April 04, 2012

Dear Patient Friends: Yes, this is short, long overdue, has nothing to do with baking, and is politically charged, to boot. I’m starting, slowly but surely, to flex my writing muscles while I continue to freelance and wait for my bar results. This essay is cross-posted to Facebook, where I meant to only write a sentence or two about it, only to see a floodgate of contemplation burst open, so to speak. A friend of mine *cough’mousecough* insists, vociferously, that Facebook and Twitter have ruined social discourse by moving it off blogs and onto privacy-eating Web 2.0 sites. Normally I just remind him that he used to make the same complaint about blogs ruining social discourse by moving it off of chat rooms, and then I make fun of him a little more. This time, though, he’s right. There’s no reason that Facebook should get the exclusive fruit of my labors on this issue.

Confidential to Momerina: Yes, “My Adrienne Rich Problem” is a riff on John Thorne’s “My Paula Wolfert Problem.” Nice catch, Mom.

I am aware that in posting this, I will be angering and/or breaking the hearts of a lot of people who I really love, and for that, I’m sad. Keeping silent on this issue, though, makes me sadder (and is wrong, to boot).

Adrienne Rich died last week. When I was in high school, I devoured her poetry and essays on feminism and social justice. Because I was a poetry geek, I would yammer on about “Reliquary” and “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” to anyone who would listen. With that in mind, a few people have asked me why I haven’t commented on Adrienne Rich’s death, or contributed to memorial events to her.

Here’s why: Even as she was a brilliant poet, a fierce activist, and a coalition builder (who was not shy about telling white feminists that they needed to step up their game on advocating for women of color), Adrienne Rich had “read through...in all its stages, and provided resources, creative criticism and constant encouragement” to Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire, the most hateful, damaging screed against trans women ever written. I am not engaging in hyperbole when I say this. It is impossible to overstate the damage this book has done to the world in which trans women live. And Janice Raymond not only thanks Adrienne Rich for her help with the book, but also reproduces a conversation with her in the text of the book.

Rich’s defenders have pointed out that Janice Raymond is not a credible source, and that it’s possible that Raymond overstated Rich’s contribution to the work, or that Rich’s attitudes towards trans women became more enlightened in her later years. It’s certainly possible. On the other hand, in the 33 years between the publication of The Transsexual Empire and Rich’s death, she has never repudiated the work, or stated that Raymond had misrepresented her point of view.

The bottom line: I cannot, in good conscience, call myself either a feminist or a trans ally if I’m willing to look the other way when Adrienne Rich contributes to a toxic body of work, no matter how much I love her poems. It does, indeed, matter.

Postscript: In addition to the You’re Welcome essay linked above, these essays are also excellent and worth reading:
My complicated mourning: RIP, Adrienne Rich
Another Complicated Mourning of Adrienne Rich

Postpostscript: Over on Facebook, a friend asked me what I’d hoped to accomplish by writing this piece, as it won’t affect the role that The Transsexual Empire plays in society, and would only serve to discredit Adrienne Rich’s body of work for some people. Here is my reply to her question:

Well...hmmm. I’m not entirely sure that it needs to accomplish anything to be worth discussing. (Upon typing, that reads as kind of snarky, but I promise, [name redacted], I’m not being snarky, and I *am* both reading and answering in good faith.) Are we “accomplishing” anything when we point out that an asshat writer on Two and a Half Men made gross comments about women in an interview? Probably not. Is it worth discussing? Absolutely.

I have no illusions that my little post here will affect anything vis a vis the availability of The Transsexual Empire. That ship sailed 30 years ago. But I don’t know if it will continue to have its power and resonance within the establishment, simply because trans civil rights activists are pushing back like hell on it. I’m more concerned with its power and resonance among feminists. Not all feminists are transphobic (or transmisogynist), but the ones who *are* transphobic are, in my opinion, an embarrassment to the sisterhood. The hate rhetoric they spout about trans people, particularly trans women, is almost indistinguishable from the hate rhetoric of the right wing. Right-wing ‘phobes may call them perverts, while radical feminist ‘phobes call them men trying to appropriate “real” women’s space, but the net result is still the same: a refusal to recognize trans women as women.

