13 June 2008

Pleasure in Plain

Plain, yes plain can be pleasure.  Tangy plain natural yogurt is exactly what yogurt is supposed to be, just milk and culture.  It may take some getting used to, especially to our American palettes trained in all things sweet, but once you acquire the taste for it, that super-sweet, overly processed, often bacteria lacking "yogurt" at the supermarket, will not compare.  I first tasted plain yogurt in France.  My French "mother" would often bring out small cartons of plain yogurt for dessert with some fresh fruit.  I will admit, it was too tart to be enjoyable for me at the time.  I would always end up stirring in a teaspoon of sugar or some honey, as you may also have to do, but now, I enjoy it plain.  It is wonderfully filling as well and I'll often eat it before going to a party or as part of a light meal.
I started making my own yogurt when I once (okay, maybe twice) bought those Danimals yogurt smoothies for my kids.  They just loved them, but Danimals is pasturized which kills all of the friendly bacteria in the yogurt.  I just thought, how is this different than my making a smoothie for them at home?  The only difference was at home my smoothies wouldn't have tons of sugars, preservatives and thickeners in them.  Ouch.  When you make your own yogurt, you can be assured that your yogurt is just what it is supposed to be, milk and culture.
Making your own yogurt at home is super easy and lots cheaper than buying it at the store (not to mention free from all of the thickeners, preservatives and hidden sugars in the super market variety).  Even my boys love plain yogurt (albeit with a tablespoon of jam or honey stirred in).  It is much easier with a machine which costs around $20 and paid for itself in my house in about six weeks, but if you are not inclined, I'll go through the procedure for making yogurt without a machine too.

Making yogurt with a machine

1.  Place 42 oz. (the amount of milk will depend on the capacity of your yogurt machine, mine holds 6 glass jars which hold 7 oz. each) 2% milk in a saucepan with high sides.  If you like thicker yogurt, add 1/4 - 1/2 cup nonfat milk powder to the milk and stir in. 

2.  Turn your burner on high to scald the milk.  The idea here is to get the milk to 180 degrees to kill all of the bad bacteria (because that too would grow along with the good bacteria if we did not do this).  Do not walk too far away from the stove.  When the milk starts to crawl up the sides of the pan (wait for it...wait for it...) QUICKLY take the milk off of the heat.  If you miss the moment it starts to crawl up the pan, you are going to have a huge mess all over your stove.


3.  Let the milk cool to at least 120 degrees F.  Yogurt cultures grow best between 100 degrees and 120 degrees F.  If you add the cultures to milk that is too hot, you will kill your cultures and end up with warm milk at the end of your incubation time instead of yogurt.  I have timed the cool down process and if I always use the same pot, the cool down time is 30 minutes.  What makes yogurt making so easy is that once I did the initial timing of how long it takes to cool, now I can just set a timer and do other things during this time.

4.  Once the milk has cooled, take a small amount of milk out and stir your starter into this.  Then pour this into the rest of the milk and stir in.  You can either buy commercially available starter, found at health food stores, or just use a half a cup of your last batch of homemade yogurt.  I always use the commercially available starter because I think it yields a more consistent and slightly thicker yogurt.

5.  Pour the cultured milk into the yogurt machine jars and turn the machine on.  The machine acts as an incubator keeping the yogurt at a consistent temperature of between 100 degrees and 120 degrees F.

6.  After 4-8 hours, remove your jars from the machine and put in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.  The amount of time you leave the jars in the machine will depend on how firm and tart you like your yogurt.  After 4 hours, you will have a softer and very mild yogurt, after 8, more tangy and firm.

I do this twice a week.  When I think that is 12 jars of yogurt my family goes through and I can buy a container of yogurt at the store for $0.50 (when it's on sale), that would be $6.00 a week in yogurt.  I can buy a gallon of milk for $3.00 which is a savings of $3.00 a week.  In just 6 weeks, my yogurt machine paid for itself.  

