Food as Health: Simple Yogurt Cream Cheese

In my household, food is not just love and the basic stuff of life, it's a tool in the box we draw from to keep my sculptor husband healthy through brain cancer, and three craniotimies in the past 17 months. We eat mostly local and organic foods grown and produced in a way that nurtures us and the landscape where we live. (The way we see it, our health and the health of our environment are closely linked.)

Our staple cheese is a soft, fresh, spreadable cheese we make ourselves from yogurt. I hadn't ever made cheese before reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle a couple of years ago. When I discovered this recipe for yogurt cream cheese, I knew it was for me: it doesn't require special ingredients, tools, or cooking, and it's almost laughably simple.

Best of all, it's delicious: a smooth, spreadable cheese like cream cheese, but much lower in fat and with a lovely yogurt tang. It's yummy with fresh herbs mixed in from the garden in summer, with pesto in winter (we freeze jars of summer pesto for winter consumption), with honey or jam... Or just plain.

Here's what you need to make yogurt cream cheese:
1 quart plain yogurt (use any fat content you prefer: non-fat yields the least cheese because there's more whey to drain off, whole-milk yogurt is creamiest)
one strainer
two pieces of triple-thick cheese cloth, about 12" wide by 22" long
two large rubber bands (I use the ones that come on bunches of broccoli)
a faucet to hang the cheese from
a pinch salt

Set the strainer in the sink and line it with the cheesecloth, overlapping the pieces in a cross-shape. Pour the yogurt into the center. Pull the edges together to form a bag for the yogurt. Wrap one rubber band around the "neck" of the bag, folding the neck over. Thread the other rubber band through that loop in the neck so that two ends are free. Suspend the bag from a faucet using the loop formed by the second rubber band.

Let the yogurt drain overnight (at least eight hours is best for a thick cheese). Remove the bag from the faucet, unwrap the cheesecloth, and place the soft lump of cheese in a small bowl or crock, and knead in salt with a spatula. (Kneading also evens out the texture.)

Yogurt cream cheese is wonderful by itself, and delicious with chopped fresh herbs mixed in, or savory spices like curry powder or ground chiles, sweet spices like cinnamon and ginger, or honey, jam, or marmalade. If you use local milk, you may notice subtly changing flavors over the seasons as the cows' diets vary. Enjoy experimenting with your own cheese!

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