So what does all this have to do with Adrienne Rich? She may not have created the idea that trans women are not real women, but she certainly facilitated it. And that’s shocking to me, because Adrienne Rich was a vigorous critic of white feminists who refused or neglected to address issues affecting women of color. She recognized that black women needed more than an “inclusive” environment where white women were nice enough to invite them but not necessarily to let their voices be heard. So to hear that a coalition builder like Adrienne Rich not only didn’t include trans women in the coalition, but also provided constructive feedback to a woman who described trans women as monsters and sleeper agents in a plan to replace “natural” women with “artificially-constructed women”...well, it’s a shock. Kind of like it was a shock when I learned that Dostoevsky, who wrote the most beautiful prose in the world on how to live with grace and humility and love, had a little bit of an intense-hatred-of-the-Jews problem.

Ultimately, I guess I’m just pondering that old question about how we think of people who make beautiful art, yet think or do ugly things. We hear this question over and over again—how do we think of Ezra Pound? Of Leni Riefenstahl? Of Roman Polanski? It’s not an easy question to answer, but I know how I don’t want to answer it: Adrienne Rich did so much good for so many people that it’s mere hair-splitting to call her out on an issue that only affects a certain group of people. That certain group of people comprises my friends and sisters, and they matter.

Posted by Bakerina at 02:02 PM in • (2) Comments
November 23, 2011

When you see the word “heartbreak”—and you will see it a lot here—do not worry. This is not about Lloyd. Lloyd is, as he was and ever shall be, still awesome.

Here is what happens when you take the California bar exam. Let’s assume that you graduate from law school in May. Unless you feel like you won’t be ready for the bar in two months, and would prefer to wait until February (like my friend Lea, who, from my vantage point, is a genius for doing this), you have already registered to take the bar at the end of July. If you have signed up for a fancy-pants bar prep course, you will be living this course for the next two months. With any luck, you’ll have some means of support, like a bar loan, so that you will not have to work during your bar review period. Finally, the day arrives. You show up at the testing center with your laptop, admission ticket, i.d., and any back support you might need. You spend the next three days, six hours per day, taking the test. When day three ends, you may feel triumphant, or you may just feel lucky to have not exploded in the middle of the test. Hopefully you’re feeling good, because you won’t know your results for four months. California releases July bar exam results on the Friday before Thanksgiving.

Most of us, if we have not already secured a job, spend the next four months job-hunting, which is not fun during the best of times, but is brutal in a down economy. I was lucky enough to have to report for jury duty the week after the bar. I sat through four days of voir dire, at the end of which I was sent on my merry way. I secured a few days of freelance work, took a few more days to recover from the test, and the joined the chain of hopefuls, looking for a job, a fellowship, anything that would allow me to pay rent and not default on my student loans, whose deferral period would end on the same weekend that bar results came out.

No surprises, the job search was dispiriting. But Fate took a little pity on me, by way of a fellowship at my now-alma mater, Santa Clara University School of Law, where I am working as a graduate fellow for one of my favorite professors. Unfortunately, the pay would not keep me in rent or pay my loan, never mind both, but hey, it’s money! And the work experience is terrific! I become more employable with every completed assignment. Then last month, Fate threw me a little more love, in the form of the lawyer for whom I freelance. He has a trial coming up. Big trial. Lots of discovery to do. A few months’ worth, at very least.  So, for now, at least, I’m earning a living wage, even if I’m earning it in fits and starts.

But I digress. Here is what happens when bar results are released. In the good old days of the 20th century, you pretty much had to wait until you got your letter from the State Bar, sending congratulations or regrets. Here on the other side of the bridge to the 21st century (thanks, Mom, for the metaphor!), you still get the letter, but the letters are mailed out on the same day that the Bar makes the pass list available to the people who took it. You go to the website, follow the links to the exam results, post your bar file number and your test i.d. number, and wait.  If you have passed the bar, you get a message saying, more or less, “the information entered matches a name on the pass list,” and displays your name. If you have not passed, you get a message saying “the information entered does not match any name on the pass list.” The next day, your letter arrives.

Remember that word “heartbreak,” back in the first sentence? Dear friends, you can probably ascertain what that means for my bar results.

Much to my surprise, I did not burst into tears. That came later—and in fact, I never burst into tears, not for the whole miserable weekend. Instead I leaked into tears. I called my parents, maintaining a tone that, if not cheerful, was at least chatty. I decided to rip the (Adhesive Medical Strips!) off by posting my non-passing status to Facebook. Not everybody loves the open-bookness of Facebook, but my feeling was that I wanted to get it out there, acknowledge it, and then feel free to congratulate or commiserate with my classmates. (I also did not want to be swanked by anyone who *did* pass the bar, asking me pointedly what my results were.) And I did. Even through the fog of bad news, I genuinely celebrated each “I passed the Bar!” status that filled my feed. My friends spent the past four months in the same fog of anxiety and uncertainty that I did. I loved them. I wanted them to succeed. And I knew that every passage was good for the law school. It was good for all of us.

