Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cricket Creek Farm Tobasi Gratin and the Raw Milk Debate

If you've never taken the 3 1/2 hour drive from New York City to Williamstown, MA, I hope this post gives you pause to consider it.

I was going through some old photos the other day when I came across this one, taken a few winters ago, of the view from our former back yard in Williamstown. 

Notice the bee hives! 

Look where we have them now...but more on that later!

And just for some perspective, here's the view from our current "back yard"!

Anywho, back in 2010-2012, Jon and I lived in Williamstown, MA in a bucolic valley buttressed by Mount Greylock and the Taconic Crest. Our closest neighbors were the cows that grazed in the field behind our house. Pretty cool.

During those two years, Jon taught Biology at Williams College and I worked at a certified humane dairy called Cricket Creek Farm. First, I worked in the bakery under the tutelage of Jamie Ott, expert baker and founding former owner of the region's famous, Clarksburg Bread Company. After assisting Jamie in the bakery for a year, I moved into the cheese room. There, I helped to make, brine, wash, cut, wash some more, and package a variety of custom cheeses under the guidance of Suzy Konecky, the creamery's indefatigable manager. 

The farm produces several signature cow's milk cheeses as well as additional seasonal offerings. Regular varieties include a pasteurized spreadable farmer's cheese in several flavors called Cricket Creek Fresh; a pasteurized bloomy-rind similar to Camembert called Berkshire Bloom; a raw, washed-rind, semi-soft cheese that's similar to a taleggio called Tobasia raw, semi-firm toma style cheese called Maggie's Round; and an older, sharper version of Maggie's Round called Maggie's Reserve. Coincidentally, Maggie's Round won first place in the American Cheese Society competition in 2011 (i.e. the most prestigious cheese competition in the US!). Cricket Creek also offers feta, gouda and freshly churned butter. 

My recipe for today is based on Tobasi. Here's Suzy holding up a fresh one that's about to be brined before aging for 3-4 months.

Photo courtesy of Cricket Creek Farm.

Another amazing product Cricket Creek Farm offers is raw milk!

Raw milk is not pasteurized or homogenized, only filtered and cooled, so it develops a cream line and makes excellent cheese. Proponents of raw milk argue that it's more easily processed by our bodies because the nutrients and enzymes are raw and unfettered, and therefore, more readily absorbed by our systems. It's said to cure allergies and skin problems as well. People swear by it's healing properties. When I was drinking it I felt great and all the interns that came through the farm credited the milk for their increased vigor as well.

There's a tremendous amount of debate about regulating the production and sale of raw milk. Currently, in MA and NY you can only purchase it on land contiguous to where it's produced. In New Jersey it's completely illegal. These restrictions make it extremely difficult for small-scale dairy farmers to turn the profit they need to maintain their operations, create and sustain jobs, and compete with massive factory farms. Unlike raw milk, raw milk cheeses are simply required to be aged for a minimum of 60 days at a temperature no lower than 35 degrees F (i.e. above freezing). After 60 days, raw milk cheeses can be shipped and sold anywhere (yay!).

The Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is an organization that supports sustainable farming and promotes access to local foods including raw milk. Their website offers a wealth of raw milk related information including a map listing raw milk statutes state-by-state (see what the deal is in your area!). In addition, here’s a great article from NPR that introduces many of the main points of the raw milk debate. Regardless of your take on raw milk, however, you can still enjoy the bounty of the Berkshires and the wonderful creations produced at Cricket Creek Farm. 

So if you need a break from city life, or just want to see what rural MA has going for it (which is a lot), consider a long weekend out in that neck of the woods! If you do decide to go, be sure to swing by Cricket Creek Farm to meet the farmers, see the animals, and buy cheeses, lovingly pasture-raised meats, fresh eggs, sweet and savory baked goods, and a variety of other local goodies. You can also take cheese-making classes there and try some delicious raw milk for yourself!

This recipe works wonderfully with Tobasi and results in a sharp, creamy, rich and gooey gratin with hints of grassiness and just the right amount of deliciously earthy, "stinky" cheese flavor!

Cricket Creek Farm Tobasi Gratin 
2 cups milk (available at Cricket Creek Farm)
2 Tablespoons butter (also available at Cricket Creek Farm)
2 cups Cricket Creek Farm Tobasi, diced
1 teaspoon nutmeg (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt (to taste)
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
5 lbs red potatoes, sliced thinly

Scrub and thinly slice the potatoes. Set them aside in a bath of cold water. 

Preheat your oven to 375 F. 

Cut the Tobasi into small cubes and set aside. 

Combine the milk and butter in a medium saucepan with a heavy bottom. Slowly heat over a low/medium flame, stirring frequently, until the butter melts. Be careful not to scald the milk by allowing it to boil. 

Add the Tobasi cubes to the sauce about ½ cup at a time, stirring frequently until all the cheese has melted. Add the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed. If the cheese sauce seizes up, just reduce the heat and add a little more milk while stirring.

Drizzle a little olive oil on the bottom of a 9x12 inch casserole dish. Arrange the thinly sliced potatoes in one layer, overlapping the edges like shingles. Pour a small amount of the cheese sauce over the first potato layer and repeat until you’ve made as many layers as possible and still have about a scant cup of sauce to drizzle over the top. 

Cover the dish with foil and bake for 30 minutes until bubbling. Remove the foil and bake for another 15-20 minutes until the top is bubbly and browned.

You can also make "mac and cheese" with this sauce and add it to...
1lb penne or other bite sized noodle, cooked al dente
1 large head cauliflower, cut into bite sized pieces and blanched until just tender
half and half of both pasta and cauliflower
*You'll just want to toss the pasta and/or cauliflower with the sauce and bake for 20 minutes covered and then 10 uncovered so it can bubble and brown!