Saturday, December 22, 2012

Violins, Not Violence (An Open Letter to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA)

Dear Mr. LaPierre,

We are all traumatized by last week's events in Newtown, Connecticut.  We want answers; what's more, we want solutions.  You've proposed one: put an armed guard in every school.

In itself, it's not a bad idea.  You're right when you point out that lots of places and people have armed guards already, so why not our schools?  As a solution, though, it's pretty naive.  As some critics were quick remind us, there was already an armed police presence at many of the places that have seen terrible mass shootings (Columbine, Virginia Tech); it didn't help.  The police can't be everywhere, so how many would we need?  One in every classroom?  One in every store, clinic, and movie theater?  When would there be enough?

You pointed to the culture as a source of the problem, and that may be a better step in the right direction.  (Although I must say that I thought your comments were simplistic, and I was horrified by your notion that we need to register all people with mental illness.  What a terrible, un-American idea--from a group that passionately defends a constitutional right, no less!)

How do we change our culture and make it less violent?  I have a suggestion.  Let's give every kid in the United States a musical instrument.  Let's teach every kid to play them, and let's have every kid play in bands, orchestras, guitar ensembles, steel drum bands, sing in choirs, and make music any way we can think of.

In all the things I've heard about the shooters, I've never heard that one of them was in a musical group at school.  They're loners.  But you can't be a loner in the choir, band, or orchestra--you have to be part of the group, and people will pay attention to you.  What's more, you get to work with others--all different kinds of others--to make something beautiful and worthwhile.  And if you were troubled and starting to go over the edge, I'll bet somebody in that group would notice and would do something to help you.

This isn't just a pipe dream.  It works.  It's worked in Venezuela's El Sistema.  It works in Brazil, where the government has made music a universal requirement in elementary and secondary schools.  In Paraguay, there's a town where the kids care so much about making music that they construct musical instruments out of things they find in the landfill.

Music is a way of directing energy.  It's a way to show kids what they can accomplish by breaking a problem down to its component parts and working on it consistently and systematically.  It's a way of developing the discipline to persevere.  And in the end, you're making music.  You're doing something constructive and beautiful.

Your problem, Mr. LaPierre, is that you can't see past the end of your gun.  The only solution you can see to gun violence is more guns, which seems a bit like saying that the cure for alcoholism is more liquor.  You want good guys to have guns so that bad guys can be stopped.  I want people to be less interested in using guns for violent purposes.

My idea is no more a panacea than yours is, but it's a lot more positive.  We will need a variety of approaches to make our culture less violent and less dangerous.  So put more armed guards in schools if you want, but put more violins there, too.  Maybe then, the only gunfire our kids will hear is the sound of the cannons at the end of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.

David Schildkret

(I teach music at Arizona State University and direct choirs in Arizona and Maine.)

ADDENDUM (Corrected version):  The earlier version of this referred to armed military personnel at Fort Hood as an example of a place where people with arms couldn't always help.  A commenter pointed out that soldiers don't carry weapons on military bases.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Christmas Tradition

One sign of Christmas at our house is the smell of stollen baking.  This sweet, delicate bread is a German tradition, and the recipe we use comes from Sue's family.  It goes back at least to Sue's great-grandmother and is possibly even older than that.

Since I'm the baker/cook, the actual making of the stollen has fallen to me.  It's a bit of a quest, because I make it every year, and I always think that the ones from Sue's family are better.  Best of all are the ones that Sue's Aunt Anita makes.  Anita is now in her 90s and still going strong.  She bakes stollen every year, and hers are the nes plus ultra of stollen--delicious and with a delicate, moist texture that I envy.

We got the handwritten recipe years ago from Sue's mother, but there was an immediate problem:  the recipe called for "1-1/2 pounds of flour (7 cups)."  The problem is that 7 cups is more like 2 pounds of flour, so something was off.  This meant that I was fudging with the amount of flour for years, and I do mean years.  Eventually, I settled on something like 9 cups of flour--much more than originally called for.  But anything less seemed to make a dough I couldn't manage.

Then a summer or two ago, I asked Anita about this.  She mentioned something that wasn't noted in the recipe:  she sifts the flour.  Three times.  It occurred to me that sifting, which would aerate the flour, might affect how much liquid it would absorb.  So I tried it, and while the dough was very soft, I was able to make it with something like the 7 cups called for in the original recipe.  The results were wonderful.

So how much flour should you use?  It depends on your bread-making skills and how you assemble the dough.  If you're an experienced bread maker, and if you mix up the dough by hand (and not with a mixer), you can probably manage with 7 or 8 cups of flour.  If you find this too soft to handle or if you mix the dough in a machine, add more.  The bread will be a little stiffer and more substantial, but it will still be wonderful.

The other secret to great stollen is to bake it until it just done, and no longer.  This year, I baked it at 325 for 1/2 hour (I had been doing 350 for 20 - 25 minutes).  Again, the results were more delicate and delicious.

One last thing:  Sue's mother, Marie, was adamant that the fruit shouldn't be mixed into the dough (as most stollen recipes require).  In her family, the fruit was put in as a filling, with the dough wrapped around it.  The idea is that it resembles the baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes.  The fruit filling, by the way, can be any dried fruit you like.  We prefer a combination of raisins, sliced almonds, glace cherries, and candied pineapple and orange peel.  Some people like citron.  Whatever fruit you use, be a bit sparing.  If you put in too much, it will just fall out when you slice the loaf.  Here's the recipe.  (Click here for a printer-friendly version.)