It is a weird, thing, though, to have the same piece of news bring you so much happiness and so much misery at the same time. Every time I saw a new status, my heart lifted, and then crashed again. When the congratulations started rolling in—yes, even *my* congratulations—my heart crashed yet again. And when those same friends returned to my Wall to commiserate, and to offer soothing and encouragement, and to generally be as kind and supportive post-bar as they were in school, my heart pretty much shattered into a thousand pieces, and I thought I would never feel better again. I loved them so much. I was so happy for them. I was miserable for myself, and for the friends who didn’t pass, all scarily-bright, well-prepared people, the kind you can easily envision in court, or running nonprofits, because they give off an air of Being a Damn Good Lawyer.  I couldn’t wait to celebrate, except for when I just wanted to die.

This was my weekend. I received some of the best letters in the world, from people acknowledging that yes, this is heartbreak, and it’s the real thing. That made me feel a bit better, although the tears still leaked out as congratulations continued to roll in. One of my friends said that if she could give her pass to me, she would.  Several people reminded me of all of the great lawyers and scholars and leaders who didn’t pass the California Bar on their first crack at it. Hell, Kathleen Sullivan, the former dean of Stanford Law School, the “Sullivan” in Sullivan & Gunther, who wrote the Constitutional Law casebook that practically every law professor uses! Kathleen Sullivan failed the California Bar on her first try, too! And this was *after* she was the dean at Stanford Law!  They were right, of course, and that should have helped me be more philosophical. It didn’t.

I have heard lots of advice on the best way to cure a broken heart, from vigorous exercise (which, truthfully, is going to kick me in the ass thanks to about two months of working-from-home-based sluggatry) to buying a new outfit to reading a good book to indulging in the Great Country & Western Music Catharsis. All of these have their place, of course, but for this particular brand of heartbreak, the way out is—or will be, since I’m not out of it yet—a combination of finding the exact source of the heartbreak, and engaging in activity at which one is really, really good. I will not bore you with details of the benefits of cognitive behavioral therapy; suffice to say, it worked a treat here.  There was a reason that the commiseration and the anecdotes about smart people failing the bar didn’t get through to me, but the heartbreak did. Specifically, I felt like I had lost my community. I could celebrate for my friends, but I could not celebrate with them. We had all traveled together, more or less at the same pace, to get to this place; now, they were moving on, and I was staying put. At some point, a lightbulb went on over my head, and I found the simile for my state of mind, which I proceeded to share with about eleven million people.  I felt like we were all at the After-Bar Party, at a really fabulous club—say, the Peppermint Lounge circa 1983. The room is happy, the music is outstanding, the food has been catered by outside caterers, the drinks are reasonably priced. And then the passage list comes up, and everyone who passes shuffles off to the VIP Room, and I’m stuck on the other side of the velvet rope. But nobody closes the doors to the VIP Room, so we can all still see each other.

It was like flicking a switch. It didn’t make me feel better, but it took some of the sting out of feeling worse. It gave the madness a little bit of method: I didn’t wish that my friends were on the other side of the rope with me. I just wanted to be in the VIP Room with them. I gave myself a few days to wallow, during which I listened to Nick Lowe sing “What’s Shakin’ on the Hill” for hours at a time, and laughed a little at how good I was at wallowing. I knitted like a fiend. I went to the library and picked up the Terry Pratchett books I’d had on hold (Going Postal, which I’m halfway through now, and Making Money). It all helped, even though I still felt like a bag of dirt, only not as pretty.

Yesterday I went to visit a friend at work, another scarily-bright woman who, to the shock of all of us, did not pass the July bar, either. “How are you feeling?”, she asked. “Like a bag of dirt, only not as pretty,” I answered. We then proceeded to decompress and debrief, and to discuss our study strategies for February. At one point I mentioned my Bar After-Party simile to her, and she smiled. “You know what that is?,” she said. “That’s ego. That’s your ego talking.” I had a brief second of “no, wait, it’s not my ego! It’s my community! I’m mourning the loss of my community, dammit!”, and then realized—she was right. My community hadn’t gone anywhere. They were still there, still supportive, still ready and waiting to celebrate with us when we *do* pass the bar. The heartbreak I was feeling came from not being able to celebrate my moment at the exact same time that my friends were celebrating theirs. That is Ego talking.  That went a long way toward reducing the sting: there’s a big difference between a bruised ego and the true loss of community. It doesn’t fix everything, of course. I’m still a little sore at the Santa Clara County Bar Association sending me a flyer with the dates, times and locations for the swearing-in ceremony for new admittees to the bar. But that’s the way heartbreak works.  It’s really, really awful, until one day it isn’t.

