Making Yogurt


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When it comes to yogurt, I have very high standards. First, it’s got to be plain. Even though yogurt flavours have gotten far more exciting over the years, I use it for more than just snacking. I also like to flavour my yogurt with my own jams and marmalades when I’m in the mood for eating it straight out of the tub.

Second, my ideal yogurt is thick. I remember this being an uncommon feature of yogurt for most of my childhood, when the low fat craze was in full swing and grocery stores carried only bland, artificially flavoured mixtures that were either thin and runny or thickened with gelatin. Now, Balkan- and Greek-style yogurts are regular fixtures of the dairy case and the days of only being able to find of low-fat strawberry seem to be mostly behind us. Naturally thickened without the help of any ingredients aside from milk and bacteria, these yogurts, if they tasted better, would be perfect.

This brings me point number three: my ideal yogurt tastes really great. On it’s own, I mean. This important to me not just because of how I use it in other food, like as a cooling foil for a spicy roti, or to make cheese, or as the base of a really delicious cake, for example. It’s important to me because I know it’s possible for plain yogurt to taste good, without additional fuss.

I haven’t always had such strong opinions about yogurt. When I lived in Edmonton, yogurt was cheap and plentiful, and I ate it indiscriminately. Then, I moved to Toronto and found myself in for a rude awakening. Dairy products are expensive out here, guys! While at the local No Frills, shopping to fill the fridge in my very first apartment for the very first time, I handed over nearly $4.00 for 2 litres of milk, feeling bewildered and a bit annoyed. Where I come from, milk is less than $1.00 per litre, and it gets cheaper when you buy in volume. And yogurt? Forget about that. At nearly $4.00 a tub, I knew that I would never be able to eat as much yogurt as I wanted to without going broke. Though I eventually learned where to buy milk at almost-Edmonton prices, I had trouble finding a yogurt whose price didn’t make me wince. So, I gave it up for several years. I didn’t cut it out of my life as much as I treated it more like ice cream: something nice to be enjoyed every once in a while.

I started eating yogurt regularly again after moving into a neighborhood that was basically a residential main road with a handful of small, family-type businesses and lots of traffic at rush hour. One of these businesses was a little natural food store that sold Hewitt’s yogurt. Hewitt’s yogurt is amazing, and it’s got everything I look for in a perfect yogurt: It’s nice and thick. It has only two ingredients (milk and bacteria). It’s got a tangy, milky flavour with just the right amount of sourness. This was a yogurt that was smooth-tasting and delicious, and, best of all, it was affordable! At less than $2.50 per tub, yogurt was back on the menu and I couldn’t have been happier. Like most good things that are sold at a reasonable price, however, my Hewitt’s yogurt run didn’t–couldn’t–last forever. The shop changed owners and the prices went up. Then, I moved out of the neighborhood. It’s not all bad, though, because if I really, really wanted some Hewitt’s yogurt, I could just go to the very good natural food store in my current neighborhood. There’s also another, better option: I could make my own.

To be honest, this isn’t an idea that sprang fully formed from my head. I’d read and gotten excited about homemade yogurt in the past, but the thought of having to find a place to put a yogurt maker in my tiny apartment made me feel tired. Eventually the idea sort of went out of my head. In fact, I’d almost completely forgotten that yogurt could be made at home until one lazy Sunday afternoon, when I saw a particularly useful episode of River Cottage – Every Day. The River Cottage shows are a combination of food, travel and real estate porn, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the star of the show, has this sort of hokey, old-fashioned-TV-presenter way of talking to the camera. He talks with his hands in a way that reminds me of this, and he pauses for dramatic effect far more than is reasonable. It’s the sort of thing that should drive me crazy, and, yet, he’s one of my favorite people on TV. He urges people to care about their living environment and where their food comes from, and I believe (or have convinced myself, in any case) that it comes from a place of sincerity. Most importantly, he knows how to play with food.

It was Hugh (because, in my head, we’re on a first-name basis now) who showed me that yogurt is not only easy to make, it can be made using equipment you already have in your kitchen: a pot to heat the milk, a digital instant-read termometer to keep track of the temperature, and an oven with a pilot light or working light bulb. That’s. It. Can you believe it?

