I opened my email yesterday and saw a message from my sister. "Write a blog about butter," is all she said.

What I know about butter is this: It is the difference between why home-cooked food tastes like home-cooked food, and restaurant food tastes like heaven. When restaurant cooks use butter in a saute pan or skillet, they're adding, I'd guess, on average about three to four tablespoons of butter per serving. Often it's more than that. You could easily ingest a half a stick of butter just by eating one really good restaurant entree.

It gets worse, health-wise, if we move into bakery and dessert territory.

At least with desserts, the amount of butter used in a homemade recipes is fairly close to what's being used in a professional kitchen. On the other hand, many home bakers will reach for a tub of Betty Crocker frosting or a prepackaged brownie mix, both of which have chemicals galore but no real butter to speak of. Those folks may not, in fact, realize how much butter is in, say, true butter cream or a flourless chocolate torte (in both cases, just envision eating a stick of butter rolled in sugar and chocolate).

For most of my cooking, I turn to olive oil. We don't use much butter in the house at all, come to think of it. The only time we really go through it in any measurable quantity is when I'm making desserts, usually oatmeal cookies. If cookies aren't on the agenda, we might go three or four months without even thinking of buying any butter.

A lot has been said about the physical and chemical properties of butter when making cookies or bringing together a pie crust. While I do read that stuff, I usually just remember some of the basic principles rather than all the rules people have deduced. I don't really care if cookie dough comes reaches its optimal state if the butter is 68 degrees and then the dough has rested in the refrigerator for two days rather than 24 hours because in all likelihood, five years down the line another food scientist is going to reopen that case and invalidate all the former findings.

I have shortcuts to remembering all kinds of rules about health, nutrition, and cooking. For example, I can never keep straight the different names for good fat versus bad fat, or good cholesterol versus bad cholesterol. But I can remember it this way: If it's solid at room temperature (butter, shortening, lard), it's bad. If it's liquid (olive oil, fish oil), it's good -- or at least not as bad, as it's still high in calories.

The value of butter, to me, is in its flavor, and for home cooking, a little still goes a long way. You can start cooking something in olive oil and add butter at the very end to instill more flavor without cooking with a half stick of butter from the get-go.

But butter has no substitute when it comes to baking. I've even found that European style butters (which tend to have 2% to 4% more butterfat than American butter) deliver a much higher quality finished product in baking. I like Lurpak best (Danish), but also Presidente (French) and Plugra (also French, I think, but I'm not sure). Kerry Gold Irish butter, recommended by my friend Grace, holds up equally well in my cookie recipes.

My grandmother used to make pie crust with nothing more than Crisco, ice water, and salt, and when her recipe was passed down to me, I made it a few times according to her cues, but ultimately, decided to swap out a few tablespoons of the shortening for butter. Her crust is flaky as anything and takes a nice long time to brown, but adding just a little bit of unsalted butter boosts the flavor immeasurably.

Grandma's Pie Crust a la Granddaughter
3 cups flour, divided
1 cup, less 2 tablespoons, cold Crisco
2 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
ice water (use teaspoon at a time)

Whisk together 2 1/2 cups flour and salt. Using a pastry cutter or two butter knives, cut the cold Crisco and butter into the flour (or use a food processor). When the solids look like small peas or clumpy sand, add ice water one teaspoon at a time (it should be at least three tablespoons total, but likely less than seven) until the dough just barely comes together. Shape the dough into a ball. It should be a little crumbly.

Wrap the dough in plastic wrap, and leave in refrigerator one hour or over night.

When ready to doll dough, use what you need of the remaining 1/2 cup flour to dust the work surface, rolling pin, and dough.

Makes two 8- to 9-inch rounds.