Bagels. Cream Cheese. Happiness.

I notice from time to time that I think I've written more often than I have. I do not keep a bank of written ideas, or a list of things I'd like to discuss. Rather, I keep a mental catalog of sentences I like and a list of things I'd like to make and then write about that reminds me of those never-ending cloth towel "dispensers" in some gas station bathrooms. Every time I use one of those, I wonder to myself if the towel just recycles around, my germs and bacterias congregating with every other freeway passenger who has ever visited... This is pertinent to my thoughts because I think about food much the same way, it's circular and possibly recycled, but necessary and probably sanitary.

It doesn't take much for me to want to make something. A mention, a season, the little food world buzzes that are created almost daily but sometimes that center around things that last several weeks. Currently, there are more things out there with rhubarb than I could shake a stick at, and that doesn't bode well for a girl who sometimes feels like I'm the only one in my neighborhood infatuated with rhubarb. (I'm still nursing the rhubarb curd I made two weeks ago, and it's still good, by the way.)

But, the baker in me seems to prevail throughout whatever nuance happens to enter my brain, and I firmly believe that once a person has entered the world of sourdough, her life is forever changed. The bagels that I made last week were great, but not perfect - the perfect excuse to make more. The second attempt at Peter Reinhart's ratio in Crust and Crumb was even better... and I'm not just saying that since I made them myself. I am not actually sure I have ever eaten a bagel with wild yeast until last week. I am sure that none can compare to the list of simple ingredients that are boiled in plain water and then baked in a hot oven, causing the surface to blister and bubble and resist chewing. I made a full batch and scaled my dough to equal 9 (roughly) 106 g. bagels.

I have had a deep yearning to make cheese for quite a long time. I really feel that if there was a cheese-maker's supply locally, I would have already been to my goal of waxing and aging cheddars, but since I think I'll have to order online I still am procrastinating. I asked my Amish friend, Lizzy, if the creamery near my Parents' farm sold rennet. She told me no, but that a cheese-making relation often went behind the building to the place where they stacked the plastic tubs that the rennet came in (a liquid), and that she could salvage enough to get by. Seeing as I have the Internet of Opportunities, I shouldn't need to result to scavenging. But seeing as I have been dreaming night and day of bagels, it was natural that I had to make cream cheese, mesophilic starter or no, and yogurt cheese seemed appropriate given what I had on hand.

I have strained yogurt. I have strained yogurt for a whole day. But I never strained yogurt that was half heavy cream. This revelation! I tell you... I actually wanted to wait another 24 hours to try and get yogurt cheese to roll into balls and then baptize in olive oil, but after baking off the bagels, that idea was out the window. Creamy isn't an apt adjective. I have neither cow or raw milk sources, but I used the cream line milk and cream that I am every day so thankful for. The fat coats my mouth, the color is a rich, warm white: just a shade off from the palest yellow, a color my camera would never capture.

Ever since the dawn of Spring, and I use that term loosely since it has been unseasonably cool here but mysteriously marked with the odd day of spiked temps and humidity, I have eyed my tender chives. Chives are one Spring thing that I most love. They wake up before any other growing thing, a miracle shooting up from a Winter's worth of wreckage. I collect their purple hats as a cut flower, a pint glass of them on my counter where I can snatch at them, where I can remember to add them to what I'm cooking to see how they react. A single, hollow stalk chopped into tiny tubes can perfume a half dozen eggs it seems, and every single Spring I wonder what new dish I could make with them. I realize what I should be thinking about is what condiment should I be making with them, since condiments tend to get eaten most frequently lately. When considering cream cheese as the Ultimate Condiment, it seemed a natural fit to stir in some chives and black pepper.

I use a no-heat strain of yogurt called Viili that I can't recommend enough. I got it from Cultures for Health, and it is one of my favorite things ever. When strained, it yields a delicious tasting whey that isn't overly sour. Since I use non-homogenized milk, it does tend to be a little "lumpy", but it blends up fine, and the flavor more than makes up for any cosmetic shortcomings. I've used it to culture plain heavy cream and plain half and half, both were great versions of sour cream that even my Husband liked.

Yogurt Cream Cheese

Strain 4 c. yogurt through fine cheesecloth, or like me, through a homemade muslin bag. Hanging the bag (or cheesecloth tied into a bag) from some height will speed the process a bit, as gravity will be on your side. Time spent draining will depend on what type of milk you use (or what type of yogurt you used). The higher the fat content, the creamier it will be, and the less whey will drip out. I let mine drain for almost 24 hours, and had a perfect, soft-set consistency.

