There’s something important about today’s post that I feel should be revealed from the outset. At the risk of some of you hitting the “unsubscribe from these emails” button immediately, here goes:
I…am not…an animal person.
It’s not that I dislike animals, or that I’m some Zsa Zsa Gabor singing givemeparkavenue. It’s just that I’m not that special and dear sort of person who gets excited in their presence and wants nothing more than to hug and pet the doggie/cat/horse/cow/etc. It’s not that I’m afraid of them, either. Really I’m not! Even though Betsy, my roomie from Saint Mary’s, once announced to her friends when we arrived at their house and the big (scary) dog came running at me: She’s afraid of dogs!
So it didn’t completely surprise me when my cousin sent me an ever-so-gentle and kind email last spring when I posted a photo of some gorgeous black cows grazing in the greenest of fields with a red barn backdrop up north. I referenced these cows for the milk they’d be giving us and how good it would taste from their grassy diet.
Cousin, she said. Those are not dairy cows. Those are beef cows.
I didn’t question such a definitive statement coming from a woman who is a PhD, a DVM, and Associate Dean at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine. Humbling, isn’t it?
And in the style of a true academic who could not be more in love with her field, Sarah invited me to get to know the university that has been in my hometown backyard all my life. We’d take a tour and see what this dairy cow business is all about.
Turns out we saw a lot A LOT more than the diary cows. There was an organic student farm (pumpkins, apples), a center for viticulture study (MSU wine! But really, Michigan wine is holding its own these days), and I’ll be darned if I didn’t meet a man, Ben, who directed me to another man, Gary, to talk about how I might cultivate wild grape leaf vine saplings that I could make available to all of you to grow your own at home (I mean it).
We saw horses, glorious horses, and the students who love them on their rolling farmland. The very sight of these beauties jiggered a memory in me of the horse my sitto Nabeha grew up with in Dier Mimas in Lebanon.
That horse was blue, and therefore it’s name, in Arabic, was Blue. Aunt Rita told me about this horse that her father rode around the village. I thought this had to be some kind of fantasy—a blue horse—but then Sarah asked one of the equine folks about the blue horses and the response was matter-of-fact, as though everybody knows there are blue horses (that student said they aren’t her favorite; go figure).
We picked soybeans, one of Michigan’s big crops, at their peak, just ready for harvesting. Did you know, Sarah asked, that they are brown when they are ready for harvest, not bright green as they are in summer? I’d never seen a soybean up close and personal on the farm, or anywhere really other than perfectly salted in a bowl at my favorite sushi spots.
Then, of course, there were cows. Beef cows grazing in the fields and dairy cows—the Holsteins at MSU, but there are also Jerseys and Guernseys (I’m bragging my knowledge now)—lined up in a row, ready to be milked or to give birth to a soft and lovely little calf who will grow up giving us more milk. They rarely look at you head-on, because their eyes are in the sides of their heads, so they don’t look straight out front. Oh, and as with any farm, the dairy farm, and beef farm, have an aroma (?) all their own. It’s fermented feed, it’s manure, it’s animal, and the cousin walked right through that scent like it was nothing but goodness. Which, in the end, it really is.
Sarah’s font of knowledge and excitement were unstoppable, and all of it delivered in casual conversation with the kind of broad smiles and humor and inflection that are so very familiar, and so very Abood. She showed me her favorite barn (turns out I’m not the only one who has favorite barns), gave me her favorite recipe for applesauce (it has to be chunky, never smooth; any pureed food is too reminiscent for her of something unsavory on the farm) and stopped, illegally, to pick black walnuts.
She told me how, at the tender age of 12, in the midst of difficult family time, she and her siblings headed out east to a friend’s farm, and there the animals soothed her soul. She fell in love with them and the caring for them and kept going back every year long after her siblings had maxed out on the experience, right up until she could start studying veterinary medicine herself back home at MSU. Never knew any of this about my cuzzy and the backstory of her career-path.
In true field-trip style, we ended our tour at the MSU Dairy Store, where we could see all of that milk in action, made into cheese and butter and, of course, ice cream. Can’t remember the last time I ate a wonderfully gooey grilled cheese sandwich; this one, with MSU sharp cheddar? Go Green, Go White!
I’ve been hearing about our hometown ice cream forever and ever and not once had I found my way to the MSU dairy store to check it out first hand. The choices were all Big Ten-inspired concoctions, and our server directed me to one ribboned with caramel, lots of caramel, that reminded me of one of my favorite flavors to make at home (second only to mint chip), a sea salt caramel touched with orange blossom water.
It hardly seems obvious that I was an MSU student myself once, for not knowing more of the story about its fields of green (MSU was the first institution of higher learning in the United States to teach scientific agriculture, in 1855…) and its animal sciences. My work was of a different sort, mastering literature way across campus in a big old red brick building each day, head down, way down, in the books.
Little did I know I’d be back one day, with my mind on stories of a different sort, stories that lure me into the kinds of places, and with kinds of people, that show me I might just be an animal person after all.
Salted Caramel Ice Cream with Orange Blossom
The ultimate ice cream! This recipe is adapted from my favorite ice cream book, Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home. My ice cream maker of choice is this one. The base is made without eggs, but uses cream cheese for flavor and texture. Making the caramel takes close attention; read more about it here. This ice cream pairs deliciously with apple pie.
Makes about 1 quart
2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
3 tablespoons cream cheese, soften
Heaping 1/4 teaspon fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon orange blossom water
Before making the caramel for the base, prep a few items: make a slurry by mixing about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk the cream cheese with the salt until smooth. In a measuring cup with a spout, mix the cream with the corn syrup. Then, fill a large bowl with ice and water to use to cool down the base swiftly.
To make the caramel, place the sugar and 1/4 cup water in a 4-quart heavy saucepan over medium high heat until the sugar is dissolved and amber in color. This takes about 5 minutes; watch closely so you can remove the pan from the heat the moment the mixture is deep amber; it can burn swiftly.
Remove the pan from the heat and, stirring constantly, slowly add about 1/4 cup of the cream and corn syrup mixture. The caramel will spurt and pop. Stir until well combined, then add more cream and continue in this way, stirring and adding cream until it is all incorporated.
Return the pan to medium-high heat and add the milk. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and boil the mixture for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the cornstarch slurry.Bring back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the caramel is slightly thickened, about a minute. Remove from the heat.
Whisk about 1/4 cup of the hot caramel mixture into the cream cheese mixture, whisking until there are no lumps and it is completely smooth. Add another 1/4 cup and whisk, then gradually whisk in the remaining caramel. Stir in the vanilla and orange blossom water.
Chill the base by pouring it into a gallon-sized zip-lock bag and immersing it in the large bowl of ice water until it is cold, about 30 minutes.
Pour the base into a frozen canister in the ice cream maker and spin until it is thick and creamy. Pack the ice cream in a storage container and top with an airtight lid. Freeze until firm, about 4 hours.