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Archive for December, 2009


Yogurt, plain and simple

Throughout the two-plus years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve never dedicated a post exclusively to yogurt. I’ve used it as an ingredient here and there, sure, but it’s never played a leading role. That’s not acceptable. Not for a Mediterranean food blog, at least. I plan on changing that today.

On my recent trip to Aleppo I was reminded how important yogurt is in Middle Eastern cuisine. It’s everywhere. Cow, goat or sheep. Strained, plain or cooked. In the Levant there’s even a popular refreshing drink called Ayraan (عيران) that’s made from yogurt, but more on that later. Today I need to set things right. Today is all about yogurt.

Before we begin, I’d like to dispel the myth that suggests you should buy a fancy yogurt maker to incubate your milk. Please don’t. If you already have, I won’t hold it against you, but you really don’t need one. If the machine made the job any easier, I can understand, but the truth is, making yogurt is pretty simple.

While I was in Aleppo, Leila (my maternal grandfather’s brother’s wife’s sister), shared with me her way of making yogurt. Take a look:

Before I met Leila, I used to make my yogurt in the pot I heated the milk in. Not anymore. I really like her idea of dispensing the yogurt into smaller jars.

mise en place

Midway through the process (usually as the yogurt is cooling), I like to turn on my oven to the lowest setting and turn it off after 5 minutes. This helps keep my oven barely warm enough to properly incubate the yogurt — which is essentially what the yogurt machine does, except it doesn’t cost extra money and doesn’t limit how much yogurt you can make.

heating the milk

Once you heat the milk to 180 degrees F (a near boil), you need to cool it. I like to use a thermometer, particularly for this step, so that the yogurt starter has an ideal environment to initialize the incubation process. That temperature should be between 107 and 112 degrees F (41 and 44 degrees C).

nestled inside the oven

Since the pizza stone in my oven can retain lots of heat (as can the metal rails), I like to line the base with a kitchen towel before placing the jars of yogurt inside the oven. Then, as Leila mentioned in the video, you want to cover the jars with another towel so they remain warm throughout the incubation.

plain goat milk yogurt

Keep the jars overnight in the oven and move them to the fridge first thing in the morning. It’s that simple — saha wa hana (صحة و هنا)/bon appetit!

Homemade Yogurt

Makes 1/2 gallon

Components

  • 1/2 gallon milk*
  • 10g yogurt starter*

Putting them all together

  1. Heat milk to 180 degrees F (82 degrees C) over medium heat.
  2. Cool the milk between 107-112 degrees F (41-44 C) and slowly mix in the yogurt starter.
  3. Dispense the milk into 4-5, 16 oz. jars.
  4. Place the jars inside a barely warm oven lined with a kitchen towel and cover them with another towel to keep them warm throughout the incubation process.
  5. After 6-8 hours (or overnight) move the jars into the fridge and store until ready to use.

notes: If you don’t have yogurt starter you can use any plain yogurt that has live active cultures. Usually I like to go with the Organic Stonyfield Plain Yogurt. You’ll also get better results by using full-fat milk — 2% milk won’t get nearly as creamy.

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A sauce that goes with everything

I just got back from Aleppo last week and have already made this sauce twice. I had it for the first time alongside grilled chicken, but I’m convinced this sauce goes with everything. It’s that good. I’m not even kidding you.

I would classify this sauce as a mayonnaise of sorts, but not really. It’s not as overwhelming as a mayonnaise. On a side note, I find mayonnaise to be overwhelming; store-bought mayonnaise at least. It’s too rich, flavorless and, to be honest, its texture is too wobbly for my liking. This sauce is different. It’s not as wobbly — velvety would a good word to describe it, but it has its secrets.

mise en place

Most Arabs call this sauce toum (ثوم) or creme toum (كريم ثوم). Toum is also the word for garlic in Arabic. That’s because the sauce is loaded with garlic. Loaded. I have some Lebanese friends that will make this sauce with so much garlic that it will make a grown man cry and smile, all in one bite. My version isn’t so strong, relatively.

very, very slowly

There are different ways to prepare this sauce. Purists will make it with just garlic, lemon juice and oil — no egg white. And it emulsifies. I know it sounds like magic, and maybe there’s a little food magic at play, but it works. Fouad from The Food Blog makes his this way. According to Fouad slow and steady is the trick — 10 minutes to be exact.

Some home cooks will prepare creme toum with an egg white. That’s how I’ve been making mine. The emulsion happens quicker and the protein in the egg white will also help keep the sauce from breaking. It also lets you get by with using less oil. In the Middle East, you’ll find that restaurants and street vendors will start the emulsion with a tiny bit of cornstarch slurry or boiled potatoes to help stabilize the sauce for a longer shelf life. Either way you decide to go, as long as the garlic is prominent, this sauce will knock you off your feet.

toum sauce (كريم توم)

Garlic Sauce

Makes 3/4 cup

Components

  • 5-7 cloves of garlic
  • 1 egg white
  • 3/4 cup, canola oil
  • 1-2 tsp. lemon juice
  • salt, to taste

Putting them all together

  1. In a small food processor (or a large one fitted with a small bowl), pulse the garlic and the egg white until you can’t see the garlic anymore.
  2. With the food processor on, slowly begin to add the oil in order to start the emulsion. Make sure that the stream of oil going in is no more than a thin thread, or you risk the possibility of your sauce breaking.
  3. Once all the oil has been added, add the lemon juice while the food processor is still running.
  4. Season the sauce with a little salt and refrigerate until ready to use.

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Video of Shawerma place in Aleppo, Syria. Notice the creme toum spread on the pita bread: