Preserves, Travel

Hearth-Made Yogurt

One of my kitchen goals for this year was to learn to make yogurt. From what I understood, it was going to be one of the easiest tasks to scratch off my to-do list. When I investigated yogurt-making methods, however, I became so confused by the number of ways to proceed that it stopped me in my tracks. Everybody does it differently. How could I know which technique was best?

I had to come all the way to our cabin in Alaska to find out that it didn’t really matter. Out here, the endless options of ordinary life are sharply limited. This is very clear where food is concerned: We eat what only what we’ve brought along with us or previously stored, supplemented by treats like wild blueberries, when we can find them. We don’t have an oven or a freezer, and our fridge is a hole in the ground. Twenty miles from the nearest town, without a road to be had, there’s no “going to the store” when we run out of something — not today, not tomorrow, not for weeks.

One by one, we wave goodbye to many of our favorite foods: bacon (see ya), Kozy Shack pudding (so long), citrus (adios), fresh green veggies (sigh). We end up making pan bread, munching on apples, and eating stews that are strangely concocted from everything and anything left over from previous days. Lentil and marinated beef stew mixed with tempeh and canned pineapple stir fry, plus the dregs of this morning’s steel cut oats? No problem.

In truth, working creatively with limited options is one of my favorite things about being here each year. It slows my mind, clears my vision, and gives me a taste of what so many must learn by necessity: When you have little, it’s wise to use well what you have. Of course, the same is equally true when you have much, but the abundance of suburban life too often makes me a wastrel. It would be much worse if I didn’t have our yearly sojourn in the wilderness to bring me back to my senses.

I’m reminded of the basic wisdom of conservation, too, by the damage wrought in the northeast by Hurricane Irene this past weekend. Right now, there are many folks who can’t go to the store because the roads are closed or, worse, the store is gone. We who are free to choose to practice minimalism and preservation are immensely fortunate. It reminds me that we are (re)learning these skills not just for today, but because tomorrow we may need them even more.

When you don’t have heat unless you fell the dead trees, haul the logs, and chop the wood, you surely do feel grateful for a warm cabin. (Even now, temps are dropping into the 30s at night.) When you have to build a fire to warm the water to wash clothes with a Yukon plunger and a washboard, you always ask yourself whether you can wear your shirt one more time. When the spring (which apparently now wants to become seasonal) dries up and you have to haul water on your back from a bog, you are reminded that a cool drink is nothing short of a giddy miracle.

And when you’re down to your last cup of something as luxurious as yogurt, you don’t get hung up choosing among a dozen techniques for making more. You use what you have and get it done. Or you ask your significant other to show you how to do it.

This is one of the secrets of Stewart: He amassed a store of surprising skills — from yogurt to yoga, with bread baking in between — in the 70s. Because there are some years between us, he was hip (or maybe I should say hippie?) to all of these things when I was still in junior high, worrying about where I would get my next pair of Dittos and what color they would be. Stewart used to make yogurt using a cooler with a light bulb suspended in it. (See? Everyone has a different way.)

I felt tender toward our growing yogurt; it reminded me of a swaddled baby there by the woodstove, with its blue blanket held in place by a clothespin.

Hearth-Made Yogurt

Yogurt is a simple thing. It’s just cultured milk created by adding yogurt-producing bacteria to warm milk, then setting the mixture aside in a warm place until it thickens. We’ve been making a quart every few days, like this:

First, we fill a one-quart mason jar almost to the top with low-fat UHT (ultra-pasturized and boxed) milk, adding 2 tablespoons of powdered nonfat milk and a splash of whole condensed milk — both of the latter for thickness. (Milk is an oddity out here. Because of our extended stay and limited refrigeration, we have to use boxed, powdered, or evaporated. But all of those things make good yogurt. Whod’ve thunk?) Next, we transfer the milk to a saucepan and heat it to 185°F to pasteurize it (even though this is probably totally unnecessary for our super-processed milk) and then let it cool to 110°F. Then, we add 3 tablespoons of already made yogurt to the milk and whisk the mixture to a froth. We pour the liquid back into the jar, put a lid on it, wrap it in a dishtowel, and set it near the woostove. Every now and then we rotate the jar and take the mixture’s temperature, keeping it between 105°-110° by moving it closer or further from the stove if necessary. Before bed, when the yogurt is thick and tasty, we move the jar outside to cool overnight. In the morning, all we have to do is skim it and pour off the little bit of separated liquid, and the yogurt is good to go.

P.S. Speaking of miracles, I’m writing to you via our new satellite Internet hookup, which Stewart installed after attending a day-long training in Fairbanks. (Besides writing the occasional blog post, I can now do stuff like watch ten-minute YouTube videos on How to Darn a Sock.) Stewart had to rope himself to our cabin roof, run hundreds of yards of wire, climb straight up a 60-foot spruce tree to take its top off, and figure out some stuff having to do with electrical currents that I couldn’t begin to understand. Satellite internet? Hard. Homemade yogurt? Anytime.

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