(originally from Sue's mother, Marie Picker Griffin, who got it from her mother, Martha Becker Picker; adapted over the years by David Schildkret)


7-10 c. flour (I use unbleached all-purpose flour; I do not recommend bread flour in this recipe.  Sift the flour up to three times after measuring; use the smallest amount of flour possible.)
1 c. sugar
1 t. salt
grated rind of 1 large lemon
1 lb. butter, softened
3 eggs
2 c. milk
3 cakes, packages, or 3 T of yeast
1/2 c. warm water
brown sugar, cinnamon, candied fruit, and nuts for filling
confectioner’s sugar and milk for glaze

1.  Scald the milk and allow to cool. (I put the milk in a 1-quart measure and heat it in the microwave at 50% power for 4 minutes.)

2.  When the milk is cool, dissolve the yeast in the water.  Add a bit of the sugar, and allow to double in volume.

3.  Combine the yeast and the milk, and add 3 cups of flour to make a sponge.  Allow this to stand until it is puffy and risen to almost double in volume.

4.  While the sponge is rising, cream the butter.  Add the remaining sugar, salt, eggs, and lemon rind.  Combine this with the sponge.

5.  Add remaining flour until the dough is soft, but still substantial enough to knead.

6.  Knead the dough for a few minutes.  It will still be sticky, and it will probably never really be smooth and elastic like sandwich bread dough.

[Let's pause here.  I found a handy tool a few years ago, and it makes dealing with soft dough like this much more manageable.  It's called a bench knife (pictured to the right and available from cooking supply stores like King Arthur), and it's useful for lots of aspects of bread making.  You can use it to lift the dough while kneading--I just keep it in my right hand and scoop up the dough with it, sort of fold it over, and push down with my other hand.  It's also good for scraping up the dough from the work surface and for dividing the dough into loaves.]

7.  Place the dough in a buttered bowl covered with a towel or plastic wrap.  Set in a warm place and let rise until doubled in bulk (2-3 hours).  (One way to get a warm spot is to turn the oven for 30 seconds, then switch it off and put the bread dough in the oven.  Just be careful not to turn it on again for some other purpose!)

8.  When it has fully risen, punch the dough down and form it it into a ball.  Let it rest on the floured counter under a towel for 10 - 15 minutes.  Sprinkle with flour if necessary and knead a few times.  Divide the dough into 4 parts (this number has gradually changed in my wife’s family.  I think they started with 2, then went to 3; we find 4 an ideal size, but we do go to as many as 6 when we are making gifts).  Roll each part into a rectangle and fill.

9.  To fill:  roll the dough into a rectangle of about 3/8” - 1/2” thickness (for four-part dough, the rectangle is roughly 14” x 8” or 9”).  Sprinkle the whole surface with a tablespoon or two of brown sugar, and then with a generous sprinkling of cinnamon.  Spread these evenly over the surface--to the very edge--with your hand.  Now, have the long side of the dough horizontal and imagine it divided into 3 columns vertically.  Sprinkle fruit and nuts rather sparingly down the center column (I use raisins, candied orange peel, candied cherries, candied pineapple, and sliced almonds.  Resist the temptation to be overly generous:  the filling will just fall out when the bread is sliced!  I use only about 3 or 4 cherries on a layer, for instance, and I cut them in half.  Similarly, I use only 2 or 3 pieces of pineapple and slice them each into 2 or 3 bits.  A small container of orange peel easily fills all four stollens.).  Then fold one side over to cover the filling and press down gently.  (You are folding almost like you would a business letter, except that you are doing it from the side.)  Sprinkle the sugar, cinnamon, and goodies over the new top, and fold the second side over.

10.  Place on a greased baking sheet and allow to rise covered with a towel for 1/2 hour-45 minutes.  Proceed to roll and fill the remaining dough.

11.  After they have risen, bake the loaves at 325 - 350 degrees F. for 1/2 hour-45 minutes, depending on the size.

12.  Glaze:  If you prefer a clear glaze, mix 1 c. confectioner’s sugar with a few T of water or milk and drizzle over the loaves while they are still quite hot.  I prefer to see the glaze as white streaks, so I wait until the loaves are cool.  Mix 1 c. confectioner’s sugar with 2-3 T of milk, and drizzle off the end of a tablespoon using a side-to-side motion across the short dimension of the finished loaf.  Sue’s mother adds a dash of vanilla to the glaze, but I do not.  I find that it turns the glaze a muddy color, and it does not add a noticeable flavor.  It is more reasonable to add the vanilla if you are glazing warm loaves.

13.  Store tightly wrapped once the loaves are completely cooled and the glaze has hardened.

As you can tell, this is a bit of a project.  I usually enlist some helpers for filling the dough--everyone has one or two things assigned to them that they sprinkle on.  My oven will only hold two loaves at a time, but that's no big deal--I shape all four loaves, and then I bake them two at a time.  The second two rise an extra half-hour while the first two bake, but it doesn't seem to hurt anything.