Making yogurt without a machine

For the perennial cheapskates out there (I can relate) who don't want to splurge on their own yogurt machine the process is basically the same, except that you are going to have to find your own way of keeping the yogurt between 100 degrees and 120 degrees F for 4-8 hours.  I've heard of one woman who puts her cultured milk in a thermos to keep the temperature consistent.  Also, if you have an oven with a pilot light that keeps the oven around 100 degrees, you can stick it in there.  I don't have either of these so when I was making yogurt without a machine, I would put my jars in a pot of 117 degree water, put a lid on it, and then wrap the pot with three towels that had been warmed in the dryer.  Without the machine, I viewed yogurt making as a little more of a chore and definitely more complicated than with the machine, but if you insist on doing it this way, people have been making yogurt this way for thousands of years, so it is possible (just more fussy).

Pleasure in plain?  Oh la la.  Enjoy!  

09 June 2008


Ah, it has finally happened.  After a winter that felt way too long, and a spring where winter coats were kept on retainer, strawberries finally appeared Saturday at our local farmer's market.  Those beautiful red, fragrant and delicious signs that summer is almost here.  I could smell them before I could see them.  Delicious.  I was so excited, and weary of more greens, I spent my entire budget on three flats of strawberries and immediately came home to excited yelps from my two year old who started digging in.  Finally, a strawberry worth eating!  As I was lamenting to someone a few days before about how long it was taking for the strawberries to get ripe this year, they commented that they have been buying good strawberries at our local big box store.  You can get passable strawberries at those stores, and if you have no other option, I say go for it.  But if you can wait for those locally grown strawberries, picked just that morning, those strawberries that are so fragile, fragrant and wonderful that their mere existence is temporal and limited to that day, then wait for them.  I spent the rest of the afternoon happily canning most of the strawberries into strawberry pineapple jam, strawberry jam, and strawberry topping, imagining myself remembering this happiness of summer as I spread the jam on toast in the dead of next winter.  Be sure to save some of these beauties for the next few recipes though.  Strawberries are only at their best a few weeks of the year, enjoy them while you can in all their glory.

Strawberry and Tomato Salad by Joie de Vivre
Time:  10 minutes tops if you're a very slow chopper

Cherry Tomatoes
White Balsamic Vinegar

Take the tops off of the strawberries and slice into quarters or halves.  Halve the cherry tomatoes.  Mix all in a bowl and sprinkle on the white balsamic vinegar.  Slurp up and enjoy!

Fresh Strawberry Sorbet adapted from Cuisinart Ice cream maker instruction manual
Preparation:  1 1/2 hours (active:  about 15-20 minutes; 25 - 30 minutes chilling time; optional 2 hours to "ripen" in the freezer)
Makes about 10 1/2 cup servings

1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1/4 cup corn syrup
1 quart fresh strawberries, stems removed
4 tablespoons lemon juice

Bring the sugar and water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Reduce the heat and simmer without stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Transfer to a bowl and let cool completely.

Combine the strawberries and lemon juice in a food processor fitted with the metal blade.  Pulse to shop the strawberries, then process until the strawberries are completely pureed.  Combine the strawberry puree with the cooled sugar syrup and corn syrup.  Chill for 1 hour in the refrigerator.

Turn your ice cream machine on, pour strawberry puree mixture into freezer bowl and mix until thickened, about 25 - 30 minutes.  The sorbet will have a "soft serve" texture.  If desired, transfer the strawberry sorbet to an airtight container and place in freezer until firm, about 2 hours.

Nutritional analysis per serving:
Calories: 96, Fat 0g.

My Easy Strawberry Pie by Joie de vivre
Time 30 minutes

Pie crust (either homemade or refrigerated)
A quart of strawberries or more depending on how thick you want your pie to be.
1/2 cup "red" jam (I use my homemade cherry marmalade)

Put your crust in a pie pan, prick with a fork all over and bake according to directions.  Heat 1/2 cup jam over medium heat until melted.  Fill pie shell with whole, halved or quartered strawberries and pour jam over the top.  Chill until cold.  Cut into wedges and serve!