Luckily, the bad news about the bar doesn’t seem to have wiped my skill sets completely clean. I will be forever thankful that one of the things I did to keep myself busy in the countdown to the posting of the pass list on Friday was to start soaking beans for black bean soup. (I used Midnight Beans from Rancho Gordo, whose bitch I have now become thanks to their Good Mother Stallard beans, which are so delicious that they deserve an entire post, if not an entire encyclopedia, on how great they are.) By Saturday, easily the hardest day of the weekend for me, they were ready to cook. 

Black bean soup is one of the best things you can make, because unless you keep the heat too high and burn the beans, it really is foolproof. You can use homemade stock, broth in a can, or water. You can spike it with yogurt, buttermilk, smetana, or miso. You can eat it as is, or you can puree it all, or you can puree some of it and pour it back into the pot; the broth will be creamier, but you’ll still get a nice variety of textures. You can eat it hot or chilled. You can add other vegetables, although I would hold off on tomatoes until the beans cook through. Remember the advice to never salt beans at the start of cooking, because salt toughens beans? It turns out—and years of kitchen-wrangling has confirmed this for me—that it’s not salt that toughens beans. It’s acid. So be sure to leave out your tomatoes, your vinegar, your sugar, your vinegar-based pepper sauce, what have you, until your beans are tender but not mushy. Keep your acids waiting and your heat low, and, I guarantee, you’ll have something that makes you feel better for both eating it and making it. If you like it enough, you can eat it all winter long, and come May or June, when your name is on the pass list for the February bar, you can think back to those bleak, low-light winter days, when black bean soup, and your competence at making it, carried you through.

Black Bean Soup to Carry You Through
Serves six at a dinner party, or one for a week of lunches

This is less of a recipe than a methodology. It is cobbled from several sources, particularly Barbara’s Black Bean Soup in New York Cookbook by Molly O’Neill and Laurie Colwin’s black bean soup in More Home Cooking. Like most bean dishes and all soups, it’s better the day after you make it, although it’s no slouch on the day of.

1 1/2 cups (12 oz.) dried black beans, soaked overnight in water to cover
1/4 - 1/3 cup olive oil
1 large yellow or white onion, peeled and diced
2 stalks celery, peeled and chopped, along with a few leaves
6 cups (48 oz.) stock, broth or water (Barbara Scott-Goodman uses chicken stock and Laurie Colwin uses canned beef broth, but I’m a fan of roast vegetable stock in this soup)
salt and pepper to taste
juice of 1 lime or 1 lemon (whatever you have, or prefer)
Optional: 1 can peeled plum tomatoes, diced, along with the juice from the tomatoes; celery seed; dry sherry; yogurt or buttermilk; thinly-sliced lemons for garnish

Drain the black beans. In a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot, heat the olive oil, add the onion and celery and cook until softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the beans, give a quick stir, and add the stock, salt and pepper. Bring the beans to a boil, then turn down the heat to a simmer and let them cook for about 2 1/2 - 3 hours. You want a simmer that’s faster than an occasional “gloop,” but not a rolling boil.  When the liquid is reduced and the beans are tender, add the lime or lemon juice. Taste and adjust the seasoning. You can stop here and put the soup pot in the fridge overnight, if fiddling with a blender is not in your immediate plans. Otherwise, decide what kind of texture you would like for your soup, and puree accordingly. (If your soup is still hot, be careful to not overfill your blender. 8 ounces of liquid, max. Trust me on this.  The boredom of pureeing a cup of soup at a time is nothing compared to a steam burn.) I usually puree it all, put it back in the pot, reheat it, and spike it with a little dry sherry; dry sherry is great in black bean soup. Lemon slices are not necessary, but I like them. smile

Posted by Bakerina at 05:06 PM in • (3) Comments
September 29, 2011

After you have picked yourself up from the floor in shock, you might have noticed a few changes around here:

1. You are no longer being greeted by the still-store of my cheesy Eyes-n-Teeth expression on the last post. No matter how thankful you are for this, you are not nearly as thankful as I am. Really. It haunts my dreams, that still-store.

