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Culture Club : The Americanization of Yogurt

April 29, 1993|ROSE DOSTI

Back in the early '40s, practically no one I knew had the foggiest idea what yogurt was, much less how it was made.

My mother made yogurt. She would bring some milk to barely a simmer. Then she'd stir in some yogurt left from the previous batch and wrap the warm pot in a woolly baby blanket reserved only for yogurt-making, to help maintain a warm temperature during fermentation overnight. The slightest sudden cooling would result in sour yogurt, and insufficient time to ferment made a yogurt so watery it turned into a beverage no one wanted to drink. Those failed batches would remain in the refrigerator a day or two, reminders of ultimate yogurt failure, then be dumped down the drain.

Annie Schwartz, my best friend in sixth grade, took one look at the woolly baby blanket wrapped around a pot on the kitchen table and screamed, "Is that a baby in there?" Annie didn't know what yogurt was, so I didn't bother to explain the fascinating yogurt-making process that transformed ordinary milk into a firm, creamy mass. There was a scientific explanation of the process, but to me it was magic.

By definition and federal law, yogurt is a milk product that has one or more types of beneficial bacteria ( Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus ), and their ratio contributes to flavor and body characteristics. These bacteria digest the lactose (milk sugar) and convert it to lactic acid, which ferments and thickens the milk, giving yogurt its custardy texture. Even the temperature at which the yogurt cultures are introduced into the milk has great effect on the growth rate of the bacteria and, consequently, the finished product. No wonder my mother's yogurt failed now and then. Her yogurt depended on whims of nature, the weather and the temperature in and out of the pot itself. Modern commercial processing is precision-controlled, leaving nothing to nature or to chance.

My fourth-grade teacher, Mary Connolly, a second-generation American, confessed ignorance of the substance. The fact that yogurt with rice or vegetables was often our dinner, and sometimes lunch, did not impress her. Not even when yogurt was used in place of cream in a tart sauce with lamb or dolloped over grilled meat (as in shish kebab). She didn't know that yogurt's healthful properties raise it to realms of wonder food, believed to keep Bulgarians alive until 100, teeth intact, their digestive-gastrointestinal systems working like a Swiss watch. Its purported ability to combat infections, stimulate the immune system, reduce lactose intolerance, destroy harmful bacteria (including those that cause salmonella, dysentery and pneumonia) made it a diet of diets for thousands of years.

It wasn't my teacher's fault that she'd never heard of yogurt. In those days, no dairy company produced it. In fact, the first commercial yogurt was produced in 1946 by Dannon in New York. No one saw commercials of beautiful women " mmmmm- ing" a spoonful of Yoplait. Yoplait, in fact, was a relative latecomer to the American yogurt scene, produced in 1978 in Michigan.

In my neighborhood, only Greeks and Albanians made and ate yogurt, a culinary habit inherited, no doubt, from early times via trade, war and immigration waves that swept the Mediterranean area. The California Dairy Council likes to tell the story of yogurt's place in Biblical history, when it is said that an angel revealed the secrets of yogurt-making to Abraham. Ancient Greek physicians prescribed yogurt as a remedy for upset stomachs, and 1st-Century Persians rubbed yogurt into their skin to prevent wrinkles. Nomads processed yogurt in goatskin bags and sultans bathed in it.

During my childhood days, yogurt was hardly the American phenomenon it is today. Since 1975, per-capita consumption has skyrocketed 199%, and sales have soared 300% in the last two years.

Now I have a confession: I enjoy the commercial yogurt of today far more than the yogurt my mother made, even under the best circumstances. Commercially made yogurt is smooth and creamy, a texture so appealing that even my old best friend wouldn't be able to resist a mouthful. I'll bet a pint of Light N' Lively Low-Fat Red Raspberry Yogurt that Annie Schwartz is already hooked.

So am I.

This is the method my mother used to make yogurt. Of course, it required a small amount of previously made yogurt, which was normally borrowed from someone else's batch. Under the right conditions, it's possible to make yogurt from scratch, but this is not something that I learned from my mother. These days, if I wanted to make yogurt, I'd buy my starter yogurt from the supermarket. This recipe calls for whole milk, but you can try it with half and half, low-fat or nonfat milk. The richer the milk, the firmer the product.

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FANNY'S HOMEMADE YOGURT 1 quart milk 1 to 2 tablespoons plain yogurt

Heat milk over low heat to 190 degrees, or until tiny bubbles appear around edges. Do not scorch. Remove from heat and cool to 110 to 112 degrees, or warm room temperature. Pour into warm container. Stir in plain yogurt.

Cover and wrap in warm blanket to maintain constant temperature at least 8 hours, or overnight. Remove blanket and chill until ready to use. Store in refrigerator (40 degrees) up to 10 days. Makes 1 quart.

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