yogurt all by myself

I thought making yogurt would be a complicated task requiring special equipment and mail ordered "cultures". It isn't. It's easy.

Here's what you need: one quart of milk and one container of yogurt.

Check to make sure that the yogurt contains active cultures, and then check to make sure that you want to eat the rest of it. You'll only need 2 tablespoons of yogurt to start a batch; the rest is for a snack. If you don't want to eat the rest of the yogurt, then you probably don't like yogurt, in which case, stop reading, because this is going to be gross otherwise.

If you do like yogurt, then here's the super complicated instructions.

(1) Pour milk into pot and heat to between 180-190 degrees.

(2) Remove from heat and cool milk to between 115-120 degrees. This takes about 25 minutes or exactly as long as it takes to walk my dog.

(3) After milk has cooled, add about 2 tablespoons of yogurt to milk and mix.

(4) Put pot in cozy place for 4-12 hours.

(5) Transfer yogurt to container and refrigerate.

Really, that's it. It's totally easy and delicious.

Of course, if you're anything like me, you like things to be a little more complicated because that creates a greater sense of accomplishment so here's a few more details.

The milk matters. A good, grass-fed whole milk yogurt is terribly lovely. Nonfat. Pretty wretched.

A cozy place can mean a couple of things. If I'm not planning to use the oven, I'll throw the pot in there. My oven is gas and the pilot light by itself will keep the temperature perfect for yogurt bacteria procreation. If you have an electric stove, leave the light on and it will be equally cozy.

If I'm planning to use the oven in the next few hours, then I make a little yogurt love nest. Like this:

The time range is huge (4-12 hours), because it's a matter of taste when to cut off the yogurt bugs from their yogurt making. Four hours will produce a very mild flavored yogurt. It tastes like thickened milk to me at this stage - mild and slightly sweet. At 12 hours, you'll have a very tangy yogurt (not unlike Nancy's). The timing is up to you. Just be sure not to jostle your pot too much while it's at work. Leave it be.

Yogurt made this way doesn't have any thickeners or stabilizers so it will be thinner than store bought and liquid whey will separate from the yogurt. For a thin yogurt, just stir thoroughly with a whisk when it's finished to integrate the whey and yogurt. For a thick, creamy yogurt, line a sieve with a cheesecloth (or a clean cloth napkin) and allow the yogurt to drain for 30-60 minutes.

And finally - the very coolest part. The second time you make yogurt, you can use the last dollop of yogurt from the first batch to start the new batch. Harold McGee, my favorite food scientist, has been tending the same yogurt colony for 10 years this way. I'm fascinated. It's completely gross and engrossing.

And that's it. All of it. Enjoy it however you like. I like it with granola or plain with a drizzle of buckwheat honey on top.



Hostess Cupcakes, for those of you have not had the pleasure of their acquaintance, are a prepared food concoction of stale hardened frosting over dry, dense cakes filled with a fluffy filling tasting of Crisco and corn syrup. The definition of course misses the fact that combined these seemingly irredeemable components sum to a delectable culinary creation of considerable genius. Sometimes, when I'm particularly perceptive, I even get the fleeting sense that I have tasted the subtle, but distinct hint of the white frosting swirl, and it has brought that particular chomp into new territories of deliciousness.

I love Hostess Cupcakes. I do not eat them regularly. Again with the Wrangler jeans staying on my hips quite well thank you, but every 8-9 months I need one. I slip into a gas station convenience store and buy an embarrassing combo: one pack of Hostess Cupcakes and one Diet Pepsi. I like Diet Pepsi. It was the pop of choice in my childhood home, and it has been imprinted in my carbonated psyche as the beverage associated with special treats and privilege. Of course, I don’t explain this to the cashier, and the kid thinks to himself: “Nice try lady. Like the Diet Pepsi is going to help.” But I really can’t help it despite his condemnation and continue to repeat this ritual. I once crafted a whiny question to ask the call-in, local public radio health guy about whether ½ gram of trans fat every 8-9 months was really going to kill me, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to publicize my cupcake needs to all seven listeners. Last year, while working at the worst job ever (worse even than stuffing envelopes all summer once in college, which I actually didn’t mind terribly), my nearly yearly cupcake needs spread out over an entire week. Every day for breakfast Monday through Friday, Hostess Cupcakes and Diet Pepsi.

