KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Judith Fertig’s Overland Park, Kan., kitchen is a modest but efficient space with white cabinetry, gray countertops and textured walls painted a soothing Benjamin Moore “butter.”
On a recent gray spring day, she’s also getting ready to show me how to make butter.
She pours two cups of heavy whipping cream from the carton into a food processor and presses a switch. Together we watch the cream whirl and froth. The motion of the blade magically transforms the liquid from soft peaks to solid, then begins to throw off its whey, a watery liquid that separates from the solids.
Fertig transfers the lump of butter that has formed in the work bowl into a cheesecloth-lined bowl and gently presses the mass with a spatula until it releases more whey.
In only five minutes, she has “churned” sweet cream butter, but without a single blister or callous.
Over the last 15 years, the prolific cookbook author has carved out an area of expertise by focusing on traditional Midwestern cuisine with a twist. Her fourth prairie-themed cookbook, “Heartland: The Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel, $35), released April 13, is being hailed as a celebration of a region of the country “where farm-to-table isn’t a movement.”
“Finally!” cookbook author and New York native Molly O’Neill proclaims boldly from the book jacket. “Someone who gets the Midwest, and loves the Midwest, and is not afraid to explain why the least-understood part of the nation is rapidly becoming a food scene worth getting to know.”
Fertig, who has that grounded, bubbly-yet-self-effacing quality reminiscent of actress Diane Keaton, admits she’s relieved the proverbial fly-over country is finally getting serious star billing.
“The locavore movement has helped people look at regional cooking in a different way,” she says. “Before now we wouldn’t have said ‘Midwest’ and ‘artisan’ in the same breath.”
The 283-page hardcover book is, without a doubt, Fertig’s most beautiful cookbook on the subject. But it might also be one of her most useful, with a focus on shorter prep times and simpler cooking methods.
The idea for a modern butter recipe came to Fertig while she was working on an article for Saveur magazine. The assignment took her to Nicodemus, Kan., an African-American pioneer town, to interview Pearlena Moore. “We used to have a little song when we was churning butter,” Moore told Fertig.
Come, butter, come.
Mama wants you come,
Baby wants you to come,
Come, butter, come.
“I always thought, ‘Why in the world would you need a song?”’ Fertig says as she transfers the soft, fluffy butter to an earthenware bowl with a spatula.
“But then I found out how long it took to make butter!”
Midwestern farm wives have been known for their breads, but the time commitment can seem daunting to modern cooks, so Fertig has decided to demonstrate a recipe for No-Knead Clover Honey Challah, a soft, braided yeast bread rich with eggs.
“I think that’s the way baking is going,” she says.
“Heartland” includes everything from Root Beer Funnel Cakes inspired by a diner in Hays, Kan., to Flyover Country Duck Confit, a “new-old” preserving technique. Fertig even includes a fuss-free recipe for rendering lard, but if that’s too intimidating, she suggests buying leaf lard at Bichelmeyer Meats, a family-owned business in Kansas City, Kan.
“It’s so much better than the lard in grocery stores,” she says.
Fertig gets it. She’s often pressed for time, too.
She meant to have a finished loaf on hand for our interview, but at the last minute she found herself watching her grand-dog, a sweet dachshund named Mimi, who made a break for it to romp through the yard.
With Mimi snuggled back into her crate, Fertig returns to the kitchen and carefully measures the flour by spooning it into the cup then leveling with a knife. “It’s important to measure properly,” she says. “If the measuring cup is dipped into the bag and scooped, you will end up with more flour.”
Into the bowl go the yeast and salt. She stirs the mixture with a Danish dough whisk, an odd-looking elliptical-shaped whisk with a sturdy wooden handle that resembles something pioneer women might have used to beat a rug.
Fertig initially came across the whisk in a King Arthur’s baking catalog and began to experiment with it while testing recipes for “Prairie Home Breads” (Harvard Common Press, 2001). “It’s just perfect for a no-knead bread,” she says. “Now I have two of them [whisks] because I’m afraid I’ll lose one.”
In a 4-cup measure, Fertig mixes local Cooper’s honey, oil and eggs then adds enough warm water to reach the 4-cup mark. She stirs the honey-egg mixture into the flour mixture, using the whisk to beat for 40 strokes — “like a brownie mix.”
She covers the dough with plastic wrap and leaves it to rise for two hours. But if you don’t have several hours, then you can keep the dough in the refrigerator for up to three days.
While the bread rises in a warm oven, we sit on Fertig’s living room couch and flip through the glossy pages and photos of “Heartland,” finally stopping on an arresting image of hands scooping dough out of a big, rustic wooden bowl.
