My appreciation for California creameries actually was rooted in a childhood experience from a farm in Missouri. When I was a little girl, I was fortunate enough to have been sent to my Great Aunt and Uncle’s farm in De Soto for the summer. De Soto is a small town now, but an even smaller town then. Located in the southeastern part of the state, it was barely noticeable on the way to the Ozarks. There was a main road through town, and I think Aunt Opal and Uncle Bea lived near the butt end of it. I thought it was punishment, but it turned out to be one of the Great Memories of my life.
The farm was situated on 27 acres, most of it used for the 9-10 head of cattle to graze. There were chickens and pigs and a horse that bit. The rooster would start at what I thought was an ungodly hour, but that turned out to be when all the work began. Before anyone could sit down for breakfast, well, you had to make it…fresh. I was put in charge of the chickens, so out I’d go to the barn. Uncle Bea would open up the doors and the pigs would trot out, the cattle would exit sluggishly, and the chickens would be let out, clucking and scampering toward me as I tossed the feed. While they pecked and squawked around, I would go in the pen in the barn and forage for eggs. There seemed to always be enough for breakfast.
I would spend many of my days hanging out with the cows and for the most part they didn’t seem to mind as I pretended to be the teacher, they my admiring students. I named them all and gave them personalities. Uncle Bea’s forehead would crease when he saw this, not understanding why I would bother anthropomorphizing what to him was merely food and livelihood. He eventually explained that he would buy them when they were at a certain age, let them wander and eat, and then a year or so later sell them for profit to the butcher. He of course got a winter supply of beef to store in that huge freezer, along with some pork. If they wanted poultry, well they would just kill them fresh. It was a simple life and it was sustainable. They fed themselves and some of the town as well.
Sometimes I would go out with Uncle Bea to the vegetable garden and he would curse the rabbits because they usually outsmarted the trap, which was pretty much constructed using a box and some bait. Every now and then he said he caught one and they would have it for dinner. But usually they got away, taking some of the root vegetables with them. There was still plenty for us though, and I never knew potatoes could taste so good.
Halfway through my stay, I found myself waking up before the rooster and going out on the porch before dawn, studying the life that took place before sane people were awake. They had a 4 acre lawn filled with all kinds of trees, and the wild deer would make an appearance and treat themselves to some dew, while Uncle Bea would teach me about the different birds and their calls. I never knew there could be so many birds in one place, other than seagulls and pigeons. He would call to them and they’d answer. Bea had built birdhouses in strategic places throughout the yard, and once he saw a snake in one of them, having just eaten the bird family in it. I never realized how close he must always have kept his shotgun, because there it was and blam! The snake was split in two in the air before me. He couldn’t shoot a rabbit stealing his food, but no thought of the snake in his birdhouse.
I was one day given the task of picking the mulberries and of course I ate them as I went. They were sun kissed warm and sweet and delicious – and plentiful. I could barely carry the barrels back to the house, where Aunt Opal proceeded to teach me how to make pie and jam preserves. Although I was pretty sick of mulberries by the end of that day, I looked forward to the jam we had each morning. I picked them, cooked them, jarred them. Bea and Opal would be eating my preserves all year long!
The hardest work of all, had to have been making cream, butter and ice cream. Evidently Opal still made butter the way she was taught earlier in the nineteenth century. Seriously. Churning by hand, we took turns and I lost interest pretty quick. I never made it to butter so she had to finish the job. Some of the cream was transferred to the ice cream maker, which was a round barrel with rock salt, ice and a crank to turn the cream as it froze. I never liked vanilla before then, but I became a huge fan that day. I’m not sure if it was the sweat and tears that went into it, but it was good. These days, you can make your own butter much quicker by using a blender.
Farming is hard work but it sure makes the food taste better. Everyone should try it at least once to appreciate where food comes from. Once you’ve done this, buy an (electric) ice cream maker and not just for vanilla. That said, this is a luscious end to an afternoon brunch. If you can get fresh cream, all the better.
1 cup shelled walnuts
6 tablespoons superfine sugar
3 tablespoons water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 ¼ cups milk
1 ¼ cups heavy cream
4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons soft brown sugar
Roast the walnuts in a preheated 400 degree oven for 4 minutes, no more! Dissolve the superfine sugar in the water over a gentle heat and then boil until rich caramel in color. Stir in the butter and nuts and transfer to a lightly greased cookie sheet. Do not rinse the saucepan. Leave toffee nuts to cool and harden. When completely cool, chop roughly.
Pour the milk into the caramel saucepan and heat gently until any leftover caramel has dissolved. Add the cream and bring just to a boil. Beat the egg yolks with the brown sugar until pale. Stir in the milk and transfer to a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Cook until the mixture has thickened enough to coat the back of a wooden spoon (about 20 minutes).
Freeze in an ice cream machine. When half frozen, beat until smooth and stir in the nut toffee mixture. Freeze again until ready to serve.