After my Foray into Veganism, I craved dairy recipes. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), there are quite enough cookbooks in my collection to find some books that would address this craving. Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, by Anne Mendelson, has been on my shelves since Borders self-destructed. I chose the more specialized The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook: Recipes and Reflections from a Small Vermont Dairy by Diane St. Clair, a recent acquisition, as a companion book.
Milk is not just a cookbook. The first quarter of the book is devoted to the history, production, and science of milk, and each chapter has a lengthy introduction describing the avatar of milk featured in the chapter. The devoted milk drinker might want to skip directly to the recipes, for many of the details of milk production are enough to lead one to veganism. There are the animal rights issues: too many cows are sex slaves, fed an unhealthy diet and pumped full of hormones, constantly thirsty and prone to disease. They may never see a blade of grass, and their fertility is manipulated and their children killed. The cows themselves are “culled” once their usefulness declines enough, usually about a quarter through their natural lifespan. Then there are the health issues: even accepting that there is a place in the human diet for cows’ milk, is there a place in the human diet for milk full of hormones and the other additives fed to the cow that make their way into the milk? One can either marvel at or be appalled by the feats of genetic engineering that have produced the modern cow. The modern cow would be regarded as a freak two hundred years ago, but a very welcome freak, with milk production increased several-fold. I am not ready to give up milk, so I try to buy milk produced by small local dairies (in southeast Michigan, we have Calder Dairy and Guernsey Farms Dairy) and I certainly only buy milk without growth hormones. So, having made my peace (sort of) with modern milk production, I went to work testing recipes from the recipe section of this book. And, with the exception of the dulce de leche recipes, the recipes I tried were reliable and produced some very tasty dishes indeed.
“Cold Blueberry Soup” (page 211) is the best cold soup that I have ever had, let alone the best that I have ever made. Even if this soup did not not taste that good, it would be worth making for the beautiful color. Many times, when eating a smooth cold fruit soup, I wonder why I am using a spoon. The “soup” seems much more like a smoothie, with a straw in a glass more appropriate than a spoon in a bowl. Not so this soup! For some reason, this is definitely soup, not smoothie. Perhaps it is the wine. This soup is a very simple mixture of blueberries, sugar, wine, sour cream, and buttermilk, flavored with lemons and cinnamon. The first time I made this soup, the amount of sugar in the recipe was just right; the second time I needed to add a bit more sugar. This is to be expected; blueberries vary in sweetness, as do red wines. Both times, I added a pinch of salt (not in the recipe) to perk things up a bit. Anne credits The Berry Cookbook by Barbara R. Fried with the original version of this recipe. [Go to the recipe.]
“Canadian Butter Tarts” (page 275) are a Canadian version of chess pie. The filling consists of three eggs, beaten with a cup of sugar (I used a combination of dark muscavado and white sugar), a cup of golden syrup, a third cup of melted butter, and flavorings. The recipe suggests one or two teaspoons of vanilla, rum, or rye whiskey. I used what was left in a bottle of Gosling’s Black Seal Rum, which was about two tablespoons, along with a capful of vanilla. For the crust, I used, as suggested in the recipe, the “Pâte Brisée” (page 272) from the book. It is hard to go wrong with as much butter and sugar as these tarts have, but these were so much better than just “not going wrong”; they were significantly more than the sum of their parts. The crust was delectable: flaky and crisp. The filling had a taste that I kept savoring even several hours after devouring my tart. I think it was the heavy dose of rum that did the trick. These are clearly not health food; make these only if there is someone in the house who will eat them and needs fattening up, or if you are feeding eighteen hungry people at a festive gathering. Our friend, Eileen N, a genuine Canadian, confirmed that these really were what she recognized as Canadian butter tarts; Shay, who spent five years in Canada, also recognized and appreciated these.
On a recent Facebook post, I promised a taste test between the store bought La Salamandra dulce de leche, and the “Cajeta Mexicana” (page 134) from Milk. There was no contest; an embarassing default judgment for La Salamandra. The recipe for cajeta Mexicana simply did not work. I just ended up with a solid, not very tasty, caramel like substance, which, since I had poured it into a glass jar, was essentially useless. I suppose that I could have warmed the stuff up again, and tried to transfer it to a more suitable container, but I don’t think I ever would have used it, so I just threw it out. The main problem was that I cooked it too long, but the instructions said to cook the mixture of cow milk, goat milk, sugar, and a tiny bit of baking soda until “a stroke of the mixing spoon exposes the bottom of the pan and the syrup is slow to close again over the track”, a point to which I never really got.
