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|October 23-29, 2008
• Raw power
Yaki Maki strikes the right sushi balance
by Clay Fong
For Cubans, ‘leche’ is love
A brief look at milk’s role in Cuban history
by Maricel E. Presilla
When the Castro regime began rationing milk in the 1960s, it was a blow to our cultural identity as Cubans. For generations, a cup of steamy milk spiked with ink-black espresso had started and ended our days. For us, milk is a warm cradle. “Do you want a cafe con leche?” is our first question to a friend needing a little nurturing.
Our family was lucky to live high in the mountains above Santiago de Cuba, where a few small farms survived collectivization. Though only 11 or 12 years old, I took it upon myself to find a replacement when our milkman ceased his deliveries. I recall with startling clarity the day I struck a deal with a dairy farmer who sold us milk until we left Cuba in 1970.
It fell to my brothers, Marco and Ismar, (and occasionally me) to pick up the three liters each morning before school — a simple task in winter but a feat during the rainy season, when crossing the swollen San Juan River required grasping a sturdy guide wire with one hand and balancing the “lechera” (milk can) with the other.
With that milk, we made our indispensable cafe con leche and the desserts that make Cubans swoon: flan, rice pudding, dulce de leche and creamy natillas (egg custards). As was our custom, we boiled the milk before using it and let it cool until it developed a creamy topping that we skimmed and saved to churn into butter, another early casualty of rationing. And when my Aunt Carolina brought us extra milk from her farm, we splurged and made a simple fresh cheese, queso blanco.
The decline of the Cuban cattle industry was a reversal of a historic process that had begun when the conquistador Diego Velazquez introduced Spanish cattle to the island between 1512 and 1524. It is said that at the time of the 1959 revolution, Cuba had as many cattle as people. While our hybrid cows were more suited to meat and hide production than dairying, milk was nonetheless abundant.
Cuba’s reliance on fresh cow’s milk is one tiny footnote in a long and complex history that is brilliantly captured by my friend and fellow food historian, Anne Mendelson, in her new book, Milk: The Surprising History of Milk Through the Ages (Knopf, $29.95).
Anne surveys the world’s dairying history beginning in the ancient Near East, provides a primer on the science of milk and gives an opinionated account of the failings of the modern U.S. dairy industry. She also touches upon the raw vs. pasteurized milk controversy (she prefers pasteurized but unhomogenized) and offers 120 milk-based recipes from around the world.
Anne is a fellow medievalist with whom I share an appreciation for Chaucer and a passion for the wonderful ethnic restaurants in our Northern New Jersey neighborhood. In talking with her as she worked on the book and reading her finished opus, I began to put my experiences in the wider framework of milk’s amazing history.
As she explains it, the Hispanic Caribbean as well as the United States fell under the orbit of what she calls the Northwestern Cow Belt, “the smallest of the major Old World regions where strong traditions of fresh dairy foods developed.”
This cow’s-milk loving region includes Germany, the Low Countries, northern France and the British Isles. I might add that it encompasses Celtic-influenced portions of Spain such as Galicia and the Basque country and areas in Andalusia such as the lower Guadalquivir River where cattle ranching was more important than sheep herding.
Cubans drank milk and churned butter as in these regions, but when it came to cheesemaking, we were true to our tropical nature. Like Indians and others living in similar latitudes, we turned milk into fresh cheeses by coagulating it with a simple process of heat, acidification and salting.
Perhaps because of Portuguese or Mogul influence, Anne explains, some parts of India developed a simple cow’s milk cheese loosely similar to ours by adding lime juice to boiled raw milk. The citric acid causes the milk protein casein to form a semisolid mass. When strained and cut, this is called panir. Unlike our queso blanco, it is not salted.
The brining of fresh cheeses is the domain of a vast and ancient dairy area Anne calls the Diverse Sources Belt, extending east from Asia Minor to present-day Iraq and Iran and beyond to Mongolia and west to Mediterranean Africa and the Balkans. There, milk from sheep, goats, camels and asses as well as cows was soured into yogurt and turned into fresh, brined cheeses such as feta.
Besides enriching my understanding of my own deep relationship with milk, Anne’s book has reminded me of its elusive, elemental yet changing quality. Its ability to be transformed into cream, butter, cheese, yogurt and myriad fermented foods is key to milk’s eternal appeal.
Besides solid scholarship, Anne’s book gives us a wonderful selection of dependable recipes that employ fresh and cultured milk, cream, butter and fresh cheeses. As she writes and amply demonstrates, there are many more interesting things to do with milk than to drink it with cookies.
Mexican Dulce de Leche (Cajeta Mexicana)
Every Latin American country has its own version of dulce de leche. In Mexico it is called cajeta, a reference to the wooden boxes in which sweet preserves are packed.
Anne Mendelson’s recipe uses a combination of cow’s milk and goat’s milk and not a pinch of the thickeners found in commercial cajeta. Goat’s milk is available in large supermarkets, but you can use a second quart of whole milk instead.
The most important ingredients here are patience and vigilance so that you stop cooking the milk just when it has reached the satiny, taffylike consistency of true cajeta.
1 quart whole cow’s milk
1 quart goat’s milk
2 cups sugar
1⁄4 teaspoon baking soda
Reserve 1⁄2 cup of the cow’s milk and add the rest along with the goat’s milk to a deep, heavy-bottomed pot with at least a 6-quart capacity, such as a Dutch oven. Stir in the sugar with a wooden spoon until dissolved.
Bring milk just to a boil over medium heat and remove the pan from the heat. Stir the baking soda into the reserved 1⁄2 cup milk and add it to the hot milk, which will froth up. Return pan to the heat and continue to cook milk, stirring often, for about 30 minutes. It will start to look like a syrup.
Now you must stir constantly, gradually reducing the heat as the syrup darkens and thickens, for another 30 minutes. When a stroke of the mixing spoon exposes the bottom of the pan and the syrup is slow to close in again over the track, remove the pan from the heat.
Let it sit until the molten stuff is partly cooled but still liquid enough to pour into small containers. Let it cool to room temperature before covering. It will keep for weeks at room temperature or in the refrigerator. Makes about 2 1⁄2 cups.
Source: Adapted from Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages by Anne Mendelson (Knopf, $29.95).
Per 1⁄4 cup serving: 281 calories (23 percent from fat), 7.2 g fat (4.4 g saturated, 1.9 g monounsaturated), 20.5 mg cholesterol, 6.6 g protein, 48.7 g carbohydrates, 0 fiber, 119.3 mg sodium.
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