Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Cheese Stands Alone

Grandpa VandenBergh loved Limburger cheese. But the story goes that when he was enjoying this treat, no one else in the family wanted to come too close, as this variety of cheese is quite odoriferous. There are many other varieties of Dutch cheese, perhaps the most well-known being Gouda and Edam.

Smoked Gouda, Gouda, and Limberger cheeses

A little over half of the milk produced in the Netherlands is processed into cheese, about half of which consists of various varieties of Gouda. Dutch cheeses are exported to 130 countries, with Germany, Belgium, France, and the United Kingdom importing the largest quantities.

I recall visiting a cheese store in Zaanse Schans when I was in the Netherlands last summer, where you could sample a great variety of different kinds and flavors of cheese. It was almost as good as visiting a chocolate factory.

My favorite kind is indeed Gouda, which is mild, smooth, and creamy. I used it to make a comfort food for a damp and dreary day: good old macaroni and cheese. The recipe in Grandma VandenBergh's old cookbook was a little different from the way I usually make it, as it did not include added milk. But whether you make macaroni and cheese from a box (which I don't recommend), or from your favorite recipe, it can cheer you up on a gray winter day. In true frugal Dutch fashion, the recipe also suggests a way to use up some leftover ham, and suggests using "old, dried chunks" of cheese.

Macaroni with Ham and Cheese

- 100 grams (1/2 to 1 cup) ham
- 200 grams (2 cups) macaroni
- 1/2 liter (2 cups) water
- 1/2 teaspoon salt ("wat zout")
- 100 grams cheese (4 oz.; about 1 cup grated)
- 30 grams (2 tablespoons) butter
- breadcrumbs for sprinkling on top

-Cook the macaroni according to the directions on the package. While it is cooking, chop or cube the ham, and finely grate the cheese.
- When the macaroni is almost cooked and most of the water has evaporated, add the ham and cheese and toss.
- Add half of the butter, pour the mixture into an ovenproof baking dish, sprinkle with breadcrumbs, dot with the remaining butter and set in a medium oven until crusty.

The recipe is the simplest I've ever seen for made-from-scratch macaroni and cheese. It is a bit drier than I am accustomed to, so I did add about 1/3 cup milk while mixing it up, to make it a bit creamier.

Mac and cheese with ham

A Dutch cow produces about twenty liters of milk per day; it takes ten of those liters to produce one kilo of Gouda cheese. So the next time you enjoy a slice of Gouda, think of the cow that produced enough milk to make two kilos of your favorite cheese, a cheese which has been sold on the Gouda cheese market for over three hundred years.

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Dutch Dairy Industry. Nederlandse Zuivel Organisatie (Dutch Dairy Board)  Accessed 1/28/2012.

Engelbrecht, Karin. "Say Cheese! Dutch Cheese - Dutch Cheese Varieties" Accessed 1/28/2012.

"From Cow to Cheese - Cheese in the Netherlands"  Accessed 1/28/2012.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Warm Milk

As mentioned in an earlier post, both of my grandmothers grew up in areas where dairy farms formed a large part of the economy as well as the landscape. In Grandma VandenBergh’s native country, if you imagine a million and a half cows grazing in grassy fields, you will have a mental picture of the Dutch countryside today. 

Dutch Dairy Farm

And if you imagine that each cow produces an average of 8,000 kilograms of milk each year, that’s a lot of milkshakes, yogurt, butter, powdered milk, and cheese, as well as plain liquid milk. In all, the Dutch dairy sector provides about 57,000 jobs, caring for the cows and processing the milk produced by these placid bovines.

The cows pictured above graze tranquilly on one of the Netherlands’ 20,000 dairy farms. The dominant breed of dairy cow in the Holstein Friesian, a descendant of the Friesland Holland cows and bulls that have been exported to North America since the mid-19th century. In fact, it was almost certainly a Friesian Holstein that Grandpa VandenBergh walked home from Castleton to Albany in the family’s early years in America. 

Barn in Dutch Countryside

I found a recipe in Grandma VandenBergh’s cookbook that calls for warm milk. I can picture her using milk produced by “Baasje” to prepare this typical Dutch recipe for pancakes for her family of growing children:

Drie in de pan  (“Three in the Pan”: so called because you make the pancakes just the right size to fit three in your frying pan at once)

-        2 cups (250 grams) whole wheat flour
-        2 ½ tablespoons (15 grams) powdered yeast
-        3 ½ tablespoons ( 50 grams) vegetable oil or butter
-        1 ¼ cups (about 3 dL.) warm milk
-        ½ teaspoon ( 3 grams) salt
-        1/3 cup (50 grams) currants
-        1/3 cup (50 grams) raisins
-        ¼ cup (25 grams) candied fruit peel

(I was unable to find candied fruit peel in my local grocery store, so I added a half teaspoon of cinnamon to make up for that omission.)