Undaunted, I next tried the recipe for “Dulce de Leche with Canned Condensed Milk” (page 136), with directions based on a method given out by Borden. Instead of boiling the unopened can of sweetened condensed milk, you pour the milk into a glass pan, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake in a water bath at 400º for an hour. At first, this seemed to be a total failure also. When the hour was up, and I uncovered the milk, it was curdled and different colors, not a smooth caramel sauce. Without much hope of success, I pulled out my immersion blender, and lo and behold: a smooth caramel sauce that even tasted like it should! (But I still like La Salamandra better.)
Before leaving this book, I wanted to try a recipe that was not sweet, and so I turned to “Mushroom Pirozhki with Sour Cream Pastry” (page 221). These were quite good, but a real pain to make, and so probably will not grace my table again, although I plan to use the sour cream pastry at some point in the future. The filling was simple enough: just mushrooms and shallots with caraway, lemon, and red wine (I do not usually have any sherry or Madeira, which is what the recipe calls for) in sour cream mixed with hard boiled eggs. The pastry was also simple, especially when made in the food processor: 3 cups flour with ¾ cup each butter and sour cream. It was when I was filling each little individual pastry that I started to think that I better things to do with my time.
Animal Farm is the sort of dairy from which one can buy milk or milk products without feeling queasily exploitative. Diane St. Clair tells us, “I really like my cows.” The cows in the farm photographs throughout The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook really do look happy. Diane has come to terms what to do with her bull calves: “We want to give our bull calves a life as free from suffering as possible, acknowledging the reality that they will not be with us for as long as our female calves.” The little calves have a carefree life, frolicking in the meadow for 4 to 6 months, and then are usually slaughtered on the farm. The farm photographs in the book are lovely; in addition to all the happy cows, there are panoramic sunsets, winter fields, and an angry sanpaku cat looking up from a bowl of milk (page 161). The recipes start out with instructions for making cultured butter and buttermilk, then go on from there, with chapter divisions that categorize food in a way that makes sense to me: breakfasts, soups, salads and dressings, etc.
Sometime early in my cooking years, I learned that I could buy a carton of heavy cream, whip it past whipped, and get butter. In my naivety, I assumed the leftover liquid was buttermilk, and tossed it, not knowing that many good uses for buttermilk. Of course, I now know that this liquid was not buttermilk; buttermilk is what is left over after whipping cultured cream to get cultured butter. In The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook, we get instructions for doing exactly that. Diane first has us make some crème fraîche using four cups of heavy cream, one cup of buttermilk. Apparently, the ambient temperature is crucial for success: not too hot, not too cold. A good summer room temperature, 70°, is perfect. So we start the cream and buttermilk at this temperature, and after 24 hours have crème fraîche. Pour it into the food processor bowl, process, and after three or four minutes we have butter and buttermilk. Next comes the very messy part. Strain the buttermilk into a suitable container and start kneading and rinsing the butter. The idea is rinse out the buttermilk. This is easier said than done. I got butter all over my hands, my counter, my sink, even my faucet., and I am not sure I really rinsed out any more buttermilk. I added a little salt, since I intended to use this butter as a spread, not for cooking. The butter turned out to be really good, better than the butter I buy, and I usually buy good butter. Its freshness might have made the difference. Henry, who really appreciated the butter, thought that it tasted slightly more sour than the butter I buy. As of this writing, I have yet to do anything with the buttermilk left from making this butter.
The dressing for “Red Cabbage Slaw with Apple and Raisins” (page 73) consists only of buttermilk and Greek yogurt flavored with mustard. Other than the dressing, there is not much that distinguishes this rather humdrum slaw; it’s good but not great.
Danny liked “Indian Buttermilk Soup” (page 42) more than I did. This soup consists of potatoes, cauliflower, and green beans and spices in buttermilk thickened with chickpea flour. I found the spicing too timid; Danny thought it was subtle. However, once I decided to stir in some Yemenite harif from the new cookbook Balaboosta, this soup suddenly became quite good! Danny agreed that the harif was an excellent complement to the soup.
