Willie Mae and Ethel Shepherd (my great grandmother) in 1906 in Price’s Fork, Virginia.
Pearl [Price] and Zack Shepherd had three daughters, Willie Mae, Ethel, and Claribel. And on their farm, they had a cow (e-i-e-i-o). They did have one, actually, and Ethel remembered going to the barn with her sisters, each with a half-pint tin cup to fill with fresh, warm milk. Her mother would then use some of the milk to make butter and cottage cheese. Here was the basic process in my great grandmother’s words:
Butter was made from the cream skimmed off the crocks of milk. Two or three gallons of cream were saved in a big jar, which you would let stand in a warmer temperature to sour to a clabber state. Then, it was put into a five- or six-gallon wooden churn. Someone, preferably a teenager, would churn it to butter. That meant lifting the dasher by the round disk or crosspiece on the handle, and beating it up and down in the cream until butter appeared. You then had both butter and buttermilk. Next, you put the butter in a big bowl and poured cold water over it to rinse the buttermilk out. Finally, when it was free of milk and firm from the cold water, you put in salt and formed it into one-pound prints using a butter printer. Old printers were round and made a design on the butter. I used a rectangular-shaped printer so that the butter could be sliced into quarters, like butter comes packaged today.
Cottage cheese was made by using the milk left after the cream was skimmed off. You left it out to get warm and sour. Then, you put it into a kettle and set it on the stove, just long enough for it to separate into curds and whey rather than to get hot. It was strained through a cheesecloth bag, and hung up to finish dripping until fairly dry and solid. To prepare this for the table, you added cream, salt, and pepper to the crumbled-up cheese.
I’ve made butter before, but not by this particular method. It’s what you get if you whip cream with an electric mixer for too long—little waxy flecks of butter. I discovered this in culinary school, where I was a star pupil.
But, today’s cream that you get at the store won’t sour. Raw cream or milk straight from the cow will naturally sour as the existing bacteria consume the lactose. Pasteurization, however, kills all that bacteria. Ultra-pasteurized cream goes straight from fresh to rotten, at which point you can’t use it. So these instructions aren’t intended to mean that you can take your rotten cream and turn it into something. Please don’t write me and tell me you did this. Store-bought heavy cream can be used as is and makes a pleasant, albeit bland, sort of butter.
As for the cottage cheese, if you have access to raw milk, let it sour and proceed. The lactic acid formed by the bacterial action will cause the milk to separate into curds and whey on the heat. With pasteurized, store-bought milk, though, you’ll need to add acid from another source to make that separation happen (vinegar, yogurt). I may try it this week and see how it goes.
But while we’re on the topic of raw milk, has anyone tried it? I never have and must admit a certain curiosity. If anyone has some in a five-mile radius of my house, call me.
Next Recipe: Jam and Apple Butter
(Previous Recipe: Virginia Cured Ham)