Returning from Sicily to Philadelphia’s simmering pot of hot weather has thrown me into a jag of yogurt making. Thanks to Cheryl Sternman Rule’s recent book, Yogurt Culture, I’ve made batch after perfect batch — a feat, since I have tried yogurt recipes in the past with mixed results. Cheryl’s instructions are exacting. And her recipe (below) works well for whole milk or 2%. I like to start a batch in the morning, and by mid-afternoon it’s ready to slide into the fridge, good for a snack at sundown.
My Swiss grandmother used to greet us with a large blue salad bowl full of homemade yogurt when we visited her home in Cleveland, back when I was a kid. She’d set it out on her kitchen table (always covered in a thick plastic tablecloth to preserve the wood finish) along with homemade preserves and muesli, and we’d dish ourselves big helpings of yogurt and toppings. So cool, so refreshing after the long drive across the Midwest.
Later, as an exchange student in Munich, my host family liked to gather around their kitchen table on weekend afternoons for a quarkspeise — a dairy-centric ritual involving a buffet of berries, preserves, honey, muesli, and quark or yogurt.
As you can see, my yogurt affiliations run deep.
How I love pattering into my own kitchen now, knowing there is a big blue salad bowl full of homemade yogurt. Out comes the jam, the berries, the buckwheat honey and granola.
And I’ve been playing with other uses, thanks to Yogurt Culture. For a recent stoop party, I made Cheryl’s recipe for Cold Yogurt Soup with Cucumber, Herbs, and Rose Petals (page 144). Before that, I fell hard for Pomegranate Doogh (page 138), a yogurt soda that I maybe spiked with a little Creme de Cassis?
This week, Cheryl has a story in the food section of The Washington Post for yogurt cocktails — full disclosure: she included a yogurt cocktail from my recent book with André Darlington, The New Cocktail Hour.
We’ve bonded, you see, Cheryl and I. Over dairy. It happens, as you well know. When Cheryl and I spoke by phone recently — after discovering each other on Instagram (look for @sternmanrule)– she confessed that since she had written a yogurt book, it had taken over her life. She launched a website, called Team Yogurt, and now all she wants to do is profess the magic of probiotic dairy to everyone she meets.
I told her I understood completely.
This recipe is lightly adapted from Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food, by Cheryl Sternman Rule. Cheryl’s recipe makes a half-gallon of yogurt, but I prefer to make a smaller batch for our two-person household. Check out her book for loads more information on yogurt-making, including how to make Greek-style yogurt and Labneh (yogurt cheese).
- 4 cups milk (whole milk or 2%)
- 1 tablespoon yogurt (the starter)
Step 1: Heat the Milk to 180 degrees F. Rub an ice cube around the inside of a stainless steel pot or saucepan to prevent the milk from sticking to it as it heats. Then affix your candy thermometer to the side of the pot and add the milk. Warm the milk slowly over medium-high heat. This may take up to 20 minutes, so be patient and do some dishes as you wait. When the temperature reaches 180, turn the heat way down but maintain the temperature for 5 minutes (this will create naturally thicker yogurt). Remove the pot from the heat and remove any skin that has formed on top of the milk.
Step 2: Cool the milk to 115 degrees F. Pour the hot milk into a large bowl (I use a big ceramic salad bowl) and let the milk cool, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 115 degrees. This will take another 20 to 30 minutes.
Step 3: Add the starter culture. When the milk has reached 115 degrees, ladle about a cup of it into a mug and whisk a tablespoon of the yogurt starter into it. (This is called tempering.) Then, pour the tempered yogurt back into the large bowl of milk and cover it with a plate.
Step 4: Incubate. Your innocculated milk needs to be kept warm (between 100 and 112 degrees). Find a warm spot in your house, or use the “proofing” setting on your oven — which is what I do. Let the yogurt rest undisturbed for 6 to 12 hours. (I check it at hour six, and if it has set, I put it into the refrigerator. It should wobble a little. If it needs more time, wait another two hours and check it again.)