The trick will be to keep from eating a whole loaf by yourself the minute it comes out of the oven.  But remember, the holidays are about sharing--so share!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

The World's Simplest Pie: Key Lime

A confession:  I wrote this entry months ago, but I wanted a photo.  I took the photo and promptly forgot the whole thing.  Just now, I went to post a holiday recipe and found this lurking.  So here it is.  The holiday recipe (for Sue's family stollen) is forthcoming.

The actual post:  The headline here isn't hyperbole--the only way a pie could be simpler would be if you bought it from the store.  All you have to do for an amazing Key Lime Pie is to combine lime juice with some sweetened condensed milk, stir it up, and pour it into a pie shell.  Then you top it with something.  If you're really cooking challenged, it could be whipped cream.  That's all there is to it.  Really.  And it comes out fabulous.

Of course, I do have a couple of tricks that make it a little nicer, but you could make a perfectly acceptable pie with just the basic steps I mentioned there.  (And if you prefer lemon pie, you could use lemon juice instead of lime.  I've done it.  It's delicious.)  The lime flavor will be more intense and brighter if you put a little grated lime rind into the custard, and stirring in some egg yolks gives it a nice richness.  Plus then you have some egg whites around to make a meringue for the topping, which I prefer to whipped cream for this pie.

That leaves only the crust to be considered.  In a pinch (and I've done this more than once), you can buy a graham cracker crust at the grocery store.  This doesn't seem like much of a compromise to me:  what difference does it make if you crush store-bought graham crackers or if they do?  But after I discovered Galletas Maria in Venezuela and found that they're pretty easy to come by in grocery stores in the US, I decided that those might make a good crust for Key Lime Pie--and they do.  Their flavor, less distinctive than graham crackers, complements the lime better.  So if I have time, I'll take the extra step of making a cookie crust of my own.  You could use a pastry crust if you prefer.  (Click here for a printer-friendly version of the recipe.)


1 5-oz (140 gram) package Galletas Maria
6 tablespoons butter, melted
1/4 cup sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Pulverize the cookies in a blender, or the bowl of a food processor, or by putting them in a plastic bag and rolling over them with a rolling pin.  Combine the crumbs with the butter and sugar, then press the mixture into a shallow 9-inch pie pan.  (I push it in there roughly with a spoon or rubber spatula, then smooth it out by using a smaller pie pan as a press--I push the smaller tin against the inside of the crust until it's even.  You could use the bottom of a drinking glass to accomplish the same thing.) 

Bake the crust for about 10 minutes, until it is lightly browned.

Cool the crust completely before going on.


1 14-oz. can sweetened condensed milk
grated rind of two small limes (about 1-1/2 inches in diameter)
1/2 cup lime juice (I squeeze the limes I've grated, then top it off with some bottled Key lime juice--Key lime juice has a more intense flavor than the regular kind.  Using some fresh juice brightens it up a bit)
4 egg yolks

Beat the egg yolks.  Add the milk and the lime rind and give it a stir.  Finally, add the lime juice and stir it with the whisk until it comes together.  Pour it immediately into the cooled pie shell.  (The citrus juice causes the condensed milk to form a custard.  No cooking is needed.)

Once this is done, proceed immediately to making the meringue topping.


4 egg whites, preferably at room temperature
generous pinch of cream of tartar (Cream of tartar is tartaric acid.  Acid helps to stabilize the meringue and gives it greater volume.)
1/2 cup sugar (If you can get it, superfine sugar is fabulous for this.)

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Beat the whites with a mixer until they're frothy.  Add the cream of tartar and beat until soft peaks form.  Add the sugar and beat until the meringue stands up in stiff peaks.

Carefully spread this on top of the custard in the pie.  Be sure to seal the meringue right to the edges of the crust.  Bake in the oven for 12 - 15 minutes to brown the meringue.

Cool on a rack, then refrigerate for several hours before serving.

It's true:  this recipe uses raw eggs.  If you're worried about salmonella, you can omit the eggs and top the pie with whipped cream.  If you do that, wait to put the whipped cream on top of the pie until just before you serve it.

This pie--and the way people scarf it down--remind me that if things are good, they don't need to be complicated.  Early in my cooking days, I favored recipes with lots and lots of detailed steps:  somehow I thought it was better if I did more work.  Along the way, I've learned that quality and complexity are not necessarily connected.  As with so many things, if it's good, it's right.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Yogurt: Simple complexity or complex similicity?

It's hard to imagine anything much simpler than yogurt:  basically, it's sour milk.  People have been making it for millennia without the benefit of elaborate equipment.

If you want to make yogurt, there's not much to it:  add some yogurt to some warm milk and keep it warm long enough for it to turn into yogurt.  That's it.

Unless, of course, you want consistent, reliable results (and you know me, I want consistent, reliable results!).  Because here, you see, is the rub. There are about a million variables:  what kind of milk?  what starter?  How warm should the milk be?  Should you heat it to a relatively high heat and let it cool, or just warm it to the temperature you want?  How long do you let it incubate (the fancy term for letting it sit there until it's done)?

Most people don't worry about all of this.  They just go to the grocery store, buy a couple of tubs of something and eat it, probably while they're heading out the door in the morning.  The thing is, Sue has eaten yogurt for breakfast for years, and I began doing so religiously about three years ago.  (I had eaten it on and off ever since I met Sue.)  With both of us eating yogurt daily, we were going through quite a lot of it.  At one point, we were in Maine, where they don't recycle the kind of plastic yogurt comes in these days, so we were throwing away oodles of plastic.  That rankled.

