Thursday, March 28, 2013

Gift of the Muslim Northwest: the best yogurt I ever tasted...

Yogurt is one of those defining foods of everywhere from Eastern Europe and on out to the nomadic people of China’s western lands. I've always been a big fan, and so I looked forward with particular anticipation to trying the local yogurt when we visited Xinjiang, as who makes better yogurt than nomadic people surrounded by cattle and sheep?

My opportunity came when we finally traveled parts of China’s Silk Road and our tour group went out for a dinner of roasted whole lamb in Xinjiang’s capital city of Ürümqi. My husband and I were vegetarians at the time, and so we started bugging the waiters for big bowls of yogurt as our very own protein course, and they happily complied.

This turned out to be the richest, most delicious yogurt we’d ever tasted, and it took me quite a while to figure out how to make it back home. For one thing, the yogurt starter was never quite right, either too acidic or too bland or just not nutty enough. And that is when I started looking at a map and began connecting the dots that led me to Bulgarian yogurt as one of the keys...

First off, you have to keep in mind that China’s Uyghurs are ethnically Turkic and speak a language that is related to Turkish. So there’s that. Now draw a long arc across Central Asia all the way up into Bulgaria in Eastern Europe. Why? Because the food there has been colored over the centuries by its massive neighbor on the right, Turkey.

They make an especially good yogurt in both places, and so it makes sense that whatever yogurt we enjoyed in Ürümqi (the name for Xinjiang’s capital even looks Turkish) would share the same yeasty mothers as that made by the folks who live on edge of the Black Sea.

Second, that yogurt we had was rich, almost like crème fraîche in texture and flavor. When I tried to replicate it, I found that whipping cream was too buttery and whole milk was too thin, so half-and-half was the logical next step. And there we had it, yogurt just like Xinjiang moms make.

Rich homemade yogurt 
Suānnăi 酸奶and yōugé 優格 
Makes about 1 quart

1 quart half-and-half
½ cup Bulgarian style yogurt

1. Pour the half-and-half into a 2-quart heatproof container. Heat the liquid in the microwave on high for 90 seconds, to warm it. Stir the liquid and give it short bursts (15 seconds or so) of heat until the half-and-half reaches about 100°F; it should feel about body temperature when you hold the container against the inside of your wrist. Use a whisk to mix in the yogurt. When no lumps can be seen, cover the container with plastic wrap and place it in a warm area (see Tips).

2. Let the yogurt rest without stirring or moving for at least 8 hours. At that point it should be nicely coagulated and completely solid. Check by lightly shaking the container; if the yogurt does not move at all, it is done. If it is still liquid even in the center, leave it alone for another few hours.

Your ingredients
3. Taste the yogurt, and if you prefer it tarter, return the yogurt to that warm place for a few more hours to develop its flavor. When the yogurt is done to your liking, chill it still covered in its container. Use a ladle to scoop out the yogurt. It will stay fresh and tasty for around 5 days and can be used like any other yogurt, crème fraîche, or sour cream.

Use whatever Bulgarian style yogurt you prefer. I have come to like an organic brand called White Mountain that is available in health food stores.

Organic half-and-half is – to my mind, at least – tastier than supermarket brands. Under no conditions use “fat free half and half,” which is basically nothing more than nonfat milk and sugar.

The best environment for growing your own yogurt is somewhere that is out of the way, warm, and still. I always turn to my oven for this. The pilot light in a gas oven and the light in an electric oven should provide just the right temperature for fast growth of the yeast. If your oven is too hot, you can also wrap the warm bowl from Step 1 in a couple of thick towels and place it in a warm part of the house.

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