When you drive toward my town from pretty much anywhere, you pass a mall or two.
Big box stores, little box stores, grocery stores and discount stores. Drive-through doughnuts, drive-up banking. Hardware, software, sportswear.
It's hard to believe that, a century ago, apple orchards and dairy farms, punctuated by occasional clusters of tiny wood-shingled houses along the road, were all you'd find around here. Today, what remains is the name -- Apple Valley -- and just a handful of orchards.
Our house is on the outskirts of Apple Valley, five or ten miles from here to one of those grocery stores, not far to drive in good weather but not fun in the winter. So, at this time of year, I always keep shelf-stable milk and powdered buttermilk in my pantry.
What is buttermilk? And what makes it cultured?
First thing to know: real buttermilk contains no butter, and it's not so much milk as the liquid left behind after butter is churned. Commercial (cultured) buttermilk, however, is made by adding a lactic acid bacterial culture to skim milk, which is then left to ferment for 12-14 hours at approximately 69°F. The milk sours and thickens.
For some reason, fresh cultured buttermilk is sold only in a quart size, which is fine if you're planning to drink it, but most recipes for baked goods call for one cup or less, and the leftover usually turns into a science experiment in the back of my refrigerator. Using powdered buttermilk eliminates the "buy a quart, use a cup" dilemma.
When baking, add the powdered buttermilk to the dry ingredients, and the water to the wet. Four tablespoons of powdered buttermilk plus one cup of water equals one cup of fresh buttermilk.
Powdered buttermilk sold in packets (each packet makes one cup of buttermilk) will keep in your pantry forever. If you buy by the canister, refrigerate after opening, and the buttermilk will be happy for a few months.
According to Irish folklore, drinking a glass of buttermilk will offset a hangover.
It should work with powdered buttermilk, too. If you try it, let me know.
Pear spice cupcakes
Adapted from a recipe in the New York Times Bread & Soup Cookbook by Yvonne Young Tarr, this is my favorite spice cake in disguise, perfect for dessert or with afternoon tea. Makes 12 cupcakes.
2 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 Tbsp powdered buttermilk
1/2 cup vegetable shortening
3/4 cup light brown sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
3 large ripe pears, peeled and grated on the largest holes of a box grater
1/2 cup water
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a muffin tin with paper liners or spray with canola spray.
In a large mixing bowl, combine first 6 ingredients. Stir in whole wheat flour and powdered buttermilk. Set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the shortening and sugar until thoroughly combined. Add vanilla and eggs, and stir. Then, alternating a little bit at a time, add dry ingredients, water and pears to the egg mixture.
Pour the batter into the muffin tin, or use an ice cream scoop to fill the tin. Bake for 25 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Let cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and let cool to desired serving temperature. (Can be frozen.)
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