So I bought a yogurt maker and began the quest for (my) perfect yogurt.  I've pretty much got it down, but you might want your yogurt to be different:  less creamy, more creamy, more sour, less sour--you get the idea.  Even so, my method has to vary depending on external factors:  even the ambient temperature of the room seems to have an impact.

Here are the considerations:

1.  What kind of milk? 

Any kind will produce yogurt, but the yogurt will be different depending on the fat content--that's the biggie.  Other considerations are organic or not, and even the brand of milk can make a difference.  When you find one you like, stick to it.  You'll get the most consistent results that way.  We like organic 2% milk.  (And though the hippie in me would like to think otherwise, I don't think the organic bit is actually what matters.  Most organic milk is ultra-pasteurized, and I think the high heat affects the proteins.  This, I suspect, is why yogurt made from organic milk is different from that made with your ordinary, garden variety milk.)  Some procedures call for adding dry milk.  I have tried this and didn't like the result.  The typical amount of dry milk is usually about 2 - 4 tablespoons per quart of liquid milk.  Use the larger amount if you're using instant dry milk--by far the easiest thing to find.

2.  What kind of starter?

You need a commercial yogurt that advertises that it has "active yogurt cultures."  This means that the little guys who ferment the milk--I fondly call them yogis--are alive and kicking.  You must use plain yogurt as a starter.  Choose a commercial yogurt you like and that is closest to the way you want yours to come out.  (But know that other factors, such as incubation time, will affect the results, so the starter isn't a guarantee that your yogurt will be like the stuff you buy.)  I have successfully used Stonyfield, Fage, and Chobani.  Once upon a time, I used to use Danon.   Note that Fage and Chobani are Greek-style yogurts.  They are very thick and creamy because some of the whey is strained out after the yogurt incubates.  If you make yogurt from them but don't strain it, yours will be thinner than the starter.

3.  How to heat the milk?  To what temperature?  How long does it have to stay at temperature?

You can successfully make yogurt by heating milk to about 110 degrees F and adding the starter.  Because modern commercial milk is pasteurized, there is less risk than formerly of there being stray bacteria in the milk that could interfere with fermentation, so heating the milk to a higher heat isn't strictly necessary.  Yogurt made from milk that has been heated to 110 will take a long time to incubate (as much as 12 hours) and will tend to be runny.  It will also be on the tart side.

Most instructions tell you to heat the milk to 180 degrees F.  This will kill off anything that shouldn't be in there, on the off chance that there's something that isn't yogi-friendly swimming around in your milk.  If you do it this way, you need to cool the milk down before adding the starter.  Anything hotter than 110-115 risks killing the yogis.  Very bad.  (If it's too cold when the starter goes in, it's also likely to be a flop.) Yogurt made from milk heated to 180 will take a little less time to incubate than the previous method--perhaps 8 hours.  It will still tend to be runny and tart.  The dry milk some methods call for is an attempt to get a better, firmer texture for the yogurt.  I find that longer cooking solves this better, so read on.

I like my yogurt smooth, creamy, and only moderately tart.  I especially don't like it when the whey separates from the yogurt in the jar--you know, that watery looking stuff that floats around the top and edges after you spoon yogurt out of the container.  I learned that keeping the milk at a higher temperature for a longer period of time (20 - 30 minutes) alters the proteins.  This means that the yogurt will incubate faster and will have a firmer texture.  Because it will incubate quickly, you can stop it before it gets too tart.  This is my preferred method.  I bring the milk to 180 as quickly as possible, hold it there for for 20 or 25 minutes, then cool it quickly (details about all of this further down).

4.  How to incubate it? 

I've seen instructions for things as low-tech as putting the milk and starter into a thermos and letting it stand overnight.  A time-honored tradition is to put the yogurt into a gas oven with a turned-off pilot light or on top of the gas stove near the pilot light.  (I have an electric stove, so this isn't an option for me.)  You need something that will keep the yogurt at a fairly constant 100 - 110 degrees F--I think 108 is the optimum.  The easiest way to achieve this is with an electric yogurt maker.  It's a simple appliance:  it has a heating element and a thermostat in it so that it keeps things at a nice lukewarm temperature.  You set the jars in it (some use small, individual-serving jars, others make a whole quart in a single container), cover it, and walk away for a few hours.  Many yogurt makers have a timer that will turn the machine off when the yogurt has incubated for the time you've chosen.

5.  How long should it incubate?

Ah.  This is the 64-dollar question.  Basically, the longer you let it go, the more tart it will be.  So you want it to go long enough that it congeals--I think the correct word is "clabbers"--and then you go as much beyond that as you need for the yogurt to be as tart as you like.   Once you've stopped it, you need to refrigerate it for several hours before you eat it.

6.  OK, enough theories.  How do YOU do it?

I thought you'd never ask.

I do have a method that I employ pretty consistently, but even this requires tweaking from time to time.  What works perfectly in Arizona doesn't yield the same results when we're in Maine for the summer--doubtless because of differences in the milk and the ambient temperature in the room.  Some of what I do is based on quirks in my yogurt makers.  I'll explain all of that along the way.

My machine makes up to 14 6-ounce glasses of yogurt.  So the amounts I'm giving here are based on that yield.  You could cut it down proportionately if your machine doesn't hold as much.  I recommend making small batches at first until you get the results you want.  And don't be afraid to make notes.  There are a lot of variables here.