Ingredients for "Drie in de Pan"
- Dissolve the yeast in 2 tablespoons of warm milk.
- Make a fairly stiff batter with the flour, salt, and the rest of the milk.
- Rinse the raisins and currants in warm water; add them to the batter along with the yeast mixture.
- Cover the bowl with a towel and let it rise for an hour in a warm place. 

The batter after rising for one hour

- Heat oil or butter in a frying pan or skillet. (I used cooking spray; you may need to spray the pan each time you add more batter.)
- Using a soup ladle, pour the batter into the pan so as to make three round or oval pancakes, and cook until golden brown, turning over once. (Turn over when edges become browned and bubbles form on top.) 

"Drie in de Pan" in the pan

- Serve with syrup or brown sugar.

"Drie in de Pan" on the platter
That is the basic recipe from Grandma VandenBergh’s 1922 cookbook. It makes a pleasant “comfort food” for brunch on a chilly January day. I found a very similar recipe in a modern Dutch cookbook that I purchased in the gift shop at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last summer. This updated version calls for self-rising flour, which was probably not invented yet in Grandma’s time, as well as for an egg, which may make for a richer batter. But the basic recipe is the same, right down to the currants and raisins.

Eet smakelijk!


Dutch Dairy Board – Dutch Dairy Sector – July 2011: Accessed 1/22/2012.

Sterke, Marike. Deliciously Dutch: Text and Recipes. Arnhem, Netherlands: Terra, 2008.

Wittop Koning, Martine. Eenvoudige Berekende Recepten. Rotterdam, Netherlands: Boekdrukkerij N.V. W. Hilarius Wzn. 1922.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Sour Milk

Not far from my hometown is a small stream called the Sweet Milk Creek. I suspect that it was named such  --  or more likely the Zoete Melk Kill *  --  by early Dutch settlers in what is now Rensselaer County. The creek was perhaps so named because of the foam created when the water ran rapidly over the rocky creek bed. It is a popular trout stream, and a tributary of the Poestenkill, which empties into the Hudson River near Troy, New York.

The name of this creek conjures up bucolic scenes of cows grazing peacefully in grassy pastures. At the end of the day, they trudge slowly into the barn to be milked. But what happens if their sweet milk is left too long without refrigeration? If you have ever poured such milk into your morning coffee, you know exactly what has happened the moment your lips (or nose) get a sip or a whiff: it has turned sour.

What causes this "turning" of milk? It is a chemical reaction that occurs when the bacteria in milk consume the milk sugar (or lactose) and produce more bacteria. Over time, the resulting by-product is lactic acid, which gives the milk its sour taste. Pasteurization kills much, but not all of the bacteria. So if you keep your milk too long, even in the refrigerator, it will eventually turn sour.

Of course, in the early days before artificial refrigeration, milk had to be consumed promptly, otherwise it would turn sour more quickly than it does today in our fridges. What was one to do then, if it did go sour? Not to be wasteful, housewives developed recipes to use it up somehow, as in Minnie's recipe for Sour Milk Cake:

Minnie's Sour Milk Cake Recipe

Minnie got the recipe from her mother, Kittie Van Slyke ("Grandma Nan"), who also passed it along to my mother. As you can see from Mom's handwritten notes, she tried it out and adapted it as she saw fit:

Mom's recipe  -- from Grandma Nan

The ingredients are basically the same; since they do not include instructions, Mom figured out her own steps. Note how, similar to last week's Nut Cake recipe, the baking soda is dissolved in the milk, rather than being sifted into the flour. I don't know the rationale behind that technique, but it seems to work out.

If you need more detailed instructions, here is how I did it. I usually reduce the amount of sugar in a made-from-scratch cake recipe, and that turned out fine as well:

Sour Milk Cake

- 2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1/4 cup butter, margarine, or baking sticks
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 egg
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (optional)
- 1 cup sour milk

Pre-heat oven to  350 degrees Fahrenheit; pre-sift flour.
Grease and flour an 8 inch cake pan.
Sift together flour and nutmeg; dissolve baking powder in milk.
Cream butter and sugar; beat in egg.
Add milk and flour mixtures alternately, beat just until mixed.
Pour batter into cake pan and bake until toothpick comes out clean, approximately 20 minutes.

Although the cake's consistency is a bit denser than that of a cake from a mix, your guests will never guess that its ingredients include sour milk. The sourness is not evident, and the oven's heat kills the bacteria that soured the milk.

