Monday, September 17, 2012

Buttermilk: Try it again for the first time

Debbie Moose will talk about her new book, Buttermilk, as the guest of Culinary Historians of Piedmont North Carolina (CHOP NC) at 7pm Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill.

Raleigh cookbook author Debbie Moose
Debbie Moose has never been one to cry over spilled milk, but she did spend about five frantic months last year obsessing over buttermilk. The resulting cookbook not only helped launch the new Savor the South imprint for UNC Press on Sept. 10, but two days later was featured in what the New York Times hailed as the resurgence of the oft-maligned byproduct of butter making.

“That was nice timing,” said the author of Buttermilk, whose gift for dry understatement is as legendary as her culinary creativity. She connected with Times food writer Julia Moskin through John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance, which has played a crucial role in the growing national interest in Southern cooking.

Moose, president of the Association of Food Journalists, which earlier this month held its annual conference in DC, nearly missed the opportunity to talk with Moskin due to poor internet connectivity.

“I literally had to lean out the window of the hotel to check email, but I’m glad I did,” said Moose, who reckons she owes Edge a “bouquet of bacon” for the introduction. “(Julia) thought it would run last Wednesday, but I had no idea it was going to be such a big story.”

Along with the general enthusiasm in food press for all things Southern, Moose credits the resurgence of small dairies for the specific resurgence of buttermilk. Locally, she’s impressed with Maple View Farm.

“There’s a much better quality of buttermilk around than what a lot of people remember,” Moose said, adding that those who haven’t tasted fresh buttermilk in a long time are in for a pleasantly tangy surprise. “Even among commercial brands, what’s sold is really very good. And it’s so versatile.”

Buttermilk Pie (with Peaches in St. Germain Syrup)
 If you think of buttermilk as a sour sip favored by sleepy spinsters, or guiltily empty forgotten bottles down the drain, Buttermilk will be a true revelation.  A good place to start is the elegantly understated Buttermilk Pie with Riesling-Marinated Peaches, a recipe shared by Chef Jason Smith of 18 Seaboard in Raleigh.

“I was willing to beg for it, but fortunately he was happy to oblige,” Moose said. “Buttermilk helps to balance the sweet in pies and cake and even ice cream. It’s a real contrast to something like chess pie, which to me is almost overwhelmingly sweet.”

Moose contributes her own variation on the classic dessert. “I thought to myself, ‘What could be more Southern than sweet tea?’” she mused, explaining how she infused buttermilk with loose black tea leaves to create Sweet Tea Buttermilk Pie. “You want to be careful to not let it get hot or it may curdle. You’ve got to just dip your little finger in there to test that it’s barely warm.”

Likewise, buttermilk soups are served chilled. Her Cool Cucumber Soup, which tastes like a spoonful of summer, can be served in shot glasses for easy entertaining.

Cool Cucumber Soup
“You want to use the best buttermilk you can find for recipes like that, where the flavor of the buttermilk really stands out,” said Moose, who also provides directions for Butternut Squash and Roasted Red Bell Pepper soups. “These really are luscious, and much nicer that eating a cold cream-based soup – which feels heavy to me. With buttermilk, you wind up with something very refreshing and much lighter.”

Buttermilk begins with an accessible take on the science behind how this magical ingredient works with leavening to increase the rise and tenderness of baked goods. “It does amazing things, especially with biscuits, quick breads and cakes,” she said. “Even using your basic supermarket buttermilk, you’ll detect an appealing tang that you just don’t get from anything else.”

Moose was hard-pressed to pick a favorite among the 50 recipes featured in the slim volume but conceded that Bananaville Bread – spiked with a splash of dark rum – is something she makes all the time.

“It wasn’t intentional, but I seem to have created something of a niche for myself in single-topic books,” chuckled Moose, whose previous work includes comprehensive takes on other Southern themes, including deviled eggs, potato salad and wings. “It’s a great mental challenge because you have this one ingredient and you strive to so see how many things you can make.”
Moose succeeds on several counts here, notably with Tex-Mex Corn Pudding, Lavender Ice Cream and BBB Scones (buttermilk, buckwheat flour and bacon). She’s quick to give credit for “most unusual” to the Vanderbilt Fugitive, a cocktail served at the Anvil Bar &Refuge in Houston.

“It’s fun to see if you can come up with something no one else thought of, but my hat’s off to these guys,” she said. “To me, this really exemplifies how creative you can be with buttermilk – and why people ought to give it another chance.”

Recipes reprinted with
permission from Buttermilk,
a Savor the South Cookbook
by Debbie Moose; © 2012 UNC Press

The Vanderbilt Fugitive
Makes 1 serving

1¾ ounce El Dorado 5 Year Old Demerara Rum
1 ounce buttermilk
½ ounce Chartreuse
½ ounce Averna Amaro liquer
½ ounce maple syrup
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish

Combine all ingredients with ice in a cocktail shaker and shake for at least 2-3 minutes, allowing the cocktail to expand in volume. Strain into a collins glass containing more ice cubes. Garnish with freshly grated nutmeg.

Lavender Ice Cream
Makes about 1 pint

½ cup heavy cream
1½ cups buttermilk
¾ cup sugar
2 teaspoons dried lavender buds

In a large bowl, whisk together the cream, buttermilk and sugar until the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the lavender. Cover and refrigerator for 12 hours (or longer if you want a stronger lavender flavor).

Strain out the lavender and discard it. Freeze the cream mixture according to your ice cream maker’s instructions.

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