Pretty Cheese Sauce

In winter the cream was not yellow as it was in summer, and butter churned from it was white and not so pretty. Ma liked everything on her table to be pretty, so in the wintertime she colored the butter.

-Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods

Tonight’s side dish was broccoli, which my kids recently decided isn’t as tasty as it once was. To encourage them I thought I’d serve it with a cheese sauce, but I wanted to make my own, without a zillion grams of sodium or any ingredient beginning with “V.” The best cheese sauce I’ve made — which is still only “eh” in terms of losing the gritty texture — is from a recipe that uses my bionic blender, the Vitamix. Decent sauce, except even when I use orange cheddar it comes out a sallow, unappetizing color that’s not quite yellow and nowhere near the desirable orange hue of the boxed mac-n-cheese. I had a hard time believing my kids would be convinced to eat their broccoli with cheese sauce if the cheese sauce resembled, at least visibly, something not dissimilar to dishwater. Three or four times I almost reached for the orange food coloring, but I kept shutting the cabinet. I didn’t want to resort to that. Cake frosting was one thing; for reasons I couldn’t exactly articulate, cheese sauce was quite another.

Then I thought of something. I had carrots.

After she had put the cream in the tall crockery churn and set it near the stove to warm, she washed and scraped a long orange-colored carrot. Then she grated it on the bottom of the old, leaky tin pan that Pa had punched full of nail-holes for her. …She put this in a little pan of milk on the stove … Then she squeezed the bright yellow milk into the churn where it colored all the cream. Now the butter would be yellow.

At first I grated some baby carrots, or tried to. Finally, nursing needlessly scraped fingers in my mouth, I threw a few carrots directly into the Vitamix with my free hand.

It worked. The sauce was a dull yellow, but it was still yellow. And the carroty taste wasn’t half bad.

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6 Responses to Pretty Cheese Sauce

  1. 'B. says:

    As a kid that always confused me, that cream would be a different colour depending on season. Let alone that it might be yellow!

  2. Dakotagirl says:

    On a similar note. When my mother was a child in the 1930s, store bought butter was not yellow. Inside the package was a packet of orange coloring which was blended with the butter to make it yellow. My mom has mentioned to me how her mother used to mix in the coloring in order to make the butter prettier. I have the large rectangle glass dish she used to press the butter into.

  3. Dennis D. Picard says:

    Not to be elitist about this but the whole yellow cheese thing is definitely a regional preference. In New England “real cheese” is not orange. Vermont farm made sharp cheddar is not ORANGE, perhaps slightly tinted yellow if put next to a white sheet of paper. The first time I saw orange cheese at school I was shocked. Now a days I do know of some good English cheeses, like some from Wensleydale, that are orange. The butter thing is different. As you know it is a matter of grass fed versus hay or ensilage fed cows, strictly a seasonal thing – but the consumer is always right, so dump in some red dye #4

  4. Sarah Uthoff says:

    Glad your sauce was a success Sandra. What a great way to apply the same thought. I’m sure Ma would be proud.

    I wanted to add to Dakotagirl’s comment that I’m almost completely positive that what her mother was remembering was margarine, not butter. At one time the dairy lobby was strong enough to get a law through that artificial butter (maragine, oleo, or whatever you want to call it) with the coloring mixed in was deceptive to consumers. Therefore the fake butter was sold in in its original awful looking state, with a little packet of coloring to fix it before you served it to your family, so there was no doubt you weren’t getting the real thing and the dairy industry hoped you’d think twice before buying this cheaper substitute again. This was the same group that got the milk subsidy calculated to a large extent on how far your farm was away from Wisconsin, the farther you were the less you got. Powerful group for a time.

    Also, in response to Dennis, I had never had cheese curds that weren’t white until a trip to Wisconsin just a couple of years ago. I was expecting a yellowish white and got dayglo orange, but of course if you are making a different kind of cheese the curd will look different. I just hadn’t thought of it before.

    Sarah Sue

  5. Dakotagirl says:

    Thank you Sarah for the update on my post. You are a treasure trove of information and I always enjoy reading your posts and blog. You are right about lobbies, they are still powerful.

  6. I agree with Dakotagirl — Sarah Sue always has the best historical context for this kind of stuff. Thank you! I had never heard of “oleo” until I moved to Kansas and saw it on so many old recipes here. And I’d forgotten until now that someone told me about the color mixing powder. I’m a big fan of butter (and whole milk and full-fat cheese) myself.

    Dennis, I don’t know if that’s elitist, but it if is I’m right there with ya. It’s very hard to raise kids today without bowing to the almighty god of the blue box of mac-n-cheese. We use Annie’s, which is labeled organic but who really knows what that means these days? And I have to admit that we’ve gone out of our way to find the orange Annie’s because the white is not well received.

    I read a study recently that said the more decisions we have to make on a daily basis, the more stressed out we get. They were talking about the most mundane of decisions–like whether to get the soy latte or not. One has to wonder if the lack of options back in Laura’s day meant for a more peaceful mind.

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