HEATING THE MILK:  For 14 6-oz. jars, I start with 5 pints of milk.  (That's a half-gallon, plus another 2 cups; 10 cups in all.)  I use organic 2% milk, but I've also used 1%.  In Arizona, where I have a relatively new stove that can heat quite gently and evenly, I put the milk into a 5-quart stainless steel pot and set it directly on the stove.  I set a digital thermometer into the pot and turn the heat to high.  Then, stirring constantly, I watch the temperature carefully.  As it approaches 180, I turn the heat down to about medium, start a timer, and stir, adjusting the heat as needed to keep it between 180 and 190 for 20 minutes.  You read that right:  I end up stirring the milk for about half an hour.  It's worth it for the taste and texture of the yogurt.

My stove in Maine is less reliable, so here I use a double boiler.  I have two 5-quart pots that nest into one another a bit.  I put about an inch-and-a-half of water into the slightly larger one, set the slightly smaller one on top, add the milk and rig up the thermometer.  Then I turn the heat to high, adjusting it as needed and keeping the temperature between 180 and 190 for 20 (lately 25) minutes.  There's a plus to the double boiler method:  while you still have to monitor it closely to maintain a steady temperature, you don't need to stir it constantly.  An occasional stir will do.

A note on thermometers:  I use a probe-type thermometer like the one in the picture.  It has a clip that goes on the side of the pot, and you set the probe in the clip--being careful the tip is submerged but not hitting the bottom of the pot.  This then plugs into a little box that sits on the counter and reads out the temperature constantly.

Keeping the temperature steady is easier said than done.  Over time, you learn just when to turn your burner down so that you don't go too far past 180.  You learn how low to turn it so that it doesn't dip too far below 180, and you learn when to jack it back up for a little while.  Be patient.  You will get better at this!

ADDING THE STARTER:  I set the pot--with the thermometer still attached--into ice water.  I usually fill the sink to a depth of an inch or two with ice water and set the pot in it.  In Maine, where the sink is big, I find a bigger pot that will hold the milk pot and a good supply of ice water.  I stir it occasionally and watch the temperature closely: it takes about 10 minutes to cool.  For the starter, I use 2 6-oz containers of Chobani these days.  I used Stonyfield for a long time, and that works, too.  You can theoretically make new yogurt from a couple of glasses you've saved from the previous batch.  I worry that the yogis will start to mutate or something, so I always buy new yogurt for each batch.  I pull the starter out of the fridge right when I start measuring and heating the milk--that way, it won't be ice-cold.  While the milk is cooling, I put the starter into a 1-quart measuring cup and stir it up until it's smooth.  When the milk cools to 115 degrees F, I immediately pull the pot out of the cold water.  (Watch the milk closely, especially when it gets down around 125:  it will go fast from there.  Don't let it go below 110 or you risk a failure.)  With a ladle, I put a scoop or two of the warm milk into the starter and stir it up.  This thins the starter so that it will combine thoroughly with the milk.  I then pour the starter into the milk and whisk it to combine.  The mixture will now be between 100 and 110 degrees, which is perfect.

To fill the jars, I pour the yogurt base from the pot into the 1-quart measuring cup and use the measuring cup to decant the base into the jars. 

INCUBATION:  I have a two-tier yogurt maker like this one.  When I make a full batch, the stuff on the bottom comes out thicker and tarter than the stuff on top:  there's just enough difference in temperature to change the result.  (See what I mean?  There are a lot of variables here, and small variations can make noticeable differences in some cases.)  My solution to this problem is to switch the jars halfway through the process.  It works fine.

So I set my yogurt in the machine and let it incubate for 4 - 6 hours (more about this in a second).  I switch the two layers halfway through the time.  When it's done, I cover the jars and refrigerate the yogurt overnight.

So why 4 - 6 hours?  Well, it depends.  In the summer in Arizona, we keep the house at 80 degrees F.  At that temperature, the yogurt takes 4 hours, with a switch at the 2-hour mark.  In the winter when it's cooler, and in Maine, where it's also cooler, it needs a total of 6 hours.

If I were making only 7 jars (one layer, in other words, without the second tier), I would probably do 3 hours in warm weather and 4 - 5 hours in cooler weather.  Remember that the stuff on the top doesn't get as hot, which is why you need more time overall if you're doing both tiers.


1.  Choose your milk.  I use 2% organic.
2.  Decide on a heating method--try different ones to see what you like best and what fits best into your way of working.
3.  Decide on an incubation method.  Electric yogurt makers with automatic shutoffs are the easiest.
4.  Try different incubation times until you get what you like.

If you want Greek-style yogurt, just line a sieve with several layers of cheesecloth.  Put the yogurt in the lined sieve--about twice as much as the final quantity you're looking for.  Set the sieve over a bowl and put the whole thing in the fridge.  It will be creamy in as little as 2 hours.  The longer you leave it, the firmer it will become.  After 8 hours or overnight, it will almost be like a soft cheese.  Save the whey that runs off:  it's good for baking.  Just use it in place of milk in muffins or in place of the milk or water in bread.

