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All About Buttermilk: The Agrarian Dream, and Recipes, Too

Wednesday, June 12, 2013
All cookbooks sell fantasy. Julia Child sold the fantasy that we could all become accomplished French cooks, but she grounded it in rigorous preparation and exacting instructions, which, if you followed them to the letter, gave you a very good chance of approximating the Sunday lunch of a provincial French lady. And because Julia Child was Julia Child, we were also treated to her merry personality and lack of pretension.

The 1980s Silver Palate Cookbook nourished our dreams of being well-traveled, urban sophisticates who knew what sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives and capers were, had them in our pantry, and had no trouble turning them into a last-minute Italian meal when friends dropped by our SoHo loft on the spur of the moment with a bottle of a California Cabernet Sauvignon.

One of today’s prevailing food fantasies is the urban romance with agrarian life, which The Animal Farm Buttermilk Cookbook by Diane St. Clair is selling in abundance.

It’s an appealing cookbook with appealing recipes, but when the book’s lower case subtitle is “recipes and reflections from a small vermont dairy,” you know what’s coming. Beautiful photographs of the idyllic landscape under a wintery sky, the author affectionately patting her cows while bathed in a celestial light and the Green Mountains blazing under a summer sunset.

This isn’t entirely cornball. Many farms in both New Hampshire and Vermont are this pretty, the farmers take tremendous care of their livestock, and most of the people who go into farming are talented, productive and incredibly hard-working. They’re growing and raising foods and meats that are fresh and nutritious, while, in most cases, also promoting careful land use and conservation. This isn’t a panacea for all that ails agriculture or the food industry, but it’s a step, and a vital one.

As it happens, St. Clair is a purveyor of butter and buttermilk to the famous American chef Thomas Keller, whose restaurants French Laundry, in California, and Per Se, in Manhattan, repeatedly earn him ecstatic praise. Keller is known, among other things, for the meticulousness with which he sources his ingredients. Like other top drawer chefs, he’s formed relationships with the farms that supply his restaurant with produce and meat, which is both a good quality check and a spur to niche farmers to persevere. But it’s one of the ironies of the renaissance of so-called “artisanal” food grown on smaller farms that, often, to eat in restaurants that advertise as having harvested the bountiful goodness of the farm, the bill will come close to costing you the farm.

Because the average price per person at French Laundry is between $270 and $350, you have to be affluent, or have saved up for the occasion. It’s grand theater of a kind so you could justify it, just as you’d spring the same amount of money to sit in the orchestra at the Metropolitan Opera, because you are there for spectacle, aesthetics and artistry.

I just wish that such restaurants and cookbooks didn’t peddle their own special brand of misty-eyed, yeoman farmer hyperbole, although St. Clair is careful to point out that farming takes commitment and hard work. But Keller, who has supplied one of the blurbs for the cookbook, describes it as one in which the reader is drawn into the rhythms of farm life. The only way to truly be drawn into the rhythms of farm life is to work on a farm, and not many are signing up for that dawn-till-dusk privilege.

So St. Clair should be applauded for the work she’s doing, although her assertion that buttermilk is the “elixir of the human race” seems a stretch. But she has certainly devised a variety of uses for it, which include soups, sorbets, baked goods, main and side dishes and salads. If you like buttermilk, which is the liquid released by churning butter, or want to find recipes for it beyond the usual assortment of suspects (scones, salad dressing), this cookbook will come in handy.

One of the book’s pleasant surprises is that buttermilk can substitute for yogurt, cream or regular milk in a number of dishes, and that it can be adapted for more recipes than you might imagine. A bechamel sauce, a staple of the kitchen, can be made with buttermilk, as can breakfast standards like waffles, muffins, corn bread and pancakes. Even meatloaf and tempura gets the buttermilk treatment. St. Clair also outlines how to make your own butter and buttermilk, should you want to go that route. She describes other ways that buttermilk has been used, in skincare, or in simple home remedies for canker sores or colitis, although she takes care not to recommend them outright as cures.

I like to cook with buttermilk in the summer, when it is hot and a cold soup or salad is easier to prepare. Beyond that, I don’t give much thought to buttermilk. You can see why buttermilk isn’t the staple it once was: it’s a by-product of farm life, but because so few of us farm, there doesn’t seem to be a pressing need for it in our lives. So I don’t know whether a cookbook devoted to recipes for buttermilk can find a broad audience, even if it is endorsed by Thomas Keller.