Sour Milk Cake - fresh out of the oven

And in case you're wondering: If you don't have any sour milk, what to do? You can turn sweet into sour by pouring a tablespoonful of vinegar or lemon juice into your measuring cup, adding enough milk to make one cup, and leaving the concoction at room temperature for about 15 minutes. This technique will produce the same chemical change as Mother Nature. 

* Note: "kill" is an archaic Dutch word for "creek"; there are many such named streams in the area of Upstate New York settled by the Dutch in the 17th century: Normanskill, Wynantskill, Poestenkill, Lisha Kill, Fishkill, Wallkill, Stony Kill, Sanders Kill, Peters Kill, Swarte Kill, Kleine Kill, Platte Kill, and believe it or not, Beer Kill. ( I suspect that this last one really means "Bear Creek," as the Dutch word for "bear" is spelled "beer.")

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sweet Milk

Both of my grandmothers grew up in dairy country, so it is no surprise that both of their cookbooks include recipes that call for milk or other dairy products.

As early as the 17th century, European settlers brought cattle to the New World to supply their families with milk and meat. This certainly included shipping cows to Nieuw Nederland; I can only imagine what it must have been like to share living space with bovine ballast in the close quarters of a Dutch West India ship during the long sea voyage. The breeds of cattle that made the arduous journey included the Jersey and Guernsey that we can still see on the hillsides of Upstate New York, alongside the more numerous black and white Holsteins.

At first, milk and dairy products were produced mostly for home use. But as the urban population grew around the turn of the 20th century, it became necessary to increase production and improve the quality of milk.

It was around this time during Minnie's childhood in the 1890's that milking machines gained use, providing a more efficient milking method and making it possible to produce a cleaner milk product. This same era saw additional developments such as tuberculin testing for cattle, pasteurization equipment, refrigerated milk tank trucks, and automatic bottling machines.

The establishment of the Dairy Division of the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) in 1895 was another step in regulating the industry in order to improve the quality of American dairy products, as well as the Meat Inspection Acts passed by Congress in 1890 and 1906, which authorized USDA inspectors to enforce standards of hygiene in the meat and dairy industries.

Minnie's relatives had a dairy farm in the hills above the village of Fort Plain, which functioned well into the 20th century.  As young men, my father and great-uncle (Minnie's younger brother Frederic) would go up to the farm in the summers to help out with the farm work. I also recall visiting the farm as a young child, and watching the cows being milked in the barn or grazing quietly in the fields. The relatives who ran the farm are retired now, although the land remains in the family.

Although New York State has lost half of its dairy farmers in the last two decades, and many dairy farms in the State have metamorphosed into wineries, dairy farming is still the largest agricultural industry in New York, making the State the third leading producer of dairy products, behind California and Wisconsin. Dairy farms and dairy animal production in New York generate more than half of the State's agricultural production.

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Minnie may have used sweet milk from her cousin's farm to make this tasty nut bread. It looks like she even got the recipe from the Farleys, who owned the farm. Note the way the baking soda is added to the milk, instead of being sifted into the flour.

Minnie's recipe for nut cake

I modernized the recipe somewhat when I tried it out:

- 1 1/2 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1/4 teaspoon allspice (optional)

- 2 tablespoons margarine
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 1 cup sweet milk, with 1 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 cup raisins, slightly chopped
- 3/4 cup chopped walnuts

Nut cake ingredients

Preheat oven to 350 F. ; pre-sift flour.
Grease and flour a loaf pan.
Sift together dry ingredients.
Cream together margarine and sugar; add milk  and flour mixtures alternately, beat until well mixed.
Fold in raisins and nuts.
Pour batter into loaf pan and bake until toothpick comes out clean, approximately 40 minutes.

The cake made a tasty treat for the recent holidays:

Nut cake, ready to eat!

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"Early Developments in the American Dairy Industry"; from the Special Collections of the National Agricultural Library. ; accessed January 8, 2012.

Fick, Gary, and W. Cox: "The Agronomy of Dairy Farming in New York State." SCAS Teaching Series No. T95-1, Department of Soil, Crop and Atmospheric Sciences, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY; June 1995.

Local Government Snapshot: New York's Dairy Industry in Crisis. NYS Office of the State Comptroller, Division of Local Government and School Accountability, March 2010.

Sunday, January 1, 2012


Jaarwisseling: the turn of the year.

The Dutch word means literally, the "changing of the year," sort of like the changing of the guard. It connotes for me the inexorable march of minutes, hours, days, and years, connecting the past with the future through the fleeting present moment.

Some day, perhaps my grandchildren will peer at old photographs of my contemporaries and me, as I have pored over old photos, papers, recipes, and reminiscences of my ancestors over the past year. This year, I will try to savor a few minutes of each day, to imprint them indelibly in my own memory, while once again exploring the past.