By now, you know that I am smitten with cheese travel. Of all the places I’ve visited, Sicily ranks #1 in my mind for having the most cheese-enthused citizens. (Sorry, Vermont.) The Sicilians I met during my two week cheese trek in June didn’t just love waxing poetic about their neighbor’s ricotta, they wanted to grab your hand and take you next door straightaway so you could eat it warm.
Even more impressive: locals know Sicily’s dozen or so traditional cheeses by heart and are eager to chat about their favorite styles, perfect pairings, and must-try regional dishes. Suffice it to say: Sicily is one big cheese party. I loved it, and I can’t wait to go back.
For those of you interested in traveling to Sicily in pursuit of delicious dairy, let me pass along highlights from our itinerary. Full credit for trip-planning goes to artist and curator Marianne Bernstein, who invited me to chronicle Sicily’s cheese culture as part of her volcanic-island-based project, Due South, and to Sicilian native and professional travel planner Karen La Rosa. Check out her site for loads more tips.
Castle Di Tusa
Our journey starts here, in Castle di Tusa, a tiny beach town not far from Palermo — a terrific spot for adjusting to island life (seafood, siestas) and exploring the northern part of the island by car. It’s also an easy town to explore on foot, full of winding corridors, lemon trees, and sultry sea air.
We stayed at The Tus’ Hotel for 4 nights. Think: gorgeous pool overlooking the ocean and clean, affordable rooms. Head to Ristorante Grotta Marina for freshly caught seafood, grilled vegetables, and plentiful pitchers of wine. Don’t miss the older, even quainter part of the city — a short but steep drive up the mountain — where you’ll find some of the island’s best ricotta at the local caseficio and one of Sicily’s best scenic views at The Belvedere, a bar stocked with Italian craft beers.
Day trips: Dart over to the tiny mountain town of Mirto to pick up the best picnic fare you’ll ever find at La Paisanella, a pristine meat and cheese shop that is renowned for its black boar sausage, clay-baked ricotta, and Provola di Nebrodie (the local mountain cheese). Owners Luisa and Agostino don’t speak English, but they happily offered us a glorious tasting of the cheeses in their case. At nearby shops, we stocked up on cherries, apricots, fresh bread for the road. The local pastry shop, La Cometa, has great gelato and fabulous butter cookies topped with jam and pistachios, which I munched while meandering through hillside olive trees, snapping photos of stray cats and ancient Byzantine steeples.
Near the charming town of Gangi in the Madonie Mountatins, there’s a rustic cooking school in a 14th century Benedictine abbey. It’s run by noted cookbook author Giovanna Tornabene, a kind and proud native who speaks English and supports a local shepherd who makes beautiful cacciocavallo (a gourd-shaped cheese). We stopped in for a delicious lunch and toured the grounds, which look like something from a Merchant Ivory film — there’s a courtyard full of antique roses, fruit trees, and flowering vines.
Giovanna’s seven small rescue dogs were sleeping in the sun, and a pair of sheep stood grazing in a corner next to a pair of crumbling pillars. Book a few nights at the inn, and ask Giovanna to teach you how to make traditional Sicilian dishes, like the wonderful ricotta, eggplant, and mint frittata she served us or the digestif she described made with bay leaves from her trees.
A bustling city known for its open-air food markets, Catania is full of creatives, crumbling splendor, and colorful graffiti. We loved staying at BAD, an inexpensive art hotel with a glorious rooftop terrace (ask for the top floor apartment; it has a kitchen). The market unraveled right outside the front door, and there were plenty of spooling market streets to explore. Cheese vendors are especially plentiful, and you can spend an entire morning wandering amid bins of snails, whole swordfish, garlic braids, and fresh peaches.
Breakfast on fresh blood-orange juice, lunch on wine and oysters, and then make yourself a fabulous market cheese board of Piacentinu (a sheep’s milk cheese laced with saffron and peppercorns), sun-dried tomatoes, and toasted pistachios.
If you want to splurge on a great dinner, head to Wine Bar and order a bottle of Etna Rosso and swordfish risotto with capers and smoked scamorza; Wine Bar also offers a terrific Sicilian cheese board with local honey. Also, be sure to visit the city’s oldest bar, which has a hidden grotto in the basement with a trickling stream that passes almost unnoticed by diners in fashionable shoes. To atone for so much goodness, tour the cathedral of Saint Agatha, with its marble and lava rock interior, in the morning before the tourists descend, then treat yourself to life-changing cannoli studded with pistachios at Prestipino Cafe on the piazza.