After draining, turn the mass of cheese out into a bowl, and mix with salt. I used about 1/4 t. for my yield, which was shy of 2 cups, but probably a bit more than 1 1/2 cups (like how I measure?) Mix in any other herbs or flavorings, and store in a covered container for up to a month? Maybe less? I've never stored any cultured milk product this long, since I eat it long before. This cream cheese will be lucky to last as long as that rhubarb curd mentioned above... but you never know.

Even though it was soft-set, I couldn't resist rolling a few yogurt cheese balls. I watched this video from GNOWFGLINS a while back, and remembered Wardeh saying that you didn't need to refrigerate the yogurt cheese balls, but I think I'm going to keep mine in the fridge since they aren't as dry as they probably should be.

I ate one at dinner, spread on a piece of bread. I can't describe the joy I take in seeing something positively melt without heat applied - that is what this soft, oily cheese did. If I could die of something, please let it be soft, whole milk cheese I made myself.

At dinner as I sat thinking about diets, and cheese, and fats, and what the conventional doctors are still telling me is killing me even though I don't believe them anymore, I looked out the window at the last two things on the clothesline. These are my two bread cloths that I never wash, but hang out to dry in the sun and attract more yeasts. They aren't proper "couche", but they work good for me, and they are just part of the never ending circle of my food life.

I look at the work of others, the things made by friends and acquaintances, the jobs held by neighbors who are not home as I had time to mow my lawn and dry laundry outside, pontificate on chives, and check to see if my radishes had grown any more since the last 6 times I checked on them today. Sometimes I feel so overwhelmingly lucky to have good health, that my knees are still good enough for me to be on my feet all day. Today is one of those days. To be simply happy and enjoy every day is the greatest gift no matter what work you do, or what you make with your hands. Whether you ate amazing cream cheese and bagels or not. But, I have to say that a day with the bagels and cream cheese could be a big part of happiness.

Born in the '50's. (Sourdough Tortillas and Mock Empanadas.)

I sometimes feel like I was born in the 50's. (Cue the Police.)

That was always one of my favorite tracks on Outlandos d'Amour, which I had (and who am I kidding, still have) on cassette. About the time that was in constant replay (about 15 years after it's 1978 release), I remember thinking how it could be possible that Sting was roughly the same age as my parents. C'mon, he was my age, right?

When I look back on my formative years, I do feel like it was a different era... and I suppose I get to thinking about this the most when Sundays roll around. We were a family who ate together every night, except for Sunday nights. Every weekday, there was one thing we could count on: that around 6:30 we would all be sitting around the dining room table. I didn't really know too many other people who did that, and it is probably true that I still don't. Even in my own 3 person family unit, only 2 of us are often eating meals together, since my Husband works strange hours (and has a strange appetite).

On most of my childhood Sundays, we would usually eat a later lunch. One that was often set on time-bake in the oven, to be ready approximately 30 minutes to an hour after we got home from church. Sunday nights were different, since we didn't usually have a planned dinner. We would pick at leftovers or make sandwiches, usually as a family. It may seem idyllic that my family life was like a postcard of the 50's, but it's true to some extent, and I wouldn't be half the person I am today if it wasn't.

My Sundays now are quite different than the ones I knew growing up. After church, we come home and I have no idea what I'm going to make for lunch. Usually it's just the Boy-O and I (especially during football season), and something always emerges from the kitchen in relative short-order fashion. Today, however, I planned ahead.

About a week ago I started feeding my starter more "adequately", half it's weight in flour and water every day. Not only does this give me tons of extra starter, it is so active it's frightening. I had to move to a larger container, since it regularly doubles it's volume. And, today I had to ditch some for the first time in a long time. With huge amounts of starter (and English muffin perfection behind me), I got it into my head yesterday that I had to try making sourdough tortillas.

They require planning ahead, about 12 hours, and are made entirely with wheat flour. I didn't really know what to expect flavor-wise, and was pleasantly surprised - especially when I thought of folding them over into makeshift empanadas. The bitterness of wheat flour disappears completely as it cultures. I had leftover "beans and meat", which is now the only animal protein my son will eat. About a month ago, I made tacos with ground meat (my Husband's favorite). After much coercion, my son had a single bite of meat and his eyes widened: "I can't believe I never tried this before! I love it!" were his remarks and now he asks for this food nearly every day. We had "beans and meat" tacos last night and leftovers for today. I still have leftovers, so I may pop them into the freezer for quick dinners when our weather finally breaks for good.

The recipe is from GNOWFGLINS. I thought since they were tortillas, I could roll them out with flour like ordinary tortillas - but actually the dough fell apart and stuck miserably when I tried rolling in my traditional way on a wooden board. Oiling the rolling pin and using the slick surface of the counter top worked much better, but there was still a learning curve for the feel of the dough. The pictures on the GNOWFGLINS site show a very thin tortilla, and I was not able to roll that thin. I'm betting that with a bit of practice they will be easier to roll.

About halfway through the griddling, I got the idea to sandwich my filling, creating a mock empanada. I actually preferred it better than eating them as tortillas. Tortillas are specific to me, and these were good, but tasted a bit too bread-like for my personal classification of "tortilla". That said, they are a great all-purpose flat bread that I'm looking forward to making again.

Mock empanada.

I made a half recipe of the amounts listed below and my yield was a dozen, plus 4 empanadas. (However, I did roll them a bit thicker.) I also mixed the dough up by hand with no trouble. I just kneaded the dough by hand in the bowl for several minutes until it was smooth.

Sourdough Tortillas with Mock Empanada variation (dough recipe from GNOWFGLINS)
  • 6 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups pure water
  • 1 1/2 cups fed starter
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • butter or oil for the griddle
Begin 12 hours or more before you want to eat tortillas.

Combine water, starter, salt and oil, and mix well with a wooden spoon.

Keep mixing, and add flour 1/2 cup at a time until dough is not too sticky to handle by hand. Knead gently by hand for several minutes until dough is not too sticky and forms a cohesive ball.

Place dough in an oiled bowl, and rotate the dough around so all sides get coated with the oil.

Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap (I use the lid from a large pot).

When ready to make tortillas, heat a cast iron skillet to medium heat. Roll dough into balls, about golf ball size and put back into the bowl, covering them so they don't dry out. Pour a little olive oil on a smooth-surface counter (non-wood), and also oil the rolling pin.

When pan is hot, place a rolled out tortilla in the pan. Let it cook until there are several bubbles in the tortilla. Flip the tortilla with a spatula and cook the other side until the bubbles are browned.

Remove tortilla from pan and place between towels to stay warm and moist. Then, roll out the next tortilla. Repeat until all of the balls have been rolled out and cooked. Add oil to pan and/or rolling pin as needed, and oil (I used a touch of butter) the griddle to prevent sticking as needed. Store in a zipper seal freezer bag in refrigerator or freezer.

To make mock empanadas, roll out tortilla, and place a small amount of desired filling on half of the circle. Fold dough over (it is very moist, and will seal itself up without issue - you don't need to crimp the edges, unless you want to for aesthetics.) Carefully transfer to the skillet, and cover the pan with a lid to trap in some of the heat. Keep an eye on them, and flip after side one is nice and brown, about 4 minutes. Cook the second side for about the same time, monitoring heat levels to prevent burning.

I ate them with addicting cilantro-raisin chutney and candied jalapenos.

The mystique of my childhood and my confusion over the actual era is something I love thinking about as I get older. When I'm out of range of my favorite radio station, I can be found flipping around to find an "oldies" station, which sadly is becoming less 50's and 60's music and more 70's all the time. My 70's era is when I was more in my 20's... funny how I'm always about 30 years behind.

Today in Milwaukee, it was an unseasonable mid-80 degrees, so we spent most of the afternoon and evening outside soaking it into our Winter weary bodies. When we got back in the house about 5:30, I suddenly realized I was starving. I heated up that same trusty skillet I cooked the tortillas on earlier and seared some peppers and onions in a touch of coconut oil and a sprinkling of the spice mix I keep on hand thanks to Rick Bayless (1 t. Mexican oregano, 1/2 t. black pepper, 1/4 t. cumin, 1/8 t. cloves, 1 t. sugar and salt to taste, I mix enough to last me several occasions).

I laid a sourdough tortilla on top of the peppers to warm, and when eaten with more candied jalapenos, a slice of feta cheese (for lack of proper queso) and a smidge of cultured heavy cream I had to say that I was indeed satisfied. Later this evening, I popped the remaining two empanadas in the toaster oven, cloaked in foil, to heat up for my Husband who also liked them, doused in red Valentina sauce, confirming that I will make other versions in the future.

I am so thankful I was raised as I was, in a kinder, gentler era that I mistake for America's heartland in the 1950's. Maybe it was the watching of Back to the Future far too many times to count at my cousin's house, or my Dad's old records and 8 tracks convincing me that the Beatles and the Turtles were actually current music. (That changed with Madonna's True Blue, the first cassette I owned personally - it came with my first cassette player as a Christmas gift in 1986.) At any rate, those are days I love thinking about, especially on Sundays. I actually told someone today that I'll turn 35 this year, and while that is still a half year away I felt shocked at myself. Maybe that's why I'm all nostalgic this evening, I well remember my Parents specifically at 35. There you go: I've turned into my Parents. That, friends, is a very good thing.