On the verge of a move to Casablanca, Morocco, for the next four years, I spent a month there this summer to dip my toes figuratively — and literally, into the Atlantic — into my new life. I became almost accustomed to the ongoing calls to prayer and cooked with gorgeous produce acquired from my neighborhood souk. I drank all sorts of delicious and cheap fresh-squeezed juices at the cafe up the street and watched cars and donkey-pulled carts pass by in equal measure. I ate too many French-inspired pastries, and I made my own yogurt.
Now, that last endeavor may be a surprise. It makes sense I'd tuck into multiple plates of couscous and avail myself of locally grown tomatoes. But make my own yogurt, especially when I could buy it quite easily at the Marjane supermarket?
My years in San Francisco — for better or worse — have made me into a bit of a purist. When it comes to dairy, I like my milk organic and my yogurt unsweetened. I was surprised in my initial Moroccan grocery forays to discover that most of the yogurt was flavored and a bit overladen with sweeteners for my taste. I am rather boring in my yogurt preferences: plain, please, with no sugar added, and preferably low-fat. While I did manage to find a "natural" brand of unsweetened yogurt at the store that was pretty good, I still yearned for my old familiar brands.
I do know that living a month in a new place is hardly enough time to find a good lunch spot, let alone explore all of the shopping options. I have no doubt I'll find the yogurt of my dreams once I'm living in Morocco full time. In the meantime, though, I decided to make it myself.
I experimented with making homemade yogurt years ago, as much for the scientific fun of it as for the finished product. But I'd nearly forgotten about those efforts since yogurt is easily accessible in the states and comes in as many flavors and varieties as you could wish for.
And yet, when embarking upon a new life, why not explore new(ish) culinary techniques as well? Even if you're not moving anywhere out of the ordinary, the feeling of satisfaction from making something yourself is worth the effort. Besides, it's not as if making yogurt from scratch is difficult — it's actually incredibly easy, almost laughably so. For control freaks like me, the ability to know exactly what's going into it is another bonus.
Basically, you take a small amount of store-bought yogurt, whatever kind of milk that you like (dairy, soy, etc.) and mix it together. Then you let it ferment overnight and like magic: homemade yogurt.
As you make more batches of your own yogurt, you can use your previous batch as the starter, meaning that the original store-bought base eventually is whittled down into oblivion. Stir in a bit of fruit, honey or maple syrup if you like a touch of sweetness or leave it completely untouched. What I love about this method is that I get to decide exactly what goes into it: nonfat milk or whole, a drizzle of honey or not, a handful of chopped strawberries or not. (You could also puree fruit and yogurt in a food processor or with a stick blender for a smoother fruity version.) The options are endless.
In North Africa, I started straining my yogurt to make a sort of Greek yogurt: thick, creamy and perfect for serving with slices of the luscious nectarines and a drizzle of the eucalyptus honey that had quickly become my new favorite thing during my weeks in Casa. I also made an ersatz tzatziki with quickly smashed garlic and finely chopped cucumber. I'll make the real thing when I have access to my food processor again, but we certainly enjoyed it on a hot night when all we wanted to eat were cold dips and raw vegetables.
Though I spent only a month in Morocco (I'll be back at the end of the year for the duration), it was immediately clear that I have a lot of change ahead of me. I will have new languages to learn, new streets to traverse, new running trails to find, new vegetables to discover, a whole country and continent to explore. So much will be new that my head is already spinning with it all.
And I now feel confident I will have yogurt.
This is a simple recipe: a few tablespoons of pre-made yogurt gives the necessary base while the milk makes up the bulk of the yogurt. I have listed whole milk as the starting point but you may use nonfat, low-fat, (unsweetened) soy milk, etc., and the formula remains the same.
Makes 1 quart of yogurt
1 quart whole milk
1/4 cup plain whole milk yogurt
Have a 1 quart jar with a screw-on lid (or several smaller jars) ready and boil water. Pour the boiling water into the jar and let it stand for 5 minutes to sterilize it. Pour out the water and set aside.
In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan heat the milk until it reaches 180 degrees on a thermometer. Remove from heat, keeping the thermometer in the pot.
When the temperature drops to 115 degrees, stir in the yogurt until thoroughly incorporated. Pour the mixture into the jar and screw on the lid.
Place the yogurt in a warm place and leave it undisturbed for 10 to 12 hours. You can wrap the jar with a towel if your house is a bit cool. For a thicker, tangier yogurt, let yogurt sit an additional 3 to 5 hours.