Other artificial chocolate-flavoring and hydrogenated soybean oil confections do not have the same pull on me: Ding dongs, HoHos, the even cheaper version of these same treats from an even more suspect company. For goodness sakes, I don’t even like cake (it’s the frosting). So, of course, I have also spent my life uninterested in Whoopie Pies. This despite back-to-back residencies in two of the three Whoopie Pie regions of the country - the Midwest and Pennsylvania. (Maine is the other. I escaped a close call by not attending Colby many years ago; otherwise it would have been three for three.) For those of you who prefer to live in places with actual positive attributes, like San Diego or Portland, and who do not voluntarily move to places like Indiana, here’s the story. Whoopie Pies are gigantic chocolate cake cookies cemented by a heart stopping frosting or plain marshmallow fluff. They measure at least 6 inches across and could easily be your entire lunch. Given my love of Hostess cupcakes, it’s funny that I haven’t been interested. There's cake. There's fluffy white filling stuff, but there is no heaping mound of fat-flavored frosting that coats your mouth with a non water soluble grease slick. Obviously, I should love Whoopie Pies.

It took a recent New York Times article to finally convince me to pull out my Kitchen-Aid and give this heritage recipe a try. You should all know that I have never actually tried a Whoopie Pie. Last summer, I did not tour Lancaster county sampling Whoopie pies from the best country bakeries, and I’m not planning a trip to Maine to uncover regional differences. I can tell you, however, that I’ve been taking great pleasure in typing Whoopie Pie as often as possible. I can also tell you that they are tasty. Better even than Hostess Cupcakes. Try them. Really.

Ok, Ok, for those of you for whom an association with Hostess Cupcakes is not actually a positive thing, I'll say this. By day two, the cake is delicate and moist - the kind of cake that gets stuck to the top of your mouth when you take a bite (that, by the way, is a good thing). The frosting is gooey and sweet, but well-mannered. Neither too sweet nor too buttery. They are not the beauty queens of the pastry case so don't file them away in your Bree Hodge file. No one is going to sigh with pleasure when you unveil them. I have, however, sighed while eating them, and I suspect that others may do the same.

Whoopie Pies

Typically, the batter is baked in ¼ cup portions to produce a huge cookie, but I’ve cut the proportion down to 1 tablespoon to make a manageable (and frankly, more adorable) cookie that measures about 2 inches across when baked.

1/2 cup unsalted butter (1 stick), softened
1 cup brown sugar, packed
1 egg
2 cups all-purpose flour
2/3 cup cocoa powder
1 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
one batch Poor Man's Frosting (see below)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter or oil baking sheets.

Beat together butter and brown sugar in a standing mixer until pale and fluffy. Add egg and continue beating until well combined.

Whisk together flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. With mixer on low, add flour mixture and buttermilk in batches, scraping down the sides of the bowl occasionally. Add vanilla and mix until batter is smooth.

Spoon batter in one tablespoon portions onto baking sheets. Bake until tops are puffed and the cakes spring back when touched - approximately 10 minutes. Transfer to a rack and allow to cool completely. When cooled, spoon 1 tablespoon of Poor Man's Frosting onto the bottom side of a cookie and match to a second cookie.

Store between layers of wax paper in an airtight container. These are much better on the second day, but I highly recommend eating one on the first day too.

Sourcing: Whole Foods 365 Brand: unsalted butter, brown sugar, and all-purpose flour; Champion Chicks Farm egg, Penzey's Natural Cocoa Powder, Organic Valley Cultured Buttermilk, Penzey's Vanilla Extract

Poor Man’s Frosting

I love this frosting. Milk thickened with flour (like gravy) is whipped into the frosting to extend it, which also has the lovely side effect of diluting the sugar. You’re left with a fluffy, not-too-sweet frosting. It’s not the prettiest , but it’s perfect here.

I’ve substituted virgin coconut oil for the more typical lard or shortening. It’s just as bad for you, but it has the good manners to provide a luscious, natural coconut flavor that subtly scents the cookies and tastes great with chocolate. Spectrum makes a nice non-hydrogenated palm shortening that would also works well in place of the coconut oil.

1 cup milk
5 tablespoons flour
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup virgin coconut oil (or shortening)
pinch of salt
1 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

In a small saucepan, whisk flour into milk (while still cold). Continue whisking and cook over medium heat until thick. Be sure to allow mixture to gently bubble for a minute or two to ensure that the raw flour taste is cooked out of the mixture. Allow to cool to room temperature before continuing.

In a stand mixer, or with a hand-held mixer, cream together butter and coconut oil until soft and fluffy. Add salt, powdered sugar and vanilla and mix until well incorporated. With mixer running, slowly add thickened milk. When fully incorporated, turn mixer to medium-high and beat frosting until fluffy.

Sourcing: Natural by Nature Fat-Free Milk, Whole Foods 365 Brand: All-Purpose Flour, Unsalted Butter, Virgin Coconut Oil and Powdered Sugar; Penzey's Vanilla Extract

*These recipes have no attribution. The name of the (likely) Pennsylvania Dutch cook who invented them has been lost to history.