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Ain't nothin' like the real thing 

Real butter makes a comeback

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We are the Margarine Generation.

If you were born between the late '60s and late '90s, you belong to our generation, too. We are the victims of a butterless blip in history, a wrinkle in the space-time continuum of butter.

Our moms meant well, for sure. It was the early '70s, and all the medical experts were telling them not to raise their kids on butter, unless they wanted us to suffer debilitating strokes at age 5. So they switched to Par-kaaaay (remember the talking tub?) to shield us from cholesterol.

Oddly, we went on calling it "butter." When a recipe called for butter, we automatically reached for a stick of Blue Bonnet. "Please pass the butter" meant "Please pass the stick of hardened vegetable oil."

Unfortunately, the flavor did not say butter.

You might remember the first time you tasted the Real Thing. Rob was in a restaurant; he recalls thinking, "Wow, the butter they have here is good."

I (Tara) was maybe 10 when my mom brought home a round cardboard carton of Land-O-Lakes Whipped Butter instead of the usual Country Crock. It was pale, not yellow-yellow. It was creamy and sweetly fresh. I remember thinking, "Man, if margarine is trying to copy this, it is doing a lousy job."

It wasn't until a couple of years ago that medical science realized it had screwed up royally. It seems stick margarine -- as well as vegetable shortening, butter's other no-cholesterol substitute -- is full of "trans fat," a super-bad-for-you synthetic fat that's formed when you hydrogenate vegetable oils to make them hard. Trans fat is probably worse for you than butter, the experts are now sheepishly telling us.

So. Thirty butter-deficient years have passed, and an entire generation has forgotten everything its foremothers knew about this cooking staple. Let's review:

Salted vs. unsalted. This is the most important thing to look for when buying butter. Most of the time, unsalted is better, for two reasons. First, when butter is already salted, it's harder to control the saltiness of your finished recipe. It seems like you should just be able to cut down on the salt you add, but it doesn't always work that way.

Second, unsalted butter is more likely to be top-quality, because it can't use salt to mask impurities. And yes, high-quality butter really does make finished dishes taste better.

Salted butter stays fresh longer, and it's usually cheaper. But you can easily overcome both obstacles: Just catch a good sale on unsalted butter, buy a few extra pounds, and freeze them. Butter freezes really well.

Sweet cream vs. lactic. Bless your heart if you can find lactic butter in this country. It's the butter of choice in continental Europe, where lactic butter -- which has been ripened -- lends its deeper flavor and better plasticity to tender pastries. Unripened, or sweet cream, butter is favored in England and America.

Butterfat. American butter must be at least 80 percent butterfat. European-style butters range from 82 percent to 86 percent butterfat, and those few percentage points do yield better results in puff pastries, croissants and other recipes in which fat plays a major scientific role. The Plugra brand of super-premium butter (82 percent butterfat) is widely available in this country.*

"Light" or "whipped" butter. These aren't the best for cooking. They have fewer calories per tablespoon because they have added water and gelatin (in light butter) or air (in whipped butter). Fine for spreading on your toast, but the fillers will make your cake flop.

All that butter-praise notwithstanding, we still keep a tub of margarine in the fridge. Call it a throwback to our childhood taste buds or niggling doubts about the prudence of eating pure butterfat. But that's what we spread on our garlic bread and baked potatoes. We do buy the soft margarine made of olive oil, though, which has only negligible trans fats.

It's healthier, they say -- now, where have we heard that before?

Hot Buttered Rum Mix

You can double or quadruple this recipe and stash the mix in the freezer, ready to whip up a quick cup of cheer during the holidays. Adjust the levels of rum and mix to suit your taste.

1/2 stick unsalted butter, cut in small pieces

1/2 cup dark brown sugar, packed

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated, if you have it)

1/2 cup all-natural vanilla ice cream (such as Breyers)

Dark rum

Boiling water

Cream together the butter, sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg with a wooden spoon until they form a smooth paste. Stir in ice cream until well blended.

For each serving, place 3 level tablespoons of mix in an 8-ounce mug. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of dark rum. Add boiling water to fill the cup, and stir until mix is dissolved.

Makes about 6 servings.

Nutrition information (1 prepared serving): 227 calories, 80 calories from fat, 9 grams fat unsaturated , 6 grams saturated fat, 25 milligrams cholesterol, 17 milligrams sodium, 20 grams carbohydrates, 0 grams fiber.

* Locally, European-style butters, including Plugra, can be found at Par Avion Market.

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