P.S. I think it’s even better than Hewitt’s, too!

Yogurtrecipe adapted from River Cottage Every Day by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall

Hugh’s recipe only makes a small amount of yogurt, certainly not enough to last more than a few days. This recipe will give you enough to nearly fill two 1-litre jars, which will last, and keep, for up to two weeks.

6 cups, or 1 bag, of whole milk

75 g, or 3/4 cup, skim milk powder (this probably seems like a weird ingredient, but it makes the yogurt thicker and richer tasting)

1/4 cup plain yogurt with live bacteria (saved from the previous batch)

Whisk the milk and milk powder together in a large, wide pot. You can use a smaller pot if that’s all you have, but a larger pot with a wider base will ensure that the milk heats up quickly and evenly. Stirring often, heat the milk over gentle heat (medium-low) to 46˚C/ 115˚F, which, depending on the size of your pot, will take about 5 or 10 minutes, and then remove from the heat. At this point, I like to transfer the milk to a red clay crock, which has become my go-to yogurt incubator because of the way it holds heat. Transferring to a different dish also helps bring the temperature of your milk down a bit more quickly if you’ve accidentally overheated it, as I have done before. Once you’re sure the temperature is in the neighborhood of  46˚C/115˚F, give or take a few degrees, whisk in your plain yogurt. Cover your crock or pot in plastic wrap before replacing the lid, slide it into the oven and turn the light on.

This is where I diverge from most other recipes, which tell you to remove the yogurt from the oven after 6-8 hours. This is not nearly long enough if you want nice, thick yogurt with a great flavour. As I learned by accident, it’s best to leave the yogurt to incubate for at least 12 or 13 hours. Then, remove it from the oven and put it in the fridge  for about 6 hours, which slows the fermentation. After that, it’s ready to jar up and eat!

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Simple, quick, and delicious. How are you going to enjoy your fresh yogurt?

Adventures in Three Citrus Marmalade

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Let’s talk about marmalade.

I became interested in preserving in December 2010, while I was visiting my family in Edmonton over Christmas. I was then a struggling grad student and hadn’t bought Christmas presents for anyone in my family for a few years, which was beginning to wear on me. I don’t know what made me think of it, but I happened to remember the lemon curd my Grandmother used to send my Mom when I was a kid. I remember it being delicious, and I remember my Mom being unwilling to share (I have a vague memory of her offering the excuse that she didn’t think we’d like it and didn’t want to waste it… pfft!). Anyway, this seemed the perfect gift: the ingredients were on hand, I found a clean jar with a lid that fit, and I even had a place to hide it before the day (my Mom’s house has a cold room that the previous owner used for preserves, and that my Mom now uses for storage).

My brother, Clifford, was hanging around at home that day, so I recruited him to help. In hindsight, this was a bit of a mistake. Clifford is autistic and, despite always wanting to be helpful, his intentions and his ability to focus on a task are mismatched. But that day I trusted him, and I decided to have him juice the lemons while I boiled two pots of water, one to sterilize the jar and another for the double boiler I was using to cook the curd. We were having fun and everything was going smoothly until Clifford asked me what he should do with the lemon juice.

“Put it in the pot,” I said.

In hindsight (and, thankfully, at the time), I realize that what happened next was completely my fault. I didn’t specify which pot to dump the juice in, and Clifford is pretty literal. So, when he poured the juice into the pot with my freshly sterilized jar instead of in the double boiler, I had no one to blame but myself. In the end, it was all fine. I juiced a few more lemons and made up the difference with a bottle of juice that was kicking around in the fridge. No harm, no foul, and the curd was perfect and delicious.

Delicious though it was, I couldn’t get anyone excited about what I had done (except for my Mom, that is). My siblings just shrugged when I implored them. Don’t you see, I argued, this is great! It tastes just like the lemon curd Grandma used to send! And, I made this! I could do it again, and I could make it last forever! They didn’t really care or understand what I was so excited about, and eventually, I gave up trying to convince them. Well, okay, they grew annoyed with me first, and then I gave up.