A word about flavoring:  I always make plain yogurt.  I'm worried about adding things that might make the yogis unhappy.  I am also glad to eat plain yogurt, straight from the jar, but a lot of people aren't.  If you prefer flavoring, I recommend adding honey and fruit or granola to the plain yogurt right before you eat it.  That way, nothing will kill off the helpful bacteria before they get inside you!  You can also sweeten with maple syrup, brown sugar, or even white sugar.  Wheat germ, ground flax, and other grains can make a nice addition.  Sometimes I throw a little cereal in there.  This is a little moment of creativity in an otherwise routine process--always a good thing!

I'd love for you to try this.  It's more complicated to write about than it is to do:  all it takes is a little patience and some recognition that you'll have to fool with it until it comes out the way you like it.  If you're like me, you'll enjoy that process!

Friday, July 27, 2012

Rising to the Occasion: Fresh, Fresh Eggs

Years ago, when I taught at Centre College, my neighbor, Maryann Ward, used to get eggs fresh from the farm.  There were more than she could use, so she shared them with me.  The first time I used them to bake a cake--a pound cake, as I recall--I was astonished by the results.  Very fresh eggs seem to have a power to raise baked goods almost beyond imagining.

I'm in Maine at the moment, and a friend, Marty Ward (no relation, so far as I know, to Maryann), raises chickens.  When she and her husband, Dave, came to dinner the other night, they brought a dozen eggs from their chickens.  Heaven!  And as some of the eggs were fresh that day, my thoughts instantly turned to pound cake.

Pound cake is deceptively simple.  It uses only the most basic ingredients, and the procedure isn't complicated.  There isn't even a great deal of variation in the recipes.  The one I used to use came with a Sunbeam stand mixer I got years ago.  It was fabulous.  But I'm in Maine, and that recipe is in Arizona.

So I decided to try a little variation.  Some recipes call for buttermilk, and I know that yogurt and buttermilk can be used pretty much interchangeably.  I've got a good supply of yogurt on hand (I make my own and will share the instructions for that one of these days), so I thought I'd try a buttermilk pound cake, using yogurt in place of the buttermilk.

There are various ways to flavor pound cake.  The traditional, purest form is with just vanilla, though some recipes omit that, using only sugar, flour, eggs, butter, and milk.  You can also flavor pound cake quite nicely with almond or lemon.  Lemon somehow seemed summer-like to me, so I chose that.  (Besides, it's nice to serve pound cake with some berries or fruit, and lemon is always nice with that.)

This is a very traditional recipe.  Some more recent ones call for six eggs, but I think four is plenty.  Six, in my opinion, would create something more like a yellow cake; it wouldn't have the close, dense texture I associate with pound cake.  This one, made with yogurt, came out with a wonderfully moist and almost creamy quality.

So here's what I did.

BUTTERMILK POUND CAKE  (Click here for a printer-friendly version.)


1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter--get the best, richest butter you can find
3 cups granulated sugar
4 eggs
3 cups white flour (I prefer unbleached)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup buttermilk or yogurt
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of kosher salt

optional:  grated rind and juice of 1 lemon, plus 1 teaspoon of lemon extract (this is what I did today); OR 1 teaspoon almond extract.  You could also omit the vanilla and increase the lemon or almond extract


Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the butter.  Add the sugar, and cream it thoroughly.  Add the eggs, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition.  Add the salt.  Add 1 cup of the flour and the baking soda.  Mix on the lowest speed until moistened.  Add a third of the buttermilk and beat until thoroughly blended.  If using lemon juice and grated lemon rind, add them now.  Then add another cup of flour, stir, then another third of the buttermilk and beat to combine.  Finally, add the remaining flour, stir, and beat in the remaining buttermilk.  Add whatever extract you're using.  Beat for 2 or 3 minutes at fairly high speed until the batter is very smooth and uniform.

Pour into a greased and floured 10-inch tube pan or a bundt pan. (I used a bundt pan, because that's all I had.  It was a little difficult to get it out in one piece, so be sure to grease and flour it thoroughly.  Baker's Joy, a cooking spray with flour in it, works best.)  Bake for 1 hour and 10 minutes to 1 hour and 20 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean.  Allow to cool for 15 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely.

Things don't have to be fancy or innovative to be good.  Often the basics are best, if you put care into them and use the best ingredients.  There is nothing wrong with tradition lovingly and thoughtfully followed!  And if you have really fresh eggs, bake. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

In Praise of Peas

When I was a kid, peas were grayish-green, rather mushy, and tasted like the metal can they were packed in.  At some point, we began to get frozen peas:  better color, better texture, but pretty starchy and bland.  Fresh peas, when I finally had them as an adult, were a revelation.

And here's a revelatory way to prepare them.  This comes from Pierre Franey's More 60-Minute Gourmet, a delightful book.

For every 1-1/2 to 2 cups of fresh peas (the fresher, the better), melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a saute pan.  When the foam subsides, add a couple of tablespoons of finely chopped fresh mint and 1/2 teaspoon of sugar.  Add the peas, then salt and pepper to taste.  Give the whole thing a stir or two, then cover the pan.  Cook just until the peas are done--I cooked mine for two minutes.  If the peas are super-fresh (in other words, you have just picked them from your own garden), it can take as little as a minute.

The peas in the photo above came from a wonderful organic farm here on Mount Desert Island called Beech Hill Farm.  It's run by the College of the Atlantic, a rather free-thinking and free-spirited place.

You won't believe how good peas prepared this way can taste.  The dish will completely supplant all childhood memories of mushy, metallic legumes.