My favorite cheese city! Ragusa is a beach town, agrarian paradise, and dairy hub. Here, you’ll find one of Sicily’s most stunning cheese shops, Dipasquale’s, plus a traditional-cheese research center (CoRFiLaC) which offers a terrific tour and tasting of Sicilian cheeses paired with wine (well worth the 35 EU). We loved staying in a country inn outside the city, Casina di Grotta di Ferro, where host Massimo Brullo shared all of his cheese connections, including a visit to his cheesemaker neighbor who provided us with fresh ricotta every morning. The inn and its grounds are stunning, with a stone courtyard, a glistening pool, and a communal kitchen that includes a wood-fired oven.
Massimo, our host, spoke perfect English and plied us with espresso throughout the day, answering questions and making recommendations for unusual restaurants, including a buffalo farm within a few kilometers where we feasted on two kinds of buffalo cheese made on site, along with buffalo prosciutto. Plan a beach day, a day or two in town, and at least one day to simply relax under the magenta bougainvillea by the pool. It’s hard to imagine a more divine place on earth. For those who like wine in their gelato, make sure to hit Ragusa’s Gelato Divini for a spiked scoop. Nearby, the town of Modica is chocolate central. It’s a little sick.
For my final night, I dropped my bags at the Artemisia Palace, an affordable boutique hotel in the heart of the city and walked a few short blocks to the historic opera house (Teatro Massimo) to score last-minute tickets to the ballet. People-watching from a velvet-lined box seat in this opulent music hall was a highlight, so was a Sunday morning stroll to the Palermo cathedral, where I happened to catch a beautiful, incense-drenched mass. To eat: great street food, terrific pastries, granita, and gelato everywhere you look.
Sicily Travel Tips
- Look for cheap flights through Meridiana Airlines
- June is a great time to visit, right before the tourist season
- Festivals, religious and otherwise, abound in Sicily — check dates in advance
- Consider renting a car and staying in small towns along the coast — they’re manageable and full of friendly locals who will happily tell you about regional specialties.
Sicily Posts From This Series
If Sicily has a cheese capital, it must be Ragusa, a baroque town on the southeastern part of the island. Here, my cheese lover, you may experience a thousand diversions, from visiting the beautiful Dipasquale’s Casa del Formaggio (cheese shop) in the heart of town to booking a cheese tasting at CoRFiLaC, a research center devoted to traditional cheesemaking in Sicily.
Ragusa is home to Ragusano, one of the island’s best-known (and most complex) cheeses. I was thrilled that our small band of cheese trekkers got to witness the preparation of this ancient recipe on two separate occasions. Let me show you how these curious bricks — perhaps the original brick cheese? — comes together.
Here’s Giovanni Tumino, a cheesemaker at CoRFiLaC, demonstrating how he starts the process by cutting curds into thin strips, then stretching them.
That’s right, the process looks a whole lot like mozzarella making. In fact, Ragusano is a pasta filata, or “spun,” cheese.
Next, the cheeses are formed and pressed into a coffin-like contraption called a Mastredda, made from Douglas Fir trees (below). Once the shape of the cheese is established, the blocks are brined, then stamped and dated since Ragusano is a DOP cheese, meaning that its production is connected to its place of origin — much like Champagne.
Here’s Giuseppe Tumino, a third generation cheesemaker, pressing Ragusano at his farm, where he makes 2 to 3 blocks per day from the milk of his Bruna cows. His farm is just down the road from the country house were we stayed, a wonderful B&B called Casina di Grotta di Ferro (highly recommended).
Seeing this process made me curious to know if any artisan makers in the States are making a cheese inspired by Ragusano. It’s a raw cow’s milk cheese made with traditional rennet from a lamb or kid.
Once brined, the cheeses are hung in pairs from rope, then slung over wooden supports to cave-age. For a prolonged aging time of 8 or 9 months, Ragusano is rubbed with olive oil. It can also be smoked.