In any case, that was it for me. I decided that, from then on, I was going to preserve every piece of fruit that came into my kitchen (okay, maybe not every piece of fruit), and I couldn’t wait to get started. Winter is probably not the best time to get your feet wet making preserves, though. Except for citrus, there is little else in season. Sure, you can get berries at the grocery store in January, but, as I learned the hard way, what you end up with is a loose mixture that tastes of nothing but sweet, which is disappointing when you’re yearning for the fresh flavours of spring and summer. My early marmalade excusions were also failures, turning out to be much too tough and with an unpleasant bitterness that resonated through your taste buds for several minutes after eating. Even Clifford, who will eat pretty much anything, is said to have pushed my very first marmalade, a grapefruit, away with disgust and a resolute, “I don’t like this.”

Since then, I’ve made 7 successful batches of marmalade, each one better than the last. A big reason for my growing success in this area is Rachel Saunders and her amazingly detailed and inspirational Blue Chair Jam Cookbook. It’s not a perfect book–much is left to interpretation, such as the amount of water needed in order for fruit to “bob freely,” a directive that drives me a bit crazy with its inaccuracy–but my jams and marmalades have improved immensely since I began taking my cues from her. This is not to say that I always follow recipes to the letter, because I don’t. As a guide book, though, the Blue Chair Jam Cookbook is peerless and has turned me into a steadfast marmalade lover.

So, here’s what: today, I’m going to show you how to make a really great marmalade, one that’s neither too sweet nor too bitter. It’ll taste like sunshine in your mouth, with a muted note of bitterness that will have you looking forward to tomorrow morning’s breakfast. Hell, you may even ask yourself if it isn’t too pathetic to eat toast with marmalade for lunch! Be warned, though, that good marmalade is not made in a day. The best marms take two to three days, but most of this time is really hands off and can be spent doing other things. Steel yourselves, folks, cuz here come the instructions!

Three Citrus Marmalade, recipe and method adapted from The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook

Let’s start with the fruit.

Gather yourselves 2 lbs of grapefruit (I used 2 large white grapefruits), 1 lb of Seville oranges, 1 honey tangerine (okay, the recipe calls for 1.5 lbs of Seville oranges, but I ran out), and another 1.5 lbs of lemons. Be sure to get two extra lemons, which you’re going to save for juicing on day two.

Start with the grapefruit. Halve the fruit, squeeze the juice and reserve in a medium bowl, or, you know, something that fits in your fridge without taking too much space (I used a 4 cup measure). Keep any seeds and fruit solids that come off the fruit and tie ’em up in a piece of cheese cloth. This will give your mix an extra boost of pectin, which helps the marmalade to set. Put the juiced grapefruit halves in a pot large enough to hold them and cover them with lots of cold water. Bring to a boil and let it go for 5 minutes. Drain the water and do it all over again one more time. This stage is called “blanching,” and it removes the unpleasantly harsh bitterness while leaving just enough behind to make you say to yourself, “hey, maybe I do like marmalade!” Once the blanching is done, cover the grapefruit halves and cheesecloth sack in more cold water, enough so that they are able to move around a bit (sorry I can’t be more exact than this…. this is the annoying “bob freely” bit I was complaining about earlier). I found that switching to a slightly smaller pot, like a medium saucepan, helped me not overdo it with the water. Bring to a simmer and leave it be for anywhere between 1 and 2 hours, until the skins are tender and are easily pierced with a fork. Move the contents of the pot to a heatproof bowl, cover with plastic wrap and leave on the counter to rest overnight.

While your grapefruit are blanching, move on to the oranges. Slice those babies in half and juice ’em up, taking care to save the seeds and pulp from your reamer. When you’re done juicing, add the orange juice to the grapefruit juice, cover and refrigerate overnight. Then, take a spoon and scrape out the membrane and remaining pulp until all that’s left is the pith and rind. Slice these up however you want: if you’re new to marmalade and not quite sure how you feel about all this, you might want to make the slices finer. I know how I feel, so I decided to make them chunkier, like the recipe suggests.

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Put your seeds, membranes and pulp into another cheesecloth sack (note: you will end up with a much, much larger sack of seeds) and keep them aside until your orange slices have been twice blanched, then add the bag to your orange slices along with more cold water, which should cover your slices by about an inch, and simmer for at least an hour, or until tender. Make sure there’s enough water to cover the fruit while simmering, and add a bit more water if you notice the levels dropping too far below the top of the slices. Transfer your orange slices and bag of pectin to a heatproof bowl, cover, and leave out next to your grapefruit.

