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A Spoonful of Soothe
Yogurt never fails to please, one simple dollop at a time

From time to time, I forget about yogurt. Who doesn't? It's easy enough to forget. New foods come along and, like an old hangout that goes unvisited for awhile, yogurt fades out of consciousness. But just like the old haunt rediscovered, this old-favorite food shows up now and then in some new guise; it attracts my attention again, and thoughts of all its charms come flooding back.

I remember the first time yogurt surprised me. I was a teenager, my family had moved to Vermont, and I had just experienced my first plunge into the icy waters of a real New England river. The wide, slow Winooski flowed through the little town of Plainfield and looked more or less like the rivers I had known down South. It was a hot day, and the water was inviting, so I pulled off my clothes and dove right in.

Makes about 6 cups
Making your own yogurt can be as simple as putting a spoonful of store-bought yogurt into warm milk and keeping the milk warm for a period of several hours, but the results can be hit or miss. Less than perfect conditions can render homemade yogurt too thin and off flavors can result from improper handling. But by paying close attention to the temperature and following a few careful steps, you can make a yogurt that's superior to anything you can buy. Sterilizing the jars and using previously unopened plain yogurt as a starter will ensure that no uninvited bacteria will set up camp in your yogurt.
5 1/2 cups whole milk
1 1/2 cups instant, nonfat dry milk
1/3 cup plain (unflavored) yogurt from a new container

1. Sterilize six 1/2-pint canning jars by simmering them in boiling water. Turn off the burner and let the jars stand in the water undisturbed while you prepare the yogurt. Preheat your oven to the lowest possible setting.

2. Whisk the milk and the nonfat dry milk together in a soup pot and heat the liquid until it just begins to boil. Remove the pot from the burner and cool the milk until it registers 115 degrees, then stir in the yogurt.

3. Pour the milk-yogurt mixture into the sterilized jars, filling them to within inch of the top, and seal the jars with new lids. Put the filled jars back into the pot in which they were sterilized and put enough hot water around the jars to almost cover them. The water around the jars should be at 115 degrees. Put the pot with the jars into the warm oven; turn off the oven and close the door.

4. Check the temperature of the water every hour, and if necessary, add a little hot water to bring the temperature back up. After 6 hours, move the jars from the pot in the oven to the refrigerator and chill the yogurt for several hours or overnight. The jars of yogurt will keep in the refrigerator for 10 days.

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The river was so cold I came up gasping for air, barely able to reclaim my place among the living. Hours later, when I was settled into warm clothes and ready for a snack, I ate a cup of yogurt. Before, I didn't think I liked yogurt; I ate it only because there was nothing else. But that day, in the warm sunshine, yogurt tasted good, really good, and somehow I linked eating that cup of yogurt with surviving the plunge into the freezing river.

For a few years after that, I was a kind of yogurt aficionado. I ate it every morning. Sometimes I ate it at night. I learned to make my own yogurt. I spooned it onto granola and hot, spicy lentil soup. I stirred it into dips for fresh vegetables and put big dollops of it on top of hot apple crisp. I was hooked.

Then I transferred to another college, moved to Washington and went to work at a Mexican restaurant. I hardly gave yogurt a thought. I ate refried beans and cheese. Then one day I saw someone putting a spoonful of the stuff onto a bowl of black bean soup and it all came back to me — the plunge in the river, the yogurt snack, the technique for making my own. I went on another yogurt kick. I ate it plain with a drizzle of wildflower honey, and I used it instead of sour cream on top of my enchiladas. The cool tang of it made me happy. I was hooked all over again.

Over the years, I guess I got a little bored with yogurt. Often, I would see the familiar blue carton of my favorite brand in the fridge and reach for it, only to discover I'd left it too long and mold had invaded.

Then it surprised me again. This time it happened in Europe. Last summer I spent a few weeks bouncing between France and Spain and Switzerland, partly working, partly just being in Europe, and every morning, there was yogurt. The reunion began at a French country inn, where the yogurt I liked best came in little glass jars with gold foil seals. Every morning, I pulled back the seal and put on a spoonful of apricot or red currant jam. I resisted the croissants, scoffed at the pain au chocolat and ate my yogurt. I felt ready for anything. Bring on the foie gras at dinner! I had yogurt for breakfast!

At one place in France, a restaurant where I was allowed to spend a week in the kitchen, observing and helping out however I could, yogurt was served at every staff meal. But the chef used yogurt in the food he prepared for the menu, too. My first night there I had dinner in the dining room, just like a real customer. And one of the15 or 20 things I ate was a tiny espresso-cup-size serving dish filled with even layers of rice pudding, stewed apricot and frozen yogurt. Coming as it did after one of several savory dishes, this little treat delighted me as few other things have, mostly because of that spoonful of slightly sweet, slightly tangy yogurt that topped it off.

In Switzerland, the yogurt did not come in espresso-cup-size dishes or little glass jars. At least where we stayed, it came in a big glass bowl between the muesli and the fruit salad. We stayed in Zermott, a little town at the foot of the Matterhorn, a great, crooked, glacier-crusted mountain. The plain white yogurt was piled as high in its bowl as the Matterhorn was piled onto the landscape, and it was so cold it had slivers of ice in it. The breakfast board groaned under piles of air-dried meat and country cheese; five or six homemade breads were spread out. But I only had eyes for yogurt.

Never mind if I ate pounds of potatoes cooked in lard at lunch. Who knows how many pounds of cheese went into our various pots of fondue, and plates of that weird Swiss dish known as "Raclette," melted cheese with boiled yellow-fleshed potatoes and wrinkled little pickles? None of that mattered when I spooned a dollop of the housemade rhubarb and apricot jam on my bowl of yogurt. As far as I was concerned, all was well with the world.

Greg Atkinson, Canlis executive chef, is the author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Tracy Porter is a Seattle Times news artist.

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