Twenty years ago, there were eighteen family dairy farms in Northern Michigan’s Kalkaska County. Today there is one. Shetler Family Dairy is a tiny operation by modern standards, but the Shetlers produce milk the old fashioned way. They tend to a small herd of about 35 dairy cows — Guernseys and Jerseys and big Brown Swiss — happy, healthy cows who spend the warm months lolling in grassy pastures and the colder months nibbling hay in the shelter of a large barn. No herbicides, no pesticides, no antibiotics, no growth hormones; just grass and hay and a bit of grain.
These cows produce the pure, creamy, full-flavored milk that inspired our decadently delicious Winter Milk Caramel. We start with eight gallons of Shetler’s whole milk, then sweeten it with Michigan beet sugar. As the milk reduces in the kettle, it’s steeped in mahlab, an exotic spice with a surprisingly familiar scent. Mahlab is made from the seed kernels of wild black cherries, and their cherry-sweet aroma and almond-like flavor meld beautifully with the creamy richness of dairy.
The sweetened milk simmers in our kettles for hours until it’s shiny and silky and deeply caramelized and amazing, a thick, richly sweet sauce infused with the soft almond notes of cherry kernels. Drizzle it in ribbons over ice cream or cookies or cakes, spread it on bread or toast, spoon it over pancakes and waffles, or really – who are we kidding here? – eat it straight from the jar, savoring it in small sensuous spoonfuls until it becomes necessary to lick the inside of the jar clean. Because seriously, it’s that good.