Finally, take care of those lemons. Cut the fruit into quarters from top to tail (but trim those ends first!) and then slice either thickly or thinly.

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Blanch once (yay!), and then simmer for 30 minutes. Cover the pot and set aside with your other fruit, and then relax! The most time consuming step is done, and you’ve earned yourself a beer.

The next day, sterilize a dozen half pint jars and their lids. There are lots of ways to do this, but the least messy/time consuming way is to wash  in hot, soapy water, rinse well, and put them in the oven on a baking tray for at least 20 minutes at 250 ˚ F. For the lids, put them in a bowl and get some boiling water ready. About 5 minutes before you’re ready to fill your jars, pour the boiling water on the lids, which will both sterilize and soften the sealing compound.

Next, slice up your grapefruit halves. First, take a spoon and scrape out all the remaining pulp until all you’re left with are clean skins with a bit of pith.

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(Apologies for the bad photos, by the way. I only have phone and tablet cameras at my disposal, and neither one of them are any good.)

Then, slice however you want. Add to a large, non-reactive (i.e., no aluminum or copper) bowl or pot, along with the water you cooked the grapefruit in. Toss that pectin bag. After this, juice your lemons (remember, I asked you to keep two aside, right?) and strain, along with the grapefruit-orange juice from yesterday, into the big bowl. Add to this your lemons and their water, your oranges and their water (without the pectin bag), and 4.5 lbs of sugar. WHAT!?, you’re thinking now. That’s too much sugar!, you protest. Well, no arguments here, it is a lot of sugar. The thing is, you need this sugar to help the pectin gel and to keep the fruit from going bad. If you’re worried about calories, consider that you’ll only be eating a tablespoon at a time, at best, which will hardly break the bank. Also, most marmalade recipes call for a 2:1 ratio of sugar to fruit, and I just can’t bring myself to go there. A 1:1 ratio of sugar to fruit (well, slightly less) is just fine and dandy for keeping your marm from going mouldy for at least 2 years. And, you’ll taste more fruit than sweet as a result.

And now, the magic happens. Transfer your mix to a very large pot, no fewer than 8 quarts but ideally 11 or 12 quarts. A stock pot would work just fine, but if you happen to have a boyfriend who is awesome at scavenging deals and finds you a french copper perserving pan for the low, low price of $25, fill yer boots. Now, take a deep breath and turn the heat up to max. Leave the temperature at max the whole time! The object now is to cook out the water and concentrate the sugar so that it can gel, and the longer this takes, the more likely you are to overcook your mix and end up with something that resembles one of those rubber bouncy balls. Unless you have some gunk stuck to the bottom of your pan before you start, it’s not going to burn, so keep that heat high.

When the mix starts boiling, don’t stir it at all for anywhere between 5 and 10 minutes. This is going to help you achieve the elusive clear jelly that marmalade makers the world over aspire to. If you stir too soon, during the initial bubbling, you’ll be mixing all the impurities into your jelly and it will look cloudy when you jar it. Cloudy marmalade tastes just fine, but it’s not as pretty as a clear one. Anyway, after 5-10 minutes, and once you start to see foam building up on the sides of the pan, begin stirring every now and then, and more the closer you get to being done.

Boiling mixture at the start of cooking

Boiling mixture at the start of cooking

Your total cooking time will be anywhere between 25 minutes and an hour. This batch took about 45 minutes because my stove is terrible, but, if you have a good oven and a very large pot, you could be done in as little time as 25 minutes. You’ll know you’re close when the level of the liquid has cooked down, the sides of the pan are foamy, the boiling bubbles have gotten smaller, and the mix is somewhat darker and very glossy looking.

Boiling near the end of cooking time

Boiling near the end of cooking time

Off the heat and ready for testing. You can tell how much the liquid has reduced by looking at the foam on the walls of the pan. Yummy.....

Off the heat and ready for testing. You can tell how much the liquid has reduced by looking at the foam on the walls of the pan. Yummy…..