Monday, July 16, 2012

If it's summer, it must be popovers

As I've written before, we spend summers in Maine, and that always means popovers.  Here's a batch I baked when my sister-in-law Martha came for a visit.  Taking the photo is a challenge:  you have to fend off the people trying to eat the popovers.

I think they turned out well!  For the recipe, follow the link to the post above, or go here, which will give you a printer-friendly version.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Late to the party, but still well-bread

You think this bread is good?  This is all that's left of a loaf I baked yesterday.  I have more rising now.
About six years ago, Mark Bittman published a recipe for bread that requires no kneading and yet comes out amazingly good.

It's not so much skipping the kneading that makes this bread what it is:  it's the increased water, the reduced yeast, and most of all, baking the bread in a hot, covered pot.  The smaller amount of yeast means that the bread can make a very long, slow rise, which develops texture and flavor.  The high water content means that the bread expands quickly when it's baked, giving the characteristic big holes that you get with artisan bread.  And the covered pot, combined with the steam that the extra water provides when it heats, gives a hearty crust.

I finally found this recipe about six weeks ago, and I think I've baked at least eight loaves since then.  They've all been terrific.  I've made a few slight modifications, so I'll give my formula:

2 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour (or you could use all white flour if you prefer)
1-1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon dried yeast
1-2/3 cups warm water
(for the rising loaf, wheat bran as needed)

You throw everything but the wheat bran into a bowl and stir it until it forms a very loose dough.  (Be sure you incorporate all the flour into the dough--don't leave any lurking under the dough at the bottom of the bowl.)  Put it in a glass or plastic bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let it sit in a draft free place for at least 12 hours.  You can let it go up to 24 hours; I would say I usually let it sit for 14 - 16 hours.  (In other words, you do this in the afternoon or evening and plan to bake it the next day.)

When it's risen fully, it will be bubbly on top and will smell a bit like beer.  That's good!  It's the yeast doing its work.  Turn it out of the bowl onto a floured surface.  It will be a bit of a mess, but don't worry.  Work in a little more flour if it makes it easier to handle, but just knead it gently until it forms a ball.

Set the ball of dough on a clean linen towel (not terrycloth--you don't want fuzz in your bread) that you've generously sprinkled with wheat bran.  Sprinkle some bran on top of the dough and fold the towel over the dough to cover it (or use a second towel).  Let that sit someplace safe for a couple of hours.

Half an hour before you want to bake the bread, set a Dutch oven with its lid into the oven and turn the heat to 500 degrees (I like this better than the 450 in the recipe).  The Dutch oven will get very hot, which is exactly what you want.  When you're ready to bake, take the Dutch oven out (use good oven mitts!) and set it on a heatproof surface.  Dump the dough into the pot (bran will fly everywhere, which is why there are brooms), and then shake the pot gently to distribute the dough evenly.  Cover the pot tightly and put the whole thing into the oven.  Bake for half an hour, then uncover the pot and bake for another 10 - 15 minutes to brown the crust fully.

When it's done, slip it out of the pot onto a rack to cool.  Then try to fend your family off while they run for the hot bread.

Bittman later published a modified recipe that takes less time.  I haven't tried it yet, but I'm sure it too would be good.

It only took me six years to find this recipe.  Now I'm baking a loaf more or less every other day, because we like it so much.  Better late than never, as they say.

Monday, June 25, 2012

On imagination

The whole family was in New York City last week as a way of celebrating Miriam's graduation from college and, well, just because we like going to places like New York City.  We visited the Natural History Museum (and got hours of laughter from imagining how a Tyrannosaurus Rex could possibly use those idiotically short arms of his) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, walked around Chinatown and Little Italy, strolled through Central Park praising Frederick Law Olmstead (the architectural genius behind it all) and generally had ourselves a terrific time.

The highlight for me was seeing the play "War Horse."  On one level, the show, which tells the story of a farm horse that is conscripted by the British crown to fight in World War I, is extraordinarily simple:  most of the time, the stage is nearly bare--there is hardly any set.  The centerpiece is a remarkable machine (you can't really call it a puppet) that evokes the horse of the title.  (If you don't know what I'm referring to, take a moment to look at this.)  Three actors operate the machine so that the horse gives a breathtaking performance.  It is spellbinding--there is no other word.

We first saw the machine/puppet while touring Lincoln Center.  The guide said something about how he, as an audience member, had stopped paying attention to the puppeteers and came to believe it was a real horse.  I didn't have that experience:  I was always aware that it was not a real horse, and that was what made it so remarkable.  I think it was Brecht who pointed out that playgoers don't forget that they're watching actors in a play.  We don't forget that we're watching movies or television.  Part of what captivates us is our awareness that we are experiencing an illusion.  If it were real, or seemed completely so, it would be unremarkable:  reality is all around us, and we don't need reminding of it.

"War Horse" is theater at its best because it is a kind of conspiracy between the actors and the audience.  We in the audience have to work a bit:  as we watch, we have to supply what's missing--although this isn't a difficult task because we're given very good cues.  The actors don't create the illusion for us, they invite us to create the illusion for ourselves.

When it works--and it does, stunningly so, in "War Horse"--the experience is like nothing else.  It is truly life-changing, and that, as Elizabeth gleefully pointed out, is why we do what we do when we create performances.

