Cooking With Culture: Ways that Milk Makes the Dish

As they prance across Ben and Jerry’s trucks looking almost elegant in black and white, or gaze with long-lashed eyes from tourist leaflets, cows entice us to enjoyment. Eat ice cream, they suggest. Take a trip to the countryside. Check us out at a county fair.

June is dairy month, and it’s a good time to celebrate cows: They get their milk after giving birth in spring, so by June they have lots of it. Milk is splendidly nutritious, packed with protein and vital minerals, such as calcium. But as soon as it leaves the udder it begins to change.

Milk comes with its own bacteria and it meets more waiting for it out in the world. Both kinds break down some of its constituents. Often that’s bad, as we know when the bacteria hanging out in our kitchens turn milk sour. But some bacteria alter the milk in ways that we enjoy, making it tangy and refreshing for example.

Today we know which bacteria are responsible for what, so we have reliable dairy products such as yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk — all created by bacteria such as Lactobacillus and Lactococcus. Other countries have similar products: quark in Germany, skyr in Iceland, creme fraiche in France, dahi in India, smetana in Russia and other Slavic countries.

Our dairying ancestors did not know about bacteria but they did know they had to preserve the bountiful milk of early summer for later in the year. They made cheese using enzymes such as rennet. They made butter from the cream and preserved it chemically with salt. They stored the products in cold places so they kept for months.

Dairy foods derived from bacterial action do not last as long, but they can be perpetuated by saving some of one day’s supply and adding it to the next day’s batch of milk, which in turn develops its flavors and texture. Yogurt is an example.

Explaining that “yogurt begins from yogurt” in “The Yogurt Cookbook” (Interlink, 2013) Arto Derl Hartounian says when his family emigrated in the 1950’s, his mother carried a jar of her yogurt in her handbag to kick-start the yogurt she would make in her new home.

“The starter of that same jar had been brought from the old country — Armenia, where my family originated — years before and no doubt, in some form or other, had been in our family for generations.”

Yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, and other bacterially produced dairy foods are known generically as fermented or cultured milk products. They have a longer shelf-life than unprocessed milk, and are easier to digest because the bacteria have already been at work breaking down the milk sugars.

While many people may remember a time when yogurt and cultured products such as kefir and creme fraiche were rare or unknown here, in fact people have been using them since the advent of dairy farming around 10,000 years ago.

Or rather, people in Europe and parts of western Asia and Africa have been using them.

These regions have ancient traditions of herding and milking animals for food — camels, horses, sheep, reindeer and goats, as well as cows. This was not the case in eastern Asia, the Americas and Australia.

While early English and Dutch colonists brought cows and therefore milk and butter and cheese to America, they did not bring yogurt, which was developed in Mesopotamia about 5,000 years ago.

The Turks became big enthusiasts, and introduced yogurt to the countries they ruled around the eastern Mediterranean. Their word for it entered many other languages, including English. But commercially made yogurt did not reach the United States until the Colombosian family began making and selling it as Colombo yogurt in Massachusetts in 1931.

The Spanish company Danone came to New York in 1942, and was the first to add fruit to its products.

Now it seems you can get yogurt flavored with any fruit you want.

Cultured sour cream came to America with immigrants from central Europe and Russia, where it has long been dolloped into soups and vegetable dishes. Now we spoon it onto baked potatoes and tacos, turn it into dips, and spirit it into baked goods to add taste, richness and tenderness.

Buttermilk originated as the residue left after making butter. Ambient bacteria were allowed to thicken it, giving it an acidity that made it a pleasant drink. Now it’s produced using the Leuconostoc citrovorum bacterium, whose action adds a buttery flavor.

Cottage cheese was originally produced from buttermilk. Since it lacks cream, it is low in calories and therefore a dieter’s staple. Like cheese, it can be made with rennet; alternately since rennet is an animal product, it is often made with bacteria or with acid so it’s suitable for vegetarians.

Historically cultured dairy foods were usually consumed as is, often at breakfast or as sauces or garnishes. But all the many countries that make them have popular cooked or baked dishes in which they are a crucial ingredient. Here are some examples to help you celebrate Dairy Month.

Onion and Caraway Pie

This cobbler is based on a recipe from Alsace in Judith Olney on Bread (Crown Publishers, 1985). Spreading the sour cream on top of the dough sounds odd, but don’t worry, it works. Serve wedges of this any-time-of-day dish with scrambled eggs for breakfast or brunch, or with fish or meat for supper.

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 tablespoons butter

3 cups coarsely chopped onions (2-3 large onions)

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

3 teaspoons caraway seeds (or fennel seeds)

1 cup all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

½ cup milk

1 egg

1 cup (8-ounce container) sour cream

Put the olive oil and 1 tablespoon of butter in a medium frying pan over moderate heat. When it is fairly hot, add the onions and stir them around. Cook very gently for 18-20 minutes or until they are tender and golden. Stir in 2 teaspoons caraway seeds, and cook for another couple of minutes. Season with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper, then tip into a 9-inch quiche dish or pie plate, and spread into an even layer

Turn the oven to 350 degrees. In a bowl combine the flour, baking powder, ¼ teaspoon salt. Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons butter into little bits and with your fingers rub them into the flour until it looks like coarse meal. Make a well in the center. Pour in half the milk and stir to combine with the flour mixture, gradually stirring in more milk until you have a soft dough.