“That’s Tina’s hand in the bowl,” Fertig says. “She has a tattoo on her wrist. That’s way too cool for me!”
Tina Stamos is the food stylist on the photo shoot, and her tattoo was cropped out of the final picture in “Heartland. “ It’s unusual for the author to have much input into the photos, so Fertig was thrilled to get the chance to attend many of the shoots for the book. Kansas City, Mo.-based publisher Andrews McMeel hired local photographers Ben Pieper for the food shots and Jonathan Ch ester for the landscape shots.
Fertig’s three other prairie-themed cookbooks, which are lined up in a bookcase in her living room, were recipe-intensive resources. “For a while all cookbooks were going with the Workman model — 300 recipes, no photos. The value of a cookbook was in having a recipe. But with all the recipes you have online now, people are looking at a book as an experience,” she says.
“Heartland” offers 150 recipes. Compare that with the 400 she produced for “Prairie Home Cooking” (Harvard Common Press, 1999). In “Heartland,” she also was able to flesh out the region beyond recipe header notes.
For instance, Fertig shares her experiences foraging for wild plants and herbs with Jonathan Justus, chef/owner of Justus Drugstore in Smithville. She interviews Frank Reese, a Lindsborg, Kan., heritage poultry breeder. She re-creates the life of a sheep on Green Dirt Farm in Weston.
“I want it to feel real,” she says. “That there’s a real connection with your family heritage, the place you live in, and that you’re not just trying some new recipe.
“One of the last issues of Gourmet (magazine) featured Bolivian street food, and it didn’t mean anything to me,” she says. “I’ve never been to Bolivia.”
Fertig grew up in Ohio but was immediately taken by the wide-open skies when she moved to Kansas.
Her kitchen reflects that love for prairie skies, and her time as The Star’s “Come Into My Kitchen” columnist from 1998 to 2005.
One of Fertig’s weekly interviews took place in the kitchen of Lisa Grossman, a painter who lives near Lawrence, Kan., and specializes in painting wide swaths of the prairie sky.
Fertig was so taken with Grossman’s paintings that she purchased two to hang in her kitchen. Also, she liked Grossman’s recipe for Oatmeal Honey Bread so much that she included it in “Prairie Home Breads.”
Turning back to her own challah bread, Fertig pokes the dough with a wary finger and adds, “It’s a no-knead dough, so it’s floppier than most breads.”
Fertig places the dough on a wooden bread board and divides it into three portions. She gently rolls each into a long strip, then braids them together. She brushes the bread with egg wash and sprinkles it liberally with poppy seeds. Next, the bread is allowed to rest at room temperature for 40 minutes. This is a step she skips when teaching classes, and the bread still turns out.
While the bread rises, Fertig starts her Sour Cherry Preserves. She buys Michigan-grown Montmorency sour cherries at the Overland Park Farmers Market — they’re not set out or advertised, you just have to know to ask — and keeps them in her freezer virtually year-round.
She puts the pitted cherries into a pan with sugar over medium heat. As the fruit bubbles, we chat but don’t leave the room because she needs to keep an eye on the candy thermometer attached to the pan until it reaches 220 degrees. Eventually she removes the pan from the burner and adds a squeeze of lemon juice and a little almond extract.
Fertig chops half the cherry mixture in the food processor for a few seconds, combines with whole cherries then ladles the steaming preserves into a clean jar. The fruit has enough natural pectin to gel. By the time the challah comes out of the oven, we’re slathering the warm bread with butter and preserves.
Since the 1980s, Fertig has been tossing recipes and ideas for recipes into three tubs, her low-tech filing system. Whenever she starts a new project, she pulls the tubs out and spends a Sunday culling them.
“I like the process of going through the recipes,” she says. “You always have ones that are your favorites, and they become your template.”
NO-KNEAD CLOVER HONEY DOUGH
Makes breads, coffee cakes or rolls to serve 24 to 32
6½ cups bread flour, plus more for dusting
2 tablespoons instant or bread machine yeast
1½ tablespoons fine kosher salt
1 cup clover or other amber honey
¼ cup vegetable or canola oil
2 large eggs
Warm water (about 100 degrees)
Spoon the flour into a measuring cup, level with a knife or your finger, then dump the flour into a 16-cup mixing bowl.
Add the yeast and salt to the flour. Stir together with a wooden spoon or a Danish dough whisk. Mix the honey, oil and eggs together in a 4-cup measuring cup. Add enough warm water to reach the 4-cup mark and stir together. Pour the honey mixture into the flour mixture, stir to combine, then beat for 40 strokes, scraping the bottom and the sides of the bowl, until the dough forms a lumpy , sticky mass.
