Adventures in dairy part four: Raw milk and the best brownies in the world

All cows eat grass

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New England is famous for its changeable weather, but enough. After a protracted rainy spell earlier this summer, a temporary break in the clouds provided the needed impetus to get in the car and go. I decided it was time to check out one of the dairy farms that sells raw milk and I needed to get OUT. So I packed my camera and an empty cooler in the car and took off for Brookford Farm in New Hampshire, about an hour’s drive.           

A thunderstorm later, I pulled into the gravel driveway at the farm. The rain was cutting me some slack at last: happy, fluffy clouds in a clear blue sky. Deep, deep breath, ahhhh. As I sat in my car fiddling with my camera, Luke Mahoney the dairy farmer walked by. Luckily I had called earlier and left a message to say I wanted to visit.

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Luke and his wife purchased the farm about three years ago. They had worked on dairy farms in Russia and Germany for six years and with the aquisition of the Brookford property (270 acres of certified organic pasture land plus another 130 acres of forest) they were ready to start their own sustainable farming business to support themselves and their two young children. The herd consists of forty to fifty cows, but only twenty-two at a time are in milking mode. They are primarily Jersey cows (lovely brown) with a few Holsteins (black and white) thrown in. Jersey cows are known for good quality milk with a high fat content. The Mahoneys purchased their start-up herd of Jerseys from Vermont; they were looking specifically for a herd with horns. News flash: many cows (females) have horns! But with horns, cows need more room to move around, so the horns are usually removed when cows are closely confined, which they would be in any large-scale production dairy. According to Luke, cows with horns are less skittish and therefore friendlier than their de-horned sisters, and exhibit their individual personalities (!) more readily when their horns have not been tampered with. Who knew?

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Luke sent me up the path to the pasture where the cows were grazing. I’ve probably only met one or two cows in my whole life, in kindergarten.  So my first impression was: these girls like to eat. All the time. They are very large animals.  I don’t think I’d want to get between one of them and their next meal. (Actually the next meal concept is totally lost on them.) But Luke was right. They weren’t skittish and were almost affable, if you could say that about a cow. And they seem to have it pretty good at Brookford Farm. Lots of pasture to move around in with green grass on every horizon, a clean barn to live in, and organic oats grown and dried on the premises for winter feed.

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After about a half an hour with the cows, I concluded that cows are just not all that photogenic so I headed down to visit the calves in their own little pasture next to their own little barn. They were cute, no doubt about it. And not at all concerned that I was walking around their pasture. But then they were preoccupied. With…. grass. So after a while with them, I walked around to the farm store and bought some milk and cream.

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For God’s sake just drink it already: brownie recipe

My trip to the farm gave me a lot of comfort about drinking unpasteurized milk. The cows really did seem contented, had plenty of room to roam, beautiful green grass to eat and a sweet-smelling barn (under the circumstances—they are cows) to shelter them. The whole cow to milk-in-the-jug process was very clean and reassuring.

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After pouring the milk from the gallon jug into my own wide-mouth pitcher I could easily see the cream floating on top. The Jersey cows’ milk contains almost twice as much cream as Catherine’s Holsteins’ milk. Even though the fat from raw milk is supposed to be “good fat,” I felt it might be put to better use if I skimmed it and set it aside for making butter or ice cream. I resolved that after I skimmed it I would just drink it with abandon. And I did. And yes. It was delicious. Pure, even noble. Such a splendid product deserved something really good to go with it. Something chocolate.

As coincidence would have it—and it seems coincidences happen to me in a larger proportion than to the rest of the population—just as I was contemplating the something chocolate I received a letter from a long-lost friend. Juliette caught me up on all her news, including her recent re-discovery of a lost copy of New York Magazine’s review of the now defunct Rudi’s Country Kitchen near Woodstock, NY, where I had once worked. The Underground Gourmet sang the praises of the restaurant, highlighting the desserts, including the modestly entitled “best brownies in the world.”

The recipe came from the mother of a fellow worker, Paul Kupler. Naturally Juliette required the recipe, and after some digging, I found it. There’s a lesson here. Without Juliette’s letter arriving when it did, who knows if I would have unearthed this recipe? And I have renewed a wonderful friendship that could have vanished, a victim of time and distance that fade so many friendships. Some things are just meant to be.

To say that these are the best brownies in the world is like saying that collies are the best dogs in the world. Of course they are if you have had a Bonnie or Lassie around the house all your life. Let’s just leave it by saying that judging brownies is as subjective as it gets, and if these are not the best in the world, then they are certainly damn good.