2. The banner now reads “Prepare to Meet Your Juris Doctorate.” This is not a sign of permanent change to come. ‘mouse posted this on the day I graduated from law school this past May, partly to congratulate me for making it through, but mostly to prod me into waking the blog back up.  He tried that a few times, poor ‘mouse. At one point, he even referred to me as a “former blogger,” and the more I insisted otherwise ("DUDE, I’m not a FORMER blogger.  Former bloggers let their server space subscriptions and domains lapse. My site is still LIVE. I just need to WAIT until I have better CONTENT to post, AWRIGHT?"), the more he would reply, simply, “Okay...Former Blogger.” And yet I still did not rise to the bait. And he *still* gave me a present for graduation. What a nice guy.

3. Really, though, it’s all about getting Eyes-n-Teeth off the front page.

Okay, not really.  It was never my plan to disappear for two years.  I figured I’ve have plenty of good stuff to share, especially because I was done with the boot camp that is the first year of law school. We had settled into our new place in California, and I was getting more comfortable with working on a completely different stove.  What could possibly go wrong?

While nothing went wrong, I’d be fibbing if I said that life got easier. There’s an ancient law school cliche that says when you’re a 1L (first-year law student), they scare you to death; when you’re a 2L, they work you to death; and when you’re a 3L, they bore you to death.  I can attest to the truth of the 2L portion.  I had survived the first year of law school. I could pick my elective classes. Since I hadn’t actually flunked out of school, as I’d feared I would, I felt more comfortable about joining extracurricular clubs and serving on committees.  I was so comfortable, in fact, that I might have overextended myself.  By the time 3L rolled around, I promised myself that I would scale back. Not so many clubs this year. Pick a club, maybe serve as an officer of the club, don’t load up on too many demanding classes. Let myself be bored to death, in other words.

Ha bloody ha.  Even if I had managed to scale back (note: three bar classes and a Supreme Court seminar in a single semester is not an example of “scaling back"), I had forgotten to include into the equation the amount of time I would prepare getting ready for the bar, taking the MPRE (a multiple-choice test on legal ethics that is a requirement of bar admission in every state), submitting information for my state and federal background check, and looking for a job after graduation.  During my final semester of classes, I added a clerkship at Transgender Law Center in San Francisco, which was brilliant, inspiring and one of the best things I ever did with my life—but which also added 16 hours of work and 7-9 hours of commuting on top of a full-time schedule.  I also remember writing a lot of seminar papers, although I’ll be damned if I can remember any of them right now.

Then came graduation madness, bar prep madness, and actual bar exam madness, which technically does not end until six weeks from tomorrow night, when we get our results. Considering that the bar exam took place during the last week in July, that’s a lot of time to lose to madness.

The past two months have been a mix of job hunting, fellowship applications, freelancing, and rainmaking for more freelancing. I won’t fib:  it’s been a little stressful. It should have been the perfect time for writing, too, but I wasted a lot of writing time worrying about how to keep the bills paid. If you have ever read Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell, you know what I mean. (If you haven’t read it, what are you waiting for? Go ahead and read it! It’s a quick read, and it will make you glad not to be the hero.) I spent more than a few days on my living room floor, urging myself to go to the gym, to get outside, to call some friends for lunch, *anything*.  More often than not, I sat on the floor, and obsessed over whether I was gaining weight.  Because that’s a useful way to solve problems, obviously.

Of course I couldn’t live like this forever.  Last week I attended a Bloggers’ Night Out with a few Bay Area blogging luminaries, including the magnificent Grace Davis, who hosted me when I came to California for the very first time, trying to decide whether to go to Northeastern or Santa Clara for law school. Just having friends with whom to talk shop cheered me considerably, and suggested that maybe my best writing days weren’t behind me after all.  This week, Lloyd and I were able to solve a financial issue that had been dogging us all summer—and we did it without having to file bankruptcy, which is a great relief to both of us.  This morning, while I was still contemplating our good fortune over this, a letter arrived from the law school.  I’ve been awarded a graduate fellowship, and will be working with a professor I really like.  It won’t take me completely out of job hunting and freelancing madness, but it will give me the opportunity to think for a living, which is exactly what I wanted from this adventure.

p.s. In other news, Lloyd and I adopted a cat, and I learned how to make cheese. Of course the full tales of both will be told. I can’t give it all away in one post, after all.