That said, I found a few easy recipes that are worth trying, although I’d want to make them a few times to get the hang of them. And there are other recipes for buttermilk creamed chard, spaghetti carbonara, and minted pea and buttermilk soup that catch the eye.

Buttermilk Scones

Scones are often made with cream, but I prefer this buttermilk version because they are less heavy.

3/4 cup dried currants

4 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (I mixed together 1 cup whole wheat flour with all-purpose)

1 tablespoon baking powder

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 cup sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1 cup or two sticks cold, unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups buttermilk, and more if needed

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted. (I found one tablespoon was sufficient. Three tablespoons left me with wasted butter.)

Turbinado or sanding sugar, for sprinkling. (This is one of those recipe requirements I run into fairly often and find exasperating. Who is going to run out to buy turbinado sugar for this purpose? Regular sugar works just as well.)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, or grease well. Cover the currants with hot water and let them sit for 10 to 15 minutes so they plump up. Drain and pat dry.

In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, sugar and salt. Cut the unsalted butter into small pieces and incorporate, using a pastry cutter, fork and knife or your fingers, until you have a lumpy mixture.

Pour in the buttermilk and currants. Mix until the dough has just come together in a ball. Add more buttermilk if it is too floury and dry. Try not to over mix. Turn out onto a mixing or cutting board and pat it into a rectangle about 1 1/2 inches thick.

Brush the dough with the melted butter and sprinkle with sugar. Cut the dough into 12 equally-sized triangles. Bake for about 25 minutes or until they are golden brown. I’d check them at 20 minutes.

Buttermilk Roasted Chicken

I didn’t follow this recipe exactly because I had a buttermilk salad dressing on hand that I thought would work just as well. In retrospect, I wish I had used the recipe as shown because while the buttermilk certainly made the chicken more tender, I didn’t think it made much of a difference in taste. I’m including this because it is a simple, straightforward recipe, and because the chicken was exceptionally tender.

1 small chicken

2 cups buttermilk

3 garlic cloves, lightly crushed

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped

1 tablespoon sea or kosher salt

1 teaspoon smoked paprika

Combine all the ingredients, except the chicken, in a big pot or resealable bag. Add the chicken and turn it over so it is coated with the buttermilk mixture. Marinate in refrigerator overnight.

Roast the chicken in a 400-degree oven for an hour to 90 minutes. Let sit for 10 to 15 minutes before carving. One thing I noticed was that the chicken blackened in the oven, which I attribute to the milk. If you’ve ever brushed a pie crust with milk, and left it in the oven too long or at too high a temperature, you’ll notice that the crust burns more easily. So if you’re going to try this recipe, I would loosely cover the chicken with tin foil while it’s roasting. To get that nice golden-brown skin, remove the foil for last 20 to 30 minutes cooking time. But keep an eye on it.

Raspberry Buttermilk Tart

This is well worth the effort. It tastes better the next day, if you can stand to wait. What sells this is the lemony lightness of the custard filling. Buttermilk crust follows but I think a standard pie crust might be flakier and not so heavy. Then again, pastry crust is not my strong suit.

You’ll need one 10-inch fluted tart pan. Because of the quantity of liquid, this works better in a wider, shallower pan. But in a pinch, you could use a pie pan. It will probably take longer to cook.


2 cups flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon sea or kosher salt

4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter

1/2 cup cold buttermilk

Tart filling

2 cups raspberries. St. Clair calls for fresh but frozen would probably work just as well.

1/2 cup sugar

2 tablespoons flour

3 egg yolks

zest and juice of 1 lemon

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. Cut the butter into smaller pieces and cut into the flour mixture. Stir in the buttermilk until it forms a rough ball. Flatten it into a disk and wrap it in parchment paper. Refrigerate for about an hour.

Roll out the dough onto the parchment paper so that it forms a circle big enough for the tart pan and its fluted sides. Drape it over the pan and press it in. Now gently pull away the parchment paper. Put the pan on a baking sheet.

Bake in a 350-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes. Let cool. Put the two cups raspberries in the baked crust.

In a bowl mix the sugar, flour, egg yolks, zest and lemon juice together until smooth. Now add the buttermilk and vanilla extract. Whisk until smooth. Pour into the baked pie crust, over the raspberries.

Put on a baking sheet in the oven and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the filling is just set in the center. It will look a little wobbly. Let cool before serving.

Nicola Smith can be reached at

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