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These are old-fashioned, classic brownies, made with walnuts and a powerful wallop of the darkest chocolate you can buy. Before umpteen million cocoa percentages came into play, unsweetened baking chocolate was the standard used by grandmothers and aunties everywhere. There’s nostalgia in the simplicity of that chocolate. You can take a big, old-fashioned bite of these brownies and gulp down some cold milk and forget about calories or gussied up desserts. Just be a kid and eat them with a grin on your face. Amen.

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Mrs. Kupler’s Brownies aka The Best Brownies in the World

Makes one 9 X 13-inch pan to make18 or more brownies, depending on how you slice them. Note: you can double the recipe (for the school bake sale) and bake the brownies on a sheet pan with a 1-inch rim (approximately 13 X 18 inches) for about 35 minutes.

8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, sliced in 1-inch pieces, plus a little for the pan

5 ounces unsweetened chocolate, cut in 1-inch chunks

2 cups sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

1 cup all-purpose flour 

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1 1/4 cups “broken” walnuts

4 large eggs

1. Set a rack on the middle shelf of the oven and heat the oven to 350°F. Line a 9-X-13-inch baking pan with parchment or foil, leaving a 1-inch overhang on each of the long ends. If using foil, butter it or use non-stick foil,

2. Melt the butter and chocolate in a large, heatproof bowl over hot (not boiling) water.. (Alternatively, combine the chocolate and butter in a microwave safe bowl and heat at full power for 2 minutes, stirring after one minute. If the chocolate has not completely melted, give it a little resting time. If necessary, zap it at 15-second intervals and stir until melted. ) Stir in the sugar and vanilla. Cool briefly.

3. Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl to thoroughly mix them.

4. Break the nuts in pieces with your hands (or chop them if you want smaller pieces).

5. Beat the eggs in the bowl of an electric mixer (whisk or beater attachment) until light and thick. Stir the chocolate into the eggs and when all the ingredients are thoroughly combined, stir in the flour gently, until it disappears. Finally stir in the nuts.

6. Spread the batter in the pan, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon, and bake for 25 to 28 minutes. A toothpick poked in the center of the pan should emerge clean but moist.

7. Set the pan on a rack and cool completely. Slide a dinner knife between the sides of the pan and the brownies to loosen the edges. Set the cooling rack on top of the pan and flip the pan to unmold the brownies. Peel off the paper or foil and invert the brownies onto a cutting board. Cut the brownies into 18 or more pieces.

Adventures in dairy, part one: a raw milk saga

Part One: Got (Raw) Milk?

My friend Catherine bequeathed me her cow for the summer. Or should I say, her share of the cow, while she’s away on vacation. Now Catherine has her quirks, but one could safely say she is about as far from hippie-dippy as a Park Avenue, Prada-toting New York socialite. (To clarify, she is not that either.) So when she handed me the key to the “cow barn,” a dingy basement in a Boston suburb, I was intrigued. Raw milk? I’m not so sure about that. Had Catherine’s obsession with health food gone too far? Anyway, I accepted the key and figured I’d ask questions later.

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Next stop Google. Many articles, interviews and podcasts later, I discovered the pros, as yet not conclusively proven, and the obvious cons. The short version is this: On the plus side, raw milk retains vitamins (B12, B6), enzymes that aid digestion, and probiotics, or “good bacteria” that assist the immune system, and a host of other benefits, all of which would be destroyed by the heat of pasteurization. On the negative side, without this heating process, disease-producing bacteria may be present in raw milk. The offending bacteria could be caused by unsanitary conditions in a dairy, poor cow health, or inadequate refrigeration and bottling procedures. I decided I would take my chances. The dairies that sell milk in Massachusetts have to be certified, and (dare I assume?) are run by caring and responsible individuals. Anyway, Catherine has been drinking it for months and she’s still okay. Yes, I am a risk-taker when it comes to food.

Raw milk cannot be sold legally in stores in Massachusetts, and for that matter in many states. If you want it, you have to go to a licensed, certified farm to pick it up, or join a buying club like my friend Catherine did. The milk is delivered to a local point, usually someone’s refrigerator, and you pick it up there. 

(Update: since I originally wrote this post last summer buying clubs have been shut down in Massachusetts)  

To find out more about raw milk, start by going to NOFA or www.realmilk.com

First Encounters of the Cow Kind

Here was the drill before the ban: I take Catherine’s key, unlock the basement door of a suburban house and descend the steps to a refrigerator. The milk is delivered from the farm once a week, along with eggs and even vegetables if you request them. I tear off the flap with Catherine’s name on it from a piece of paper taped to the refrigerator (to signal that her gallon has been picked up), grab the gallon, then, up the stairs and lock the door.