Posted by Bakerina at 07:26 PM in • (11) Comments
August 22, 2009

I know, I know, dear friends.  This is a total tease.  We all have better things to do with our time than listen to me go on for 30 seconds about how I don’t know how to compress video files.  But if I can figure this out, things will get a lot more interesting around here.  Certainly more interesting than this. wink

Posted by Bakerina at 10:30 PM in • (0) Comments
August 11, 2009

I have spoken at length—some would say whined at length—about how I dropped the ball on all of my foodish habits after I started law school.  Baking fell by the wayside, weekly trips to the farmer’s market always included buying bread so that Lloyd could have toast and sandwiches throughout the week, Trader Joe’s frozen nasi goreng and gyozas and tamales became fixtures during the frenetic misery of final exam revision.  I have rabbitted on about them, and probably will rabbit on about them again.  And yet, I wasn’t a total loss in the kitchen last year.  I may have only been able to perform one small task, but I did it like a champ.  I have maintained a more-or-less constant supply of homemade yogurt in the refrigerator.  Occasionally I’ll buy a tub of 2% Fage Greek yogurt, or some precious and outrageously expensive French organic yogurt at the Milk Pail Market in Mountain View (one of the most insanely fun food experiences you can have outside of the Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia or the Strip District in Pittsburgh), but other than that, I’m never looking back.

I’m sure it comes as a shock to no one who knows me that I have a lot of kitchen equipment, including a decent set of kitchen appliances.  Since I have been an adult for roughly half my life, I’ve had plenty of time to suss out what is useful for me, and what isn’t.  I’ve heard that the majority of owners of stand mixers don’t buy them to use them, but rather to have them sit fetchingly on the countertops of their meticulously appointed kitchens.  I am mystified by the thought of treating a powerhouse appliance as, essentially, an expensive knickknack, but de gustibus non disputandum est, I guess.  My commercial-model Kitchen Aid paid me back years ago what I paid into it, and continues to pay me back every day.  I never thought I needed a food processor until I got one for free, from a friend who received it for a wedding present and didn’t take it out of the box for seven years.  It is fabulous for making perfectly smooth hummus, and for shredding quantities of vegetables for fritters.  (I’ve never tried it for bread dough, although I know people who swear by it, and if you even think of using it for mashed potatoes, well, don’t say I didn’t warn you.) And yet, even though the food processor is a workhorse, there are some mixtures which just work better in a blender than in a food processor—which is why I didn’t think twice about replacing my blender when the time came.  These gadgets may look snazzy and impressive, but they earn their keep.  Lest I give the impression that I’ll say that anything is useful, I point with some embarrassment to the juicer I bought at Woolworth’s right after Lloyd and I moved to Astoria.  Try as I might, I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to drink my fruits and vegetables, especially when I saw just how much fruit and vedge was needed to make a small cup of juice.  Even Nigel Slater’s gorgeous and inspiring book Thirst didn’t move me, and the juicer went to a better home.

In short, I am probably the last person who should acquire another appliance, and yet… I resisted the siren call of yogurt makers for years, supported by three arguments:  1. I lived in a neighborhood where terrific yogurt could be had for a song, from a shop less than fifty feet from my front door.  2.  No modern fancy-shmancy yogurt maker could compare with the yogurt maker my mom had when I was a little kid. I was sure that without the heavy milk glass bowls that were a feature of Mom’s yogurt maker, the yogurt wouldn’t be nearly as good, and there was just no point in trying.  3.  You didn’t need a yogurt maker to make yogurt.  All you needed was a mason jar, a source of low heat (like a pilot light in a gas oven), milk, a little commercial yogurt for a starter and a set of foolproof instructions.  Armed with instructions from several county extension agents, as well as from Laurie Colwin, I made a few attempts at yogurt, all of which tasted terrific but none of which set.

I would like to say that I was finally moved to buy a yogurt maker out of nobler purposes, like wishing to crack the code on the ur-yogurt, or wanting to reduce the amount of yogurt packaging I sent to the recycling bin, but no, it was the always-cheering combination of vanity and groupthink that did it for me.  The vanity came from reading French Women Don’t Get Fat, in which Mireille Guilliano waxes rhapsodic about slender women with perfectly-tied scarves having a little pot of yogurt to take the edge off their appetites.  Apparently a lot of people had the same idea, because the King Arthur Flour Bakers Catalogue and Williams-Sonoma couldn’t keep them in stock.  Eventually, though, I got mine, a seven-pot unit sold under the EuroCuisine brand, for about forty bucks.  (The name may be silly, dear friends, but, like the other cast of characters in the kitchen, it knows its job and it does it well.) I bought some milk, plus a container of plain Dannon yogurt to use as a starter culture, and paint me yellow and call me a cab, it worked. The yogurt set.  It was a little on the tart side, and it was a bit overcooked on the bottom, but otherwise, it was the yogurt for which I was looking.