“Green Chili Stew with Masa Dumplings” (page 122) was half a success and half a failure. The stew itself, more like a soup with salsa characteristics, had a high taste to trouble ratio. You simply throw some tomatillos (I used fresh, not canned as in the recipe), chiles, onion, garlic, spinach, and cilantro in the food processor and process until smooth with just a little bit of chunk. Then add broth and some black beans and cook it on the stove top until no longer raw. At the end, you add a bit of buttermilk which is supposed to curdle. I can understand why one might want something more in this soup; it is loaded with taste, but dumplings could provide some interesting texture. Unfortunately, the dumpling recipe did not work that well for me. The dumplings, made of masa harina, flour, butter, and buttermilk, were much too delicate, and would have disintegrated if I had stirred the soup at all. I ended up gently removing the dumplings, pouring some of the soup over them to serve as a sauce, and keeping the rest of the soup to be enjoyed, unadorned. Both the sauce and the dumpling casserole were excellent with blue cheese. [Go to the recipe.]
I could not abandon my dulce de leche experiments without trying the traditional method of boiling a can of sweetened condensed milk. I convinced myself that as long as the can was entirely covered by water, there was no danger of an exploding can, so I dug out a tall junky pot for the task. I followed Diane’s instructions in the recipe for “Buttermilk Dulce de Leche Cheesecake” (page 180): cover the delabeled can with water; bring the water to a boil, then simmer for an hour and a half. Once the can was cool enough, I held my breath in suspense as I opened it. It worked! Once I scraped the milk into a bowl, I noticed the distressing resemblance to the world’s ugliest fish, the blobfish.
With the dulce de leche prepared, I proceeded to make the cheesecake. I thought about omitting the graham cracker crust, which I regard as a distraction from the actual cheesecake, but left it in as some misguided souls like the graham cracker crust. The recipe used only ¾ of the dulce de leche from a can of condensed milk; since I would have just ended up throwing out the other fourth, I used all the dulce de leche, and reduced the sugar from half a cup to a third of a cup. I used the temperature reduction method for cooking cheesecake instead of a water bath: 20 minutes at 350º, 20 minutes at 300º, 20 minutes at 275º, and finish at 250º. When it finally was time to taste the cheesecake (after letting it sit, untouched, in the refrigerator overnight), it was most unspectacular. Over the years, I have honed my cheesecake making skills; this particular cheesecake was simply not a contender. I think the puny quarter cup of buttermilk in this cheesecake had nowhere near the cheesecake power that the pound of sour cream (which I usually use with three packs of cream cheese and three eggs, as used in this recipe) has. The dulce de leche, which was the whole point of this cake, was almost unnoticeable.
Cold Blueberry Soup
Adapted from Anne Mendelson, Milk
2 cups blueberries
½ cup sugar
1 cinnamon stick
¼ teaspoon salt
1 lemon (organic), thinly sliced
½ cup red wine
1 cup sour cream
1 cup buttermilk
Rinse and drain the blueberries. Put in a pan with 2 cups of water, the sugar, cinnamon stick, salt, and lemon slices. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, adding the wine during the last few minutes of cooking. While the blueberries are cooking, you may like to mush them against the sides of the pan. Press through a sieve into a bowl. Discard the solids. When the blueberries cool, whisk in the sour cream and buttermilk. Taste to see if you want to add more sugar; if so, it is best at this point to whisk in super-fine sugar.
Adapted from Diane St. Clair, The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook
1 pound tomatillos, husk removed
1 poblano chile, seeds and stem removed
1 jalapeño pepper, seeds and stem removed
1 onion, roughly chopped
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
1 bunch spinach, cleaned
1 bunch cilantro, cleaned
1 teaspoon ground cumin
4 cups vegetable broth
1 15-ounce can black beans, rinsed and drained
½ cup buttermilk
Juice of 1 lime
Put the tomatillos, chiles, onion, garlic, spinach, cilantro, and cumin in the bowl of the food processor and process until almost smooth. Put this mixture in a large pot and add the vegetable stock and black beans. Simmer for about 20 minutes. Stir in the buttermilk and lime juice. It is okay, even desirable, if the buttermilk curdles.
Try some blue cheese on top! Too good.