06 June 2008

Pizza Margherita

I have been craving pizza ever since my parents came to visit a few weeks ago and we ordered a Beer Garden pizza from our local pizzeria.  The crust was very reminiscent of crusts that I've tasted in Rome.  The toppings, too bizarre to make sense, but delicious, were a combination of sauerkraut, sausage and pickles.  Again, I know it sounds bizarre, but it was yummy.  I've been thinking a lot of those pizzas in Rome and how simple but delicious they were and have been trying to recreate them ever since.  This was a recipe I found a few days ago, it comes close.  I didn't have a pizza stone so I think that would probably make a difference too.  It was still the best pizza I've ever made though!

Pizza Margherita  adapted from The Best Recipes in the World by Mark Bittman
Time:  about 3 hours largely unattended

3 cups all purpose or bread flour
2 tsp instant active dry yeast
2 tsp coarse kosher or sea salt
2 Tbls extra virgin olive oil.
1 cup water

Fresh mozzarella
Sliced tomatoes
Fresh basil leaves
Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1.  Combine flour, yeast, and salt in a food processor.  Turn the machine on and add 1 cup water and the oil through the feed tube.
2.  Process for about 30 seconds, adding more water a little at a time, until the mixture forms a ball and is slightly sticky to the touch.  If dry, add another tablespoon or two of water and process for another 10 seconds.
3.  Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand for a few seconds to form a smooth, round dough ball.  Put the dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap; let rise until the dough doubles in size, 1 to 2 hours.
4.  When the dough is ready, form it into a ball and divide it into 2 or more pieces if you like; roll each piece into a round ball.  Place each ball on a lightly floured surface, sprinkle with a little flour, and cover with plastic wrap or a towel.  Let rest until the balls puff slightly, about 20 minutes.  
5.  Roll or lightly press each dough ball into a flat round, lightly flouring the work surface and the dough as necessary.  Let the rounds sit for a few minutes; this will relax the dough and make it easier to roll out.  If you have a peel and baking stone, roll or pat out the dough on the peel, as thin as you like, turning occasionally and sprinkling it with flour as necessary.  If you are using baking sheets, oil them, then press each dough ball into a flat round directly on the oiled sheets.  Then roll or pat out the dough, as thin as you like, flouring or oiling your hands if necessary.
6.  Top with salt and sprinkle with rosemary, sliced fresh tomato, extra virgin olive oil, a little fresh mozzarella, some fresh basil leaves, and salt.
7.  Bake at 500 degrees or higher for about 6 - 12 minutes until nicely browned.

Joie de vivre in America

As a teenager, I had the privilege of traveling to Grenoble, France for a summer.  I fell in love with the French way of eating seasonal, local produce, simply prepared and eaten al fresca.  For dessert we would have plain yogurt and a little bit of cheese.  Lunch was often succulent tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, or perhaps warm salad of red potatoes, green beans, anchovies or tuna with a mustard vinegarette.  Simply lovely.

I came back to the States, and life went on.  I went to college, started working, got married, had kids, and somehow forgot about the simple joy of eating.  I loved to cook, but tended toward the more "American family" type of cooking like lasagnas, casseroles, spaghetti, anything that could be put down quickly.  However, this type of cooking was also horrible for me.  Finally, I was 75lbs overweight and I hit a wall.  I wasn't happy, I was tired all of the time, and I knew I needed to change.  I was desperate and even contemplated one of those diet programs where you eat the pre-packaged food because I didn't trust my own body and sense of how much food I needed.  It was in this desperate hour that I found the book French Women don't get Fat by Mireille Guiliano.  Suddenly, I remembered what I had long ago forgotten.  That simple joy of eating.  I've lost 31lbs since finding her book and have found not a diet, but a joie de vivre, a joy of living.  

This blog is dedicated to my quest to live a French life in America.  Viva la France!