One of the things I’ve adopted wholeheartedly about living in State College again is taking classes. In January and February there was a Saturday morning series on campus called Food: Strategies for Growing Enough for Everyone, with such topics as The Global Pollinator Crisis and Where Will the Food Come from in a Hotter, More Crowded World? Then, there’s this wonderful grassroots community organization called Spring Creek Homesteading that has what they call “re-skilling” classes on a variety of topics, from making herbal lip balms to home beer brewing and weaving potholders.
Last month my mom and I attended a Yogurt and Granola Making Workshop. I connected with our instructor Nynke immediately. She was wearing a colorful apron decorated with cooking utensils and ingredients, each design with the vocabulary word written beneath – in Dutch. Nynke’s homeland is The Netherlands, a neighbor of Belgium. That’s close enough for me to conjure up a bond that includes my daughter Marina. It just so happens that Marina is taking a Dutch language class so, needless to say, Nynke (and her apron) held my attention.
Nynke began making her own yogurt because it is “no waste”. She makes a batch of yogurt in a quart Ball jar and doesn’t need to deal with buying yogurt in all of those plastic containers. Without the packaging and promotion, homemade yogurt is also cheaper. That made immediate sense to me. To top it off, we have a wonderful farm, Meyer Dairy, less than two miles from the house. You can see the Holsteins grazing in the pasture, and yes, sometimes smell them, but the fresh milk is the best! And even better, the milk comes in returnable glass bottles. Again, no plastic waste.
So, one Saturday morning Nynke showed us the basics of making yogurt at home, and it couldn’t be easier. There are two ingredients: a quart of milk and 2 tablespoons of “starter”, which is simply plain yogurt, no sugar added, with “active bacteria” listed on the label. And, once you make your own yogurt, you can just use 2 Tbsp. from that to start the next batch. Nynke bought her quart yogurt maker on amazon.com, and there are other products out there including something called “Yogotherm.”
Because my past life is in boxes, I did not want to buy another kitchen gadget. Nynke suggested a warm oven, the sun on a warm day, or a heating pad – anything to keep the yogurt at a consistent temperature for four to eight hours.
Now Nynke is one of those cooks who tests food temperatures on the inside of her wrist, and the crucial part of yogurt making is all about temperature. Here are her instructions:
1. Heat four cups of milk in saucepan until almost boiling (180°F).
2. Let the milk cool to 105°-115°F.
3. Pour warm milk into glass jar with starter (2 Tbsp. yogurt) and keep at 105°-115° F for four to eight hours. Then, refrigerate.
4. You’re done!
We did the initial stages in class and she fast-forwarded the four-to-eight-hour bacterial fermentation part by bringing in a quart of her yogurt from home. Then, we moved onto homemade granola. Kids play.
I was raring to go! I bought a quart bottle of whole milk at Meyer Dairy (you can also use skim or 2%) and a container of plain Oikos (Stonyfield) Organic Greek Yogurt. On the label were listed the live active cultures: S. Thermophilus, L. Bulgaricus, L. Acidophilus, L. Bifidus, and L. Casel.
My mother had a crock-pot, so I figured I’d improvise. I poured water into the bowl of the crock-pot, and set the dial on low. Meanwhile, I heated my quart of milk slowly until it formed a “skin” on top, just before boiling. By heating the milk this way, you kill the undesirable bacteria and “denature” the milk proteins so they set rather than form curds. Just stir the skin into the rest of the mixture.
After cooling the milk, I poured it into the Ball jar with 2 Tbsp. of Oikos and plunged the quart jar into the warm water bath. I covered the jar and crock-pot with a clean kitchen towel and left it to ferment in peace. I went to bed. About four hours later, I checked on the brew. So far, so good. At 3 a.m., my normal women-of-a-certain-age waking hour, I looked again. No change. A hour of putzing around, and it was still sour milk soup, not yogurt. I refrigerated it, hoping that would solidify. Wrong.
OK, so my wrist must not be as sensitive as Nynke’s. Before starting I had searched my mom’s kitchen for a candy thermometer—she had to have one somewhere. Nowhere. I know I have one, but it’s packed in an unlabeled box somewhere…so I broke down and I bought a candy thermometer. A $4 expense, but I was back in business.
The following night, I went through the same routine, only with a candy thermometer to gauge the temperatures along the way. At 3 a.m., my bewitching hour, I was roaming the halls and peaking under the kitchen towel at my brew. Warm sour milk soup, not yogurt.
I tussled with my pillows and cursed the moonlight until dawn trying to figure it out where I went wrong. Finally, it came to me: Perhaps the jar was getting too hot resting on the bottom of the crock-pot, thereby annihilating and liquidating all of my good bacteria.
So, evening No. 3 I began again. I had roasted vegetables for dinner, so I had a warm oven in which to place the quart jar. Every hour I was up and checking the jar and oven. Was it too warm? Not warm enough? How do you keep a warm oven warm for eight hours, especially when you keep opening the door to check on it?
The night reminded me of my pre-Easter nights of peep tending. Were they warm enough under the heat lamp? Too warm? Did the bulb burn out? All those trips to the barn in my muck boots and PJs. Around midnight I decided the oven was no longer the least bit warm. What to do? I found an old heating pad in the linen closet and wrapped my jar in the pad, plugged it in and turned it on low. Around 3 a.m. I checked the batch. I made yogurt!
Forget the cost savings and plastic waste reduction—eating homemade yogurt is like biting into a ripe tomato on your garden vine—it can’t compare to the store-bought product. So, now I’m an insomniac yogurt pro. For breakfast, I have yogurt with granola. If I’m feeling really decadent, I drizzle some golden honey on top. And, for those of you who like fruit yogurts, add fresh fruit or go Euro-style and add a spoonful of strawberry jam. If you’re like me and up at odd hours of the night, making yogurt gives you that warm nurturing feeling. You can take the woman off the farm…but she’s still a Mother Hen. Laurie Lynch
Like Mother, Like Daughter: While I was experimenting with yogurt making, Marina was in Antwerp at her boyfriend’s family home having kitchen trials of her own. When she visits Ziggy’s family she often bakes a sweet treat. They love her banana bread, so Ziggy’s father suggested she make some to sell at their bio supermarket Terrasana (Earth and Sun). All of the ingredients had to be “bio” (organic), but luckily Marina could get all of them–including 80 some over-ripe bananas—at Terrasana. She made some loaves with sugar but most with stevia (“It’s just that type of crowd, Mom.”)
The night before the big special, she baked 27 loaves in six hours. But the real challenge came the next day when she was the guest baker at the store with her Bio-Banana Cake (In Belgium, you can charge more for cake than bread…) The BBC sold for $21,95 euro per kilo (about $13 US a pound), and each loaf was about a half-kilo. Some loaves were sliced and weighed for individual servings, costing anywhere from $1,20 to $2,20 euro. The amazing thing is that almost all of the transactions were made in Dutch!
“My Dutch was tested, and frustrated some people,” she said, but she also realized she knew more of the language than she thought. Comments from shoppers ran the gamut from “It’s too expensive” to “I don’t eat butter/flour/eggs/bananas” but, there were plenty of sales, one repeat customer—and hey, Marina understood what everyone was saying!
Speaking of Good Eggs: I got together with friends who were attending a campus event, and they brought a gift from a mutual friend – a dozen blue and brown eggs. Linda adopted several of my hens last spring, and shared some of their hen fruit with me, across the miles.