my calories on margarine," she said. "Whether I'm spreading it on an English muffin or steaming broccoli, I want maximum flavor. Because of the rich taste of butter, I'm able to use less and in the end, save calories."
Professional chefs and bakers agree that there is no substitute for the flavor and performance of real butter for cooking and baking.
"We use real butter in our recipes," said Tinker's Cake Shop owner Tracie Tinker. "It gives our cakes and cookies a better taste and texture. Our customers are always amazed at how light our buttercream icing is, because it is not heavy and greasy like shortening-based icing. With all the health concerns of shortening, we feel it is better to use the real thing as much as possible."
Premium butters are available at the supermarket, and you can choose the one that suits your budget. But if you can spare the extra money, go for an artisanal butter.
Bittersweet Plantation Dairy in Gonzales, La., has taken butter to a higher (fat) level. Chef/owner John Folse is the author of numerous cookbooks, including The Encyclopedia of Cajun & Creole Cuisine, and is host of the nationally syndicated television cooking show A Taste of Louisiana. Folse is better known for his artisanal cheeses, but butter's popularity "has really gone crazy," he said in a telephone interview.
Bittersweet Plantation butter is hand-churned, 50 pounds at a time, in four, five or seven batches a day. It's available at Whole Foods or online at www.jfolse.com.
"I am able to choose my own milk, farm-fresh Jersey milk, and naturally ferment it over a certain period of time. In a commercial operation, culture or starter is put into the butter," he said. "It has a higher butterfat (82 percent) and nice golden color."
Folse makes salted, sweet cream, chocolate pecan and white chocolate praline butter. He said the chocolate pecan butter looks and tastes like a chocolate truffle.
"It's a beautiful artisanal butter, same hand-churned Jersey milk butter, and I add chocolate and pecans and churn it again. It's absolutely spectacular," he said.
Folse said you can make your own artisanal butter at home. Buy heavy whipping cream with 32 percent to 40 percent fat ("I use 40," he said.) Put a pint of whipping cream in a glass quart jar. Close the lid tightly. While sitting in a chair watching TV, start shaking the jar back and forth, or give it to the kids and let them pass the jar around, shaking it. Your hands will warm the cream, and you'll start to see the cream thicken with little pieces. It will start to have a texture like cornmeal. Shake it a little harder until you see the curds (butterfat) separate from the whey (water). Strain through cheesecloth. Squeeze the butter in the cheesecloth and rinse it under running water. Place the butter in a container and refrigerate.
Real butter, especially hand-churned, definitely adds flavor to holiday foods.