Refrigerate yogurt for at least 3 hours before eating.
You can make your homemade yogurt slightly thicker and more like Greek yogurt.
Makes 2 cups
Line a medium-large bowl with a piece of cheesecloth and dump 2 cups of homemade yogurt into the center of the cloth.
Bring the four corners of the cloth together and lift the yogurt over the bowl and twist the corners to squeeze out the liquid (it will drain through the cloth).
Continue squeezing to force the liquid out. When the majority of the surface liquid has been drained, it will start to drip more slowly. Tie off the top of the cloth just above the mass of yogurt with string.
Place the cloth containing the yogurt in a strainer or colander and place the strainer or colander in a bowl where it doesn't touch the bottom; liquid will continue to drain.
Place the bowl containing the strainer/colander in the refrigerator and let drain for 2 to 3 hours. After draining, take the cloth containing the yogurt and put it in the sink (do not remove the string). Using your hands, squeeze out any remaining liquid.
Remove the string, open the cloth and using a spatula, scrape out the yogurt into a bowl. Yogurt should be at least as thick as sour cream.
I dearly love the simplicity of this cake, both in its ingredients and its flavors, but I could see my way to changing a few things up now and again — for example, swap 1/4 cup of honey or maple syrup for 1/4 cup of the sugar, or try stirring in the almonds (or toasted walnuts?) into the batter rather than baking them on top.
Makes a 9-inch cake
1/2 cup plain full-fat yogurt
1 cup sugar
3 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons freshly grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
3 cups berries or sliced fruit of choice, or a combination
1/2 cup sliced almonds
Heat oven to 350 degrees and butter a 9-inch cake pan.
In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, sugar and eggs, stirring and whisking until well blended. Add the flour, baking powder, salt, ground cinnamon, lemon zest and vanilla, mixing to just combine. Add the oil and whisk and stir well to incorporate. Keep stirring until it forms a smooth batter. Gently stir in the fruit. Pour and scrape the batter into the prepared pan. Scatter the sliced almonds evenly across the top of the cake.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the cake feels springy to the touch and a tester inserted into the center comes out clean. Do not overbake.
Remove from oven and cool cake on a rack for about 20 minutes, then turn it out of the pan to cool completely.
This is a lovely loaf — not too sweet with a slight tang from the yogurt and a mellow olive oil undertone. I like the balance the cocoa powder imparts, but if you're partial to a simpler banana bread, omit it. I do think the olive oil is key here; butter is nice of course, but the olive oil really makes this special.
Makes 10 servings
1 cup whole wheat or whole wheat pastry flour
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dark or light-brown sugar
4 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
3 very ripe, mashed bananas
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
Heat oven to 350 degrees and grease a 9-by-5- inch loaf pan.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours, sugar, cocoa, baking soda and salt.
In a separate bowl, mix together the olive oil, maple syrup, eggs, banana, yogurt and vanilla. Pour the banana mixture into the flour mixture and fold with a spatula until just combined. Add the nuts, if using. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and bake until golden brown and a tester inserted in the middle comes about clean, about 50 minutes. Watch so it doesn't overbake.
Transfer the pan to a wire rack to cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then turn the loaf out of the pan to cool completely.
Yogurt in pasta sauce may be unexpected but it imparts a nice creaminess — and a bit of a tang — missing in more heavy, traditional dairy-based sauces. In Morocco, fresh peas were abundant. As I like to load up with a lot of green vegetables whenever possible, adding zucchini and spinach to this dish felt exactly right. Serving with extra Parmesan cheese is a must.
Makes 4 servings
1 cup plain yogurt
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup fresh basil, packed
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
3 cups dried orecchiette pasta
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 red onion, finely chopped
2 medium-sized zucchini, thinly sliced and quartered
2 cups fresh or frozen peas
2 to 3 cups spinach, coarsely chopped
In a food processor, combine the yogurt, olive oil, basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, lemon zest, salt and pepper. Process until all the ingredients are thoroughly mixed. Taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside.
Cook the pasta according to the package directions.
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil. Add the onion and sauté until it is soft and translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook about 5 minutes, then add the peas and spinach. Cook the vegetables until they are wilted and cooked through, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Add the pasta to the vegetables and stir to combine. Pour into a large bowl and add the yogurt sauce, tossing and stirring to coat well. Serve pasta with a dusting of Parmesan cheese.