Over time, I fiddled a bit, experimenting with the amount of yogurt used to culture the next batch, the length of the cooking time (both on the stovetop and in the yogurt maker) and the variety of milk.  I found that lowfat milk cooked down more than whole milk did, and that I had to start with more milk to compensate for this.  Skim milk cooked down even more, and never really took on a good set.  I found that whole milk yogurt not only tasted better, it left me fuller, and thus less inclined to eat too much of it, or of anything else.  (WebMD has an informative, yet amusing, article about this.  It touts yogurt as the “French Women’s Diet Secret” and quotes Mireille Guilliano as saying that yogurt contains carbs, protein and fat, “which are what you need in every meal,” but then only gives nutrition information for fat-free yogurt.  The article also quotes WebMD’s “recipe doctor” as saying that yogurt is a great substitute for butter and oil in baked goods “because it adds moisture, volume and flavor without added fat or calories.” Okay, you’re not adding as many calories, or as much fat, as you would with butter, but even fat-free yogurt is not calorie-free.  You’re adding calories.) I have not yet tried using goat’s milk, or sheep’s milk, but would jump at the chance to try both.  Likewise, I have not tried using raw milk, which I can buy at the farmer’s market in California.  This is mostly because raw milk is expensive, consigned to an occasional luxury, but also because I need to learn more about how it behaves.  Part of the yogurt making process is to scald the milk, then to cool it down.  I don’t know if raw milk will retain its flavor if it’s heated to scalding.  There are alternative methods for thickening yogurt at lower milk temperatures:  one involves the addition of nonfat dry milk to the milk being heated; the other involves using gelatin, which I really don’t want to put into my yogurt.

Begging your patience, dear friends, but this is an excellent time for a digression about milk.  I have ranted in this space before about the increasing difficulty of finding heavy cream or half-and-half that have not been ultrapasteurized.  Ultrapasteurized dairy products have been pasteurized at a higher temperature, at a shorter time, than pasteurized dairy products.  The resulting cream has greatly improved shelf life, but it also has an odd, palate-coating, “cooked” taste.  Ultrapasteurized cream is also tricky to whip; I’ve found that it doesn’t reach the volume that pasteurized cream can reach, and the line between stiffly-beaten and overbeaten is tricky to suss out.  I have skirted this issue by buying cream at Trader Joe’s, or the Milk Pail, two stores that carry pasteurized cream.  There was once a time when health food stores were a sure source of non-ultrapasteurized cream, but now that Horizon and other large-scale organic dairies are ultrapasteurizing, this is no longer a sure thing.  (When a New York Times food editor called ultrapasteurization “the savior of the organic dairy industry,” I could not help but wince a bit.)

What does all of this have to do with yogurt?  Last week, I went to Safeway to pick up some milk for yogurt.  I picked up a carton of Horizon whole milk and saw “ultrapasteurized” on the carton.  For the love of Mike, I thought, Horizon is ultrapasteurizing *milk* now? Reluctantly, I picked up a carton of store-brand milk, wondering where the “pasteurized/homogenized” text on the carton was.  Near the top of the carton, I found something else, in a smaller font:  “Now tastes fresher longer!” That’s when it hit me:  ultrapasteurization of milk is now the industry standard.

I hasten to add that I’m not unsympathetic to the concerns of the dairy industry, or of the grocery business.  The economy is not out of the toilet yet, and of course businesses—and consumers—want to minimize their losses.  I hate discovering a carton of milk gone bad as much as the next person, and I really hate finding milk that’s gone bad before the carton has even been opened.  But I don’t think it’s elitist nonsense to point out that ultrapasteurized milk, despite its superior keeping quality, does not taste like pasteurized milk, or, really, much of anything.  You can certainly make yogurt with it.  You can even make good yogurt with it.  But, as with cheese, the better the milk, the better the yogurt.  I’ve made yogurt from both pasteurized and ultrapasteurized milk, and I know which one I prefer.  Trader Joe’s still sells pasteurized milk, and yesterday I was lucky enough to score half a gallon of Straus creamtop milk at this excellent grocery in my neighborhood.  I’m going to keep buying it—and I’m going to let these merchants know that having this choice available is important to me.  If it’s important to you, too, please, please communicate this to your grocers and your dairy.  Here endeth the lesson.