Here’s affineur Angelo Dipasquale who handles the aging of Ragusano in has natural cave on the outskirts of Ragusa. About 100 families make Ragusano in small batches, and Angelo collects the best ones in his white van and ferries them back to his stone nursery.
I’ve never seen any place like Angelo’s cave. I hope to write a larger magazine story on this experience, so I’m just sharing a couple images here.
When you taste Ragusano, the experience calls to mind buttered sweet corn. I first encountered it in Philadelphia at my local shop, Di Bruno Bros., a few years ago. We included it in the shop’s cheese guide, The Di Bruno Bros. House of Cheese, and dubbed it “a cowboy of the Italian cheese world — big, sinewy, and salty.” The mongers at Di Bruno Bros. tell me that they still carry Ragusano from time to time, mostly around the holidays — which means I’ll just have to plan a second trip to Sicily to get my fix in the summers.
About This Series: This is Part V in a series of posts about a Sicilian Cheese Adventure with artist/curator Marianne Bernstein, who is working on a multi-artist project based called Due South. I got invited to join her when she got hooked on Sicilian ricotta and decided that she needed a cheese expert/writer to join her. “Okay,” said I.
Your Sicilian Cheese Itinerary: Up next! Want to recreate some of this journey yourself? My next post will include highlights from our trip with details about cheese tastings, specialty food stores, restaurants, and favorite accommodations. Many of these recommendations came from Karen La Rosa, a native of Sicily who now lives in New York City and offers tours and travel planning for anyone interested in visiting her homeland.
For the cheese-curious traveler in Sicily (or Italy, for that matter), there are several useful books to read in advance: Slow Food’s Italian Cheese and Italy Dish by Dish. Before I left the States, I scoured them both and spent an evening at my kitchen table making a list in my journal of all the divine bites I hoped to taste: warm ricotta, the wine-flame flavored ice creams of Ragusa, honey from Mount Etna, brioche con gelato.
Of course, my real dream was to eat all of the cheeses of the island (there are about 12, mostly sheep’s milk, many of them produced for centuries). At a restaurant called Wine Bar Razmataz in the buzzy city of Catania, that dream came true.
A board of Sicilian cheeses arrived at the table on the night of a birthday dinner for Due South curator (and instigator behind this trip) Marianne Bernstein. Glory be! There were 5 cheeses, accompanied by toasted local pistachios and honey from the bees of Mount Etna (I imagined them circling the mouth of the volcano as I drizzled honey across each morsel).
This post, produced in collaboration with artist/photographer David Scott Kessler, is a tribute to that warm, starry, dairy-laden night. Let me paint the scene: the outdoor table was lit with candles, and gathered around it were a multitude of artists from Philadelphia and Sicily. The night began with a bottle of Etna Rosso (a nose to the glass yielded the faint smell of ash and raspberries) and ended with cheesecake and fireworks, shot from behind the crumbling walls of a castle.
One of those meals to remember?
And now, the cheeses of Sicily…not all, to be sure, but a beautiful few for a reverential board that represents the island.
On the Board: 5 Traditional Sicilian Cheeses
From the province of Enna, an indigenous sheep’s milk cheese swirled with threads of local saffron and studded with peppercorns. Sweet, aromatic, mild, available in the U.S.
2. Tuma Persa
Made by a single maker, Salvatore Passalaqua, this raw cow’s milk cheese is firm and spicy, thanks to a rub of black pepper and olive oil on the rind. Available in the U.S. at Di Bruno Bros.
A very unusual raw-milk sheep cheese that is “spun” (like mozzarella). Sweet and mild, with a short shelf life.
Made from the milk of the rare spiral-horned Girgentana goat, native to Sicily and near extinction, this fresh cheese is wrapped in fig leaves. Stunning.
An ancient cheese made from raw sheep’s milk, thought to be the first cheese in all of Europe, according to Slow Food.
If you go: Wine Bar Razmataz was the best restaurant on my journey. The vibe is relaxed, the wine list is excellent, and the kitchen highlights regional cuisine