How to Make Chef Michael Psilakis’ Mother’s Homemade Greek Yogurt

Make this yogurt from scratch, people: It’s Eat Drink Local Week!

Today on our weekly NY1 segment–you can watch it online here–chef Michael Psilakis tell us about the dish “that really brings me back home.” That would be Greek yogurt, traditionally thicker than other yogurts because the whey is strained off and often more complexly flavored, as it’s usually made with a mix of milks.

(All yogurts are one of our Eat Drink Local Ingredients of the Week, by the way.) The chef at Kefi on the Upper West Side and the new MP Taverna in Roslyn grew up in in a Greek family on Long Island and has been making homemade Greek yogurt (recipe at bottom) with his mother since he was five or six years old, he says, though it was “just to kind of get me out of her feet,” he jokes.

As he recalls: “There were four of us, and I was the oldest so she would pick me up and put me on the counter and she would have me help her making different things. One of the things I really remember us making together was yogurt. Because we used to have it as a snack a lot, and she would put it in these tiny plastic Dixie cups and throw cups of little bits of fruits and stuff like that, and we would have our kid yogurt and then she would make the adult yogurt. So it was just a lot of fun, it would bring us together in the kitchen.”

To make homemade yogurt, you use the living cultures found in yogurt itself to start a new batch. When milk is warmed, the bacteria go to work breaking down the lactose in the milk, and a few hours later the milk is on its way to becoming yogurt, kind of the same way yeast cultures feast on natural sugars to make bread rise. In fact in his house, says Psilakis, yogurt-making was like “bakeries in Brooklyn.” Those shops typically save an old piece of dough to use as a “starter” for the next batch, and his mother always saved a bit of the last batch of yogurt to make the new.

“Whenever I think about food and memories,” he adds of that weekly tradition, “I think about using food as a vehicle to create these memories. And this is something really simple that you can do at home with your children if you want to start developing those types of memories.”

At home, Psilakis now teaches his own son how to memories via the literally five-step yogurt recipe below–as well as his mother’s meatballs. And as you’ll see in the NY1 clip, at MP Taverna he also makes his own adult version of those Dixie cups: For dessert, he tops the stuff with salted and toasted hemp, pumpkin and sunflower seeds–salt adds a complexity to the dish, says Psilakis–a Crete thyme-blossom honey and, this time of year, fresh berries and cherries, followed soon by peaches and stone fruits. (For brunch, we must mention, he serves an ultra-creamy Greek yogurt made from goat, milk and sheep’s milk with bagels, house-made gravlax with dill that speaks to Greek flavors and Cara Cara orange segments that’ve been marinated in honey and thyme.)

In fact, back when he opened Anthos, says Psilakis, his yogurt usually surprised patrons used to Yoplait. By the way, if you’re tempted to just eat the yogurt below without straining it first, we urge you to listen to Psilakis: “I think the thing that makes Greek yogurt really super unique–and this is what I grew up eating–is that we strain it. And that second step really is very important, not only because of the texture, but also because you end up getting a much more intense flavor profile. As any cook knows,” he adds, “when you take liquid and reduce it, you take something that has this much flavor and you concentrate it all the way down to something that has this much flavor. So it’s the same thing here with yogurt. We’re gonna take out all the excess liquid and we’re just gonna leave ourselves with what we want, which is just simple, plain, really delicious yogurt.”

But yogurt’s flavor profile really lends itself to many more things than eating it plain, as wonderful as that is.”Even in restaurants you see a lot of chefs really moving towards using yogurt as an emulsifier, thickening sauces,” says the chef: “It’s super-healthy but it has a lot more flavor potential than butter does.”

For example, he adds, “I made a great simple soup, I just took some fresh English peas I got down at the market, blanched them off until they were somewhat soft, shocked them, threw them in a blender, a little bit of yogurt, a little bit of mint, whipped it up … It’s just simple, clean flavors, and that’s what defines Greek food.”

(Though you don’t waste the whey. In Crete, says Psilakis, they turn it into trahana–which is made by cooking the whey with flour and drying the results into an incredibly tasty product that’s kind of like tangy, tart couscous which we urge you to buy if you’re ever in a Greek supermarket–but we suggest cheese-making part two: Make ricotta.)