So we know why you make it and what you make it with, but Jen, what do you do with all this yogurt? I’m glad you asked.  I eat a minimum of a pot a day, usually half with my breakfast and half late in the afternoon.  If I know I won’t be eating lunch until after 2, I’ll have a whole pot at breakfast.  I have used it as a substitute for mayonnaise in salad dressings—it is particularly great with Penzeys Green Goddess salad dressing blend mixed into it, along with a little cider vinegar and salt.  I have also used it as a substitute for buttermilk in pound cakes and in cornbread.  I have beaten it a bit to thin it out, added lime juice, cardamom and a little brown sugar, and used it to dress fruit salad.  I have melted it into plain lentils.  It is used to build a starter for one of my favorite flatbreads, from More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin, an English-muffin-like griddlecake, flavored with black onion seeds (also known as black caraway, charnushka, nigella or kalonji).  It is a terrific marinade for chicken and fish, and it also features prominently in rogan josh, a fiery, cardamom-rich lamb stew from Rajasthan.

If you like Indian food, you can really go to town, yogurt-wise.  One of my favorite cookbooks, Purobi Babbar’s Rotis and Naans of India With Accompaniments—which is something of a misnomer, as those “accompaniments” include drinks, vegetable dishes, meat dishes, sambars, chutneys, pickles, raitas and desserts—contains at least 50 recipes in which yogurt is either featured (lassis, raitas, yogurt sauces) or functions as a flavor-delivery ingredient (rotis, uttapam, dosas, the fabulous steamed bread known as idli, the equally-fabulous lobia, or blackeyed peas in gravy).  Truth be told, I don’t know exactly how many of Mrs. Babbar’s recipes contain yogurt.  I keep losing count because I keep getting distracted by how much I want to eat all this stuff, followed by a little dish of sweetened yogurt, enriched with saffron and pistachios.  Or maybe I’ll abruptly shift cultures and turn the last of the cherries left over from last week’s pie into sour cherry borscht, which my beautiful friend Julie taught me to make, and then float a little yogurt on the top of it.  Or I could cut up the rapidly-softening white nectarines I bought at the farmer’s market on Sunday, throw them into that hardworking blender, add yogurt and zizz until drinkable.  Or or or...or I could just quiet down and eat it as is.

elevenses of champions

Yogurt, my way
makes about 6 cups (or 7 EuroCuisine pots)

Note:  If I haven’t made it obvious by now, I’m a big fan of the yogurt maker. smile If, however, a new appliance is not feasible or desirable, and you want to try the mason-jar way, WebMD has the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recipe here If you try it, do let me know how it turns out.

1.575 liters (about 6 1/8 cups) whole milk (I usually measure this by taking one of the yogurt jars, filling it to the brim and pouring it into the pan seven times)
2 tablespoons - 1/4 cup plain yogurt (I use the former, but I encourage experimentation to see what works best for you.  Use a good commercial yogurt for the first batch, then hold back a quantity from the finished yogurt to start the next batch.  The more often you do this, the better it will taste.)

Scald the milk over medium-high heat.  When the surface of the milk looks a bit “puffy,” with tiny bubbles rising to the surface, and when a skin starts to form on the milk, it’s done.  Pull it off the heat and set the pan on a trivet to cool down.  As the milk cools, skim the skin (also known as casein) off the surface.

While the milk cools, place the yogurt in a bowl big enough to accommodate all of the milk in the pan.  When the milk cools to about 110F/40C—you should be able to keep your finger in it for 10 seconds—slowly whisk the milk into the bowl with the yogurt.  Whisk it just long enough to incorporate everything.  If you have a lot of foam on the surface of the milk, skim it off with a ladle.  You will probably have a lot of milk solids sticking to the bottom of your pan.  Do not scrape them into the milk/yogurt mix.  Just throw the pan into the sink and let it soak.  You’re done with it. smile

Ladle the milk into 7 clean yogurt jars.  If you don’t have a funnel, make sure you keep a damp sponge or paper towel close by.  (Of course, you might not be hopeless at getting milk into jars without spilling a drop.  If you are, feel free to point and laugh at me.) Place them into the yogurt maker in a ring of six, plus one in the center.  Do not put the lids on the jars; that comes later.  Place the cover on the yogurt maker, set the timer on the machine and turn the machine on.  You can keep the yogurt warm for as little as two hours, or as long as 15.  I usually opt for 12.  When I cook it longer, the bottoms tend to overcook and separate, and I haven’t had the nerve to experiment with shorter cooking times.  When the machine shuts off, cap the jars and refrigerate the yogurt for at least 8 hours before serving it forth.

Posted by Bakerina at 03:52 PM in • (1) Comments
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