Knead it 4-5 times and form into a ball. Then on a floured board, flatten it into a disk large enough to cover the onions. Press it to the edge of the dish, then poke it all over with a skewer or knitting needle.

Beat together the egg, sour cream, and remaining teaspoon of caraway seeds. Add 4-5 grinds of black pepper and stir it in. Pour it over the dough. Place in the oven and bake for about 30 minutes or until a skewer poked in the middle comes out clean, and the surface has golden brown patches. Let stand for 5 minutes before cutting. Can also be served at room temperature. Serves 6-8.

Arugula and Cumin Raita

From the Balkans and Greece and on through Turkey to India, people make cooling relishes using yogurt with vegetable and herb flavorings. Raita is the India version, most often made from yogurt and mint or cucumbers.

Here’s a variation with arugula and cumin. It’s good with Indian food and lots of barbecued meats. A conceptually similar Turkish dish follows.

1-2 handfuls washed and dried arugula leaves

½ teaspoon dry mustard powder

1 cup plain Greek yogurt

2 teaspoons chopped fresh mint (optional)

2 teaspoons (or more to taste) cumin seeds

Salt to taste

½ tablespoon butter

Turkish Carrot and Yogurt Salad

Turkish cuisine has many cooling vegetable preparations made with yogurt, and garlic-flavored yogurt is a common dressing for vegetables and meats.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups coarsely grated carrots

1 large clove garlic

Salt to taste

¾ cup plain Greek yogurt

2 tablespoons snipped dill

Warm the olive oil in a small frying pan. Add the grated carrots and stir them around for a couple of minutes or until they have softened slightly. Let cool.

Set aside a tablespoon of the yogurt and half the dill for a garnish. Mince the garlic, sprinkle with a pinch of salt, then mash it with the flat of a knife-blade or the back of a tablespoon.

Stir it into the remaining yogurt along with the remaining tablespoon of the dill and a little salt to taste. Check the taste and add more salt or a little of the reserved dill if you like.

Spread the mixture in a shallow dish or plate. Top with the reserved yogurt and sprinkle with the last of the dill. Serve at room temperature.

Buttermilk-Molasses-Banana Bread

Bananas were a luxurious rarity until the 1870s, when entrepreneurs began to ship them to New York and Boston from the Caribbean. In 1896, Fannie Farmer included a cake with a banana filling in her “Boston Cooking School Cook Book,” and in 1931, Irma Rombauer published a recipe for Banana Cake in “The Joy of Cooking.” Except that it was to be made in layer cake pans and included 2 whole cups of sugar, her recipe reads like most of today’s banana bread recipes.

Today banana bread is definitely an American classic with many variations. This version gets sweetness and flavor from molasses as well as bananas, and tenderness from oats and buttermilk. All four of those ingredients provide important nutrients too. If you don’t have buttermilk, you can use plain or vanilla low-fat yogurt or sour milk instead.

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup quick cooking oatmeal

1 tablespoon baking powder

½ teaspoon baking soda

½ cup canola or other vegetable oil

½ cup molasses

1 egg, beaten

1 cup buttermilk

2 medium-large ripe bananas, roughly mashed

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

cup golden raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease or line two 4½-by-8 ½- inch loaf pans.

In a large bowl, mix the all-purpose flour, the oatmeal, the baking powder and baking soda. Add the oil, then using the same cup used for measuring the oil, measure the molasses and add it. (The oily cup lets the molasses slide out easily) Mix.

Now mix in the beaten egg, buttermilk, bananas, and vanilla extract. When everything is combined stir in the raisins.

Divide the mixture equally between the pans and bake in the middle of the oven for about 40-45 minutes. To test for doneness still a wooden cocktail stick or a skewer into the center. The bread is ready when it comes out clean.

Yorkshire Curd Tart

This farmhouse specialty from Yorkshire in the north of England is little known elsewhere, and can be hard to find even in Yorkshire.

This type of curd-filled tart is a member of the cheesecake family, but unlike the familiar cheesecakes made of cream cheese its texture is a nubbly rather than smooth. The currants (or raisins) and the nutmeg give it a unique and moreish flavor. Use your favorite shortcrust recipe for the base.

8 or 9-inch shortcrust pastry shell

3 tablespoons fine breadcrumbs grated from stale bread (either white or wholewheat)

1 stick butter at room temperature

cup sugar

1 cup cottage cheese, preferably large curd

½ cup currants or black raisins

About ¼ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg or to taste, or ½ teaspoon allspice

2 eggs, well beaten

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Grease an 8- or 9-inch loose-bottomed pie pan with butter. Roll the pastry into the pan, trim the edges, and sprinkle the base with 2 tablespoons of the breadcrumbs. Put in the fridge while you make the filling

In a bowl, cream the butter and sugar together. When light, stir in the cottage cheese, currants or raisins, the remaining tablespoon of breadcrumbs, and the nutmeg. Finally stir in the 2 eggs and mix well to thoroughly blend. Pour this into the prepared pie shell. Dust a scrap more nutmeg onto the surface and bake for 20-30 minutes or until the top has browned and the tip of a pointed knife blade inserted in the middle comes out clean. Serve at room temperature.