If you have the chance to see "War Horse" in New York, seize the opportunity.  You will be transformed, and your imagination will be sparked in ways you might not have thought possible.

(PS:  It's worth pointing out that only yards away from the Vivian Beaumont Theater, where they're creating theatrical magic with "War Horse" by making the audience do much of the work, stands the Metropolitan Opera.  In that house, massive sets and stunning costumes cloak the music in a fabric of monumental naturalism.  It is an altogether different way of firing the imagination, but it works just as wonderfully.  Perhaps this is more workable in opera because the medium itself is so removed from reality:  as fun as it is to sing stories, it isn't very much like everyday life.  Surrounding the singing with something that looks like it could be a city street or a ballroom underscores the unreality, just as having a wooden puppet portray the emotions and reactions of a horse takes us farther from ordinary life to a deeper truth.)

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Sticks and Stones

There's a reason (well, several, probably) why blog posts have been so scarce here lately.  It's mainly that most of what I'd post would be political rants, and heaven knows we don't need more of those.  But eventually it becomes hard to hold one's tongue.

There have been so many things I could have reacted to:  the various looney doings in the Arizona legislature, for one.   They operate as though Kafka were in charge--actually, even Kafka would find some of what they do too weird.  Then there are the various outrageous statements by politicians who hope you won't scrutinize what they say too carefully--because they don't hold up to any rational or logical examination.

What brings me out of hiding?  Rush Limbaugh, of course, because I think those of us who find what he has said about Sandra Fluke to be so offensive must speak out.  We can all complain bitterly about the loss of civility in our discourse, but if we don't condemn it--if we just watch it as a sort of fight to the death among gladiators--we're at least partly complicit.  Edmund Burke reminded us that evil triumphs when good people do nothing (though it's hard to pin down exactly how he said it--read this interesting compilation).

Rush Limbaugh and others are entitled to believe that contraception shouldn't be part of standard medical insurance coverage.  I passionately disagree with them, but I won't call them names.  In fact, I won't even call Rush Limbaugh names, tempting as it is.  And I won't condone calling anyone names.  (One response to the outcry about Limbaugh's remarks has been to dredge up some really foul things that some liberals have said about some conservatives.  Those aren't right, either, and they certainly don't make this right.  In fact, didn't we all learn as kids that "two wrongs don't make a right"?  I condemn all  hate speech--it is dangerous, vicious, and destructive.)

Apart from the downright mean-spiritedness of the remarks (which was bad enough) Limbaugh made a series of big rhetorical mistakes in his diatribes against Sandra Fluke.  First, he set up a paper tiger or a straw man:  he turned her advocacy for insurance coverage of contraception on its head, claiming that she sought taxpayer support for contraceptives.  Everything else he said flowed from this one great, gaping logical flaw.  He then misconstrued how birth control works (deliberately, I suspect, since it's hard to imagine anyone being that misinformed), suggesting that if she had less sex, she'd need less birth control.  Finally (well, probably not finally--I'm sure there are other sins we can enumerate), he engaged in what is called, ironically in this case, an ad hominem argument.  That's when you don't take on the argument itself, but you attack the person making the argument--an argument "against the man."  This, as Cicero pointed out centuries ago, is basically a distraction.  Yet it's the meat and potatoes of a lot of political discourse.

And that's what I want to condemn.  Disagree with me all you like.  Tell me why I'm wrong and you're right.  Find facts that support your position and demonstrate that mine is misinformed, naive, or just plain wrong.  But don't ignore my argument altogether and just start calling me names.

The sad truth is that ad hominem arguments work.  Mud-slinging works.  Negative campaigning works.  And it will keep working, no matter outraged we pretend to be, so long as we are willing to be swayed by it.

There are websites that check the accuracy of candidates' statements.  Maybe we need one that keeps track of how often they call their opponents names instead of engaging the argument.

So I hereby foreswear all name-calling.  And anyone who disagrees with me is just a stupid jerk.  :o)

(And speaking of Edmund Burke, he also said this:  "All government, indeed every human benefit and enjoyment, every virtue, and every prudent act, is founded on compromise and barter."  Yup.  Something else we've lost track of.)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Today's cooking project

Some students are coming over for dinner tomorrow night, which means I get to cook outrageous amounts of food (I can give them the remains, so that we don't get fat eating them ourselves).

One of the things I'm making is this pie.  It is an extraordinary apple pie, with a filling unlike any other I've ever had:  the long, low-temperature baking turns the apples into something smooth and creamy more resembling apple butter than a pie filling.  It's heavenly!

One of the kids (I think it was Miriam, but if not, they'll set me straight) dubbed this "Apple Lasagna," because you are supposed to bake it in a 9 x 13" pan--the kind we usually use for lasagna.  Actually, we fairly quickly decided that it was an obscene amount of pie unless you were feeding a HUGE crowd--it usually went bad before we could eat all of it.  So I've done two things to this recipe.  I've cut the proportions for the filling in half, baking it in a deep-dish 10" pie plate, and I use my usual crust recipe instead of the all-vegetable shortening one called for here.  Also, to get the crust nice and flaky, I heat the oven to 425 degrees and turn it down to 250 when I put the pie in.

The main problem with this pie is that you have to smell it baking for 3 hours.  By then, you are ravenous for pie, but you can't eat it for at least 4 hours!  I hope there is some left when the students arrive tomorrow...