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At first, my weekly gallon sat on the refrigerator shelf next to the excellent locally produced pasteurized milk from High Lawn Farm that I purchased from Whole Foods. Although it is not organic, High Lawn Farm milk is the product of grass-fed Jersey cows and tastes truly scrumptious.  As everybody knows, (duh, I didn’t, until informed by some of my British friends) Jersey cows produce fantastic milk.

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Since Catherine didn’t want to stop her subscription to the raw milk for the summer, I decided to cut back on the store-bought milk. She contracts for a gallon (or as much as she wants) a week and pays up front whether she uses it or not. And because I am such a good dooby, good friend, and hate waste, and, let’s be honest, really curious, I  felt compelled to use it, and possibly even drink it. After a few days of staring at the jug, I plunged into café lattes. Strictly speaking, I was not drinking not raw milk. By heating it to a bacteria-killing temperature over 160°F, I was essentially pasteurizing it. Fine.

Moving on from lattes at week two, I decided to make some yogurt—another low risk project, since the milk has to be heated above 160°F to obliterate bacteria that interfere with yogurt cultures. Earlier in the summer, the purchase of that delicious High Lawn Farm milk I mentioned inspired me to start making yogurt, before Catherine’s cow came into the picture. Once upon a time in the eighties I made yogurt for our restaurant by the gallon using farm milk.  Perhaps it was a premonition, but shortly before the cow came into play, I decided to jump back into my personal yogurt-making cottage industry.

Without a yogurt maker, you can jerry-rig a set-up: pour the yogurt into a clean jar and cover it with a lid or plastic wrap to keep in the heat. Wrap it in a thick blanket of tea towels and keep it in a warm place. You could set it on a heating pad and cover it with a thick towel, or stick it in an oven (turned off) that has a pilot light. The temperature should be consistently warm, no lower than 90°F or higher than 118°F. After a few weeks of playing a guessing game, I succumbed to the purchase of a yogurt maker, a modest investment that makes my weekly yogurt production a cinch. I like the Salton 1-quart size which allows me to make several quarts a week if I want, without fussing with the little jars. (Note I purchased mine from Amazon for about $35.00 and it is now being offered at an inexplicable, RIDICULOUS price, so try getting from this website.)

My new supply of raw cow’s milk makes divine, creamy, I’m not kidding, to-die-for yogurt. I concede that it could be the richness of the milk that makes it so good. In any case, raw milk, or the raw milk from Catherine’s cow, worked best when the milk was heated to 180°F.  The addition of powdered milk clinches the deal if you’re aiming for thick and creamy; it helps the yogurt set and gives it a pleasingly dense consistency, but it is not mandatory.  In my yogurt trials and errors I discovered a commercial brand of yogurt, Emmi Swiss Premium, which makes a the best starter so far of all of the yogurts I’ve tried (Dannon, Stonyfield, and a plethora of organic brands from Whole Foods.) I also tried a powdered yogurt starter (Yogourmet),  which worked, but produced a very tart yogurt. You can use just about any plain yogurt as a starter, so I suggest experimenting with a few that are available to you until you find one you like. After the first batch, you can use your own yogurt as a starter. The following method can be used with raw or pasteurized milk, whole or low fat. You’re in charge!

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Plain Yogurt Recipe 

Makes one quart

4 cups milk: raw, pasteurized, whole, or low-fat

1/4 cup non-fat dry milk

3 tablespoons plain yogurt (Emmi is my favorite so far)

1. Pour the milk into a 6-cup or larger Pyrex measuring cup. You will need a container large enough to allow the milk to bubble up a bit (but not boil) in the microwave. Whisk in the milk powder until smooth. The idea is to blend in the powdered milk without creating too many air bubbles, so don’t be overzealous about whisking. Heat for 7 minutes in the microwave, or until the milk reaches a temperature of 180°F. You can also do this on top of the stove over low heat, but check and stir often to prevent scorching.

2. Pour the heated milk into a bowl to cool, or leave it in the Pyrex (hint: it will take longer to cool in a hot saucepan).

3. When the temperature cools to 110-114°F, stir in the yogurt.

4. Strain the milk into a clean jar, spoon the bubbles off the top if there are any, cover the jar with plastic or a lid, and keep it warm for 6 to 8 hours, until set. You can use a yogurt maker made for this purpose. Alternatively, set the oven at the lowest temperature and when it is warm turn it off;wrap the jar in a towel and keep it in the oven until set (6 to 8 hours.) Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before consuming.

Vanilla Yogurt

After the milk has been heated, stir in 3 to 4 tablespoons agave syrup (or maple syrup or honey if you like) and 1 teaspoon vanilla. You could also split a vanilla bean and add it to the hot milk, then remove it when you stir in the starter.

To be continued….