When you think you might be ready, you need to test your marmalade. Skipping this step is not a good idea, folks. To test, take your pan off the heat and then put  a small spoonful of the mix in the freezer on another spoon for 3-4 minutes, until the spoon is room temperature-ish. If the mix runs off the spoon when you tilt it, cook some more. If it stays on the spoon and wrinkles when you nudge it, you’re ready to jar it up!

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Before you jar, though, make sure to skim off the white foam clinging to the sides of the pot. You definitely don’t want that hanging around in your marmalade.

Now that you’ve filled your jars, take care to wipe the rims very, very well before you put the lids on. You may need to scrub to remove any solidifying jelly, but it’s worth the extra effort. Trust me, if you don’t clean those rims well, your jars won’t seal. Rims cleaned, close up your jars and put them back in the oven at 250˚F for another 20 minutes. Then, put the jars somewhere they won’t be disturbed for 12 hrs. The lids should pop, indicating that the seal has taken, within the first hour, but if they don’t, make sure the lids are tight and turn the jars upside down. If they still don’t seal, well, you know which jars to eat first.

And, that’s it. I know this was a loooong read, but I hope that I’ve taken some of the guess work out of marmalade making. Not all marmalade recipes are this complicated (the three different types of fruit are to blame, really), but the results are very much worth it. Try it out on toast with salted butter, and you’ll see what I mean.

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Hello!

Is anybody out there? Probably. 

It’s 9 AM on a Wednesday, and I’ve decided to start a blog. I’ve thought long and hard about this for a whole weekend (imagine… a whole weekend!), and I’ve decided to take the plunge. I’m not new to blogging…. this will be my third attempt at starting up and finding my  voice. All previous attempts have languished, but I don’t want that to happen again. 

So, here’s what I can tell you about me:

My name is Sheena. I recently graduated from a PhD program, where I researched, wrote and successfully defended a 280 page volume about the cultural importance of remixing. I am extremely proud of this work, too. Now, I’m underemployed. I teach spin classes for a small honourarium and, because I have wonderful friends, I also work part time as a researcher while I search for full time work. I want to work in academia because I love teaching, researching and writing (even though the latter often leaves me feeling frustrated and incompetent), but I’m becoming discouraged. It’s hard times out there for academics, you know! Many graduates and fewer jobs. Well, who am I kidding, it’s hard for everyone trying to gain a foothold in this job market. The only thing to do is keep trying.

I live with a man with whom I am deeply in love. He understands me like no one ever has, sometimes to an infuriating degree. I also live with a 7.5 year old cat named Manolo. She’s nuts, as all cats are, and it’s taken her a really long time to trust me even though we’ve been together since she was a kitten. I can tell she loves me, though, when I see her relaxing on whatever was just in my hands… a book, my laptop, a sweater I’ve been knitting for a few weeks…Image

Which brings me to what I want to use this blog for. As you may have noticed, I’ve called it “Self Preservation,” a name that seems particularly fitting for what I hope it will do (keep me sane) as well as what I enjoy doing and, hopefully, writing about on a regular basis. I learned to knit in November 2012, as a way of keeping my mind and hands occupied in the long weeks leading up to my dissertation defense. Amazingly, this was a great strategy for quelling my anxiety about just about everything.  I relaxed. I read the news less (I’m a news junky, but at a price… I feel pretty hopeless about the world at the best of times). I learned how to make my own clothing. It was brilliant.

I’m also a self-taught preserver. On the menu today is a three fruit marmalade. One of the perks of underemployment, I suppose, is having the time to devote to time consuming hobbies. I began making jams and marmalades in 2011 on a whim, and I haven’t looked back. 

Finally, I’m a bread baker:

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I began baking in 2008, when my union went on strike and I needed something else to focus on. It was a long strike (84 days), so I had plenty of time to hone my bread baking skills. My starter is only two years old, though… I mistakenly thought I was developing an allergy to wheat (I was probably just depressed) and stopped making bread. What a mistake! Things are different now…. I moderate my bread consumption and try to move around as much as I can, and now I have no problems with bread or wheat. 

Anyway, that’s me. Maybe someone will read me. And even if you don’t, I’ll be back later this week with details of my marmalade adventures.