Cover with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature (72 degrees) for 2 hours, or until the dough has risen to about 2 inches below the rim of the bowl and has a sponge-like appearance.
Use that day or place the dough, covered with plastic wrap, in the refrigerator for up to 3 days before baking. If you like, write the date on the plastic wrap so you know the bake-by date for your dough.
Per serving, based on 24: 206 calories (15 percent from fat),
3 grams total fat (trace saturated fat), 18 milligrams cholesterol, 39 grams carbohydrates,
5 grams protein, 360 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
SWEET CREAM FARMHOUSE BUTTER
Makes about 1½ cups
2 cups heavy cream
Line a sieve with a single layer of cheesecloth and place the sieve over a bowl. Pour the cream into the work bowl of a food processor and process for about 5 minutes. The cream will go, in stages, from liquid to whipped cream to thick whipped cream to a solid mass of butter that separates from the milky liquid or whey.
Transfer the butter to the cheesecloth-lined sieve and press the butter with a wooden spoon to release more of the whey. When the butter does not release any more whey, scoop the butter from the sieve and cover in plastic wrap. Use right away, keep covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 month, or freeze indefinitely.
Note: This makes an excellent hostess gift.
Per 1-tablespoon serving: 68 calories (95 percent from fat),
7 grams total fat (5 grams saturated), 27 milligrams cholesterol, 1 gram carbohydrates, trace protein,
7 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
SOUR CHERRY PRESERVES
Makes about 3 cups
4 cups pitted fresh or thawed frozen sour cherries
2 cups sugar
Juice of ½ lemon
½ teaspoon almond extract
Heat the cherries and sugar in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Attach a candy thermometer to the inside of the pan. Cook, stirring occasionally as the cherries begin to bubble and release their juices; the cherries will continue to bubble and rise higher in the pan. Keep cooking until the mixture reaches 220 degrees and has reduced to a preserves-like consistency, about 20 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice and almond extract.
Transfer half of the mixture to a food processor and pulse into a jam with flecks of cherry. Combine in a bowl with the whole cherries from the pan. Divide among clean glass jars with lids, let cool, and secure the lids. Store in the refrigerator for up to 1 year.
Note: These preserves are excellent on cheesecake or pound cake, as a tart filling, or over ice cream.
Per 1-tablespoon serving:
42 calories (none from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, trace protein,
2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
CLOVER HONEY CHALLAH
Makes 1 (14-inch) braided loaf
½ batch No-Knead Clover Honey Dough
Unbleached all-purpose flour, for dusting
1 large egg mixed with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash
Sesame or poppy seeds for sprinkling (optional)
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
To form the loaf, transfer the dough to a floured surface. Working the dough as little as possible, use a rolling pin to roll the dough into a large rectangle, dusting with flour as necessary. Fold the dough in half, turn a quarter turn, and roll out again. Repeat three more times. With your hands, form the dough into a cylinder.
With a dough scraper, divide the dough into three equal portions. Transfer the dough portions to a floured surface and dust very lightly with flour. Flour your hands. Working the dough as little as possible and adding flour as necessary, roll each portion into a 16-inch-long rope. Lay the ropes out vertically, parallel to each other and close but not touching.
Braid the ropes together snugly, starting at the top. Lift each rope and pass over or under one of the others in sequence. Tuck the ends under to form an oblong loaf about 14 inches long. Carefully transfer the loaf to the prepared baking sheet.
Cover with a tea towel and let rest at room temperature for 40 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Carefully brush the loaf with the egg wash. Sprinkle with seeds.
Bake for 40 to 42 minutes, or until the crust is a shiny, medium brown and an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of each loaf registers at least 190 degrees. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. Enjoy right away with Sweet Cream Farmhouse Butter, or let cool, wrap and freeze for up to 3 months.
Note: Leftover challah makes excellent French toast or bread pudding.
Per serving: 213 calories (15 percent from fat), 4 grams total fat (1 gram saturated fat), 31 milligrams cholesterol, 40 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 264 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Fertig is also a tiara-wearing “barbecue queen” who has written six barbecue cookbooks with co-queen Karen Adler.
Her prairie-themed work includes:
“Pure Prairie: Farm Fresh and Wildly Delicious Foods From the Prairie,” (Two Lane Press, 1995)
“Prairie Home Cooking: 400 Recipes That Celebrate the Bountiful Harvests, Creative Cooks and Comforting Foods of the American Heartland,” (Harvard Common Press, 1999)
“Prairie Home Breads: 150 Splendid Recipes from America’s Bread Basket,” (Harvard Common Press, 2001)
“Heartland: The Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel, 2011)