And if you’re still not convinced to spend two days on what you can buy–though your active time consists of about 15 minutes of pot-watching and stirring yogurt into milk–consider what cooking from scratch can bring to the table beyond the food, especially if you share your creamy masterpiece with others.  “You can go out and buy yogurt you know,” says Psilakis, …”I think the difference between buying something and making something is the the fact that you have the opportunity to give and I think that’s what defines cooks more than anything else… Andre Soltner is a great French chef who’s been here in New York City for so many years and the preface of his cookbook said ‘all great chefs are gift givers by nature’ and I think more than anything else that’s what defines me and many chefs is that we love to create. But I think the act of taking what we’ve created and giving it to someone also is really what fuels the fire, so if you have the time and you take the time to make something I think you’ll be able to experience that gift.”

Note that since it’s also Eat Drink Local Week, if you make homemade yogurt between now and June 30, you can enter yourself in the Eat Drink Local Challenge to win a gift for yourself. Like bacterial cultures, it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Michael Psilakis’ (and his Mother’s) Homemade Yogurt

Here’s how Psilakis makes his homemade Greek yogurt. Note that growing up he used to make yogurt from cow’s milk only–“unless we’d been hunting Upstate,” he says, and stopped for goat’s milk–Psilakis now makes his own yogurt from a mix of good-quality whole milk and prefers the goat’s milk from Coach Farms upstate, who runs a farm stand at Union Square and sells their milk and goat’s milk yogurt to several supermarkets. Trader Joe’s also stocks goat’s milk. In reality, you can use any type or mix of milks you like. We recommend whole milk from a local producer.

You will need: a clean stainless steel pot, an instant-read thermometer, milk, fresh yogurt, a clean kitchen towel, cheesecloth, a colander, a stainless steel bowl and an oven you won’t need to turn on for at least 8 hours.

1. Over medium-high fire, bring a gallon of milk in a pot to a very slow boil. (This is to kill any other bacteria that might interfere with yogurt-making.) You should see a skin forming on the top of the pot. Don’t disturb it! Some recipes say to stir to prevent it from forming, or to remove it, it but that skin protects your yogurt-to-be from the elements, says Psilakis, and more importantly, it’s the way his mother always made it. His Greek yogurt tastes pretty good, so we’re thinking 5,000 years of culture can’t be wrong.

2. As soon as the milk reaches a low boil, turn off the heat, and let the temperature reduce to 110 degrees F.  Meanwhile, take a big spoonful of very fresh, good-quality yogurt and mix it with a little fresh milk so that it’ll be easily pourable. You want the yogurt to have several kinds of living, good bacteria called cultures, which will go to work to turn your warm milk into yogurt. Dannon plain does, as does any yogurt you buy at the farmers’ market will too. It should be fresh so you know your cultures will be lively.

3. Poke a small hole in the skin that’s formed on the top of the pot. (“That’s how my mother did it,” says Psilakis, and again, 5,000 years of Greek culture can’t be wrong.) Gently pour in your yogurt/milk mixture.

4. Cover the pot with a tea towel and place in an oven that isn’t on. The idea here is that ovens are insulated, and you want to keep the pot at a steady 105 to 110 degrees F. Some cooks let it sit for 8 hours, other for 24: The longer is sits the tangier the yogurt gets.  Pskilakis lets it sit overnight and takes it out in the morning.

5. Take the pot out of the oven. (If it didn’t thicken after 8 hours or smells or looks off, abandon the project and start again.) Remove the skin from the top of the pot, place the yogurt in cheesecloth set into a colander set over a bowl, and let the whey drain until the yogurt is thick and creamy. Refrigerate and enjoy.

 

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Rachel Wharton is the former deputy editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She won a 2010 James Beard food journalism award, holds a master’s degree in Food Studies from New York University, and has more than 15 years of experience as a writer, editor and reporter. A North Carolina native and a former features food reporter for the New York Daily News, she edited the Edible Brooklyn cookbook and was the co-author of both Handheld Pies and DiPalo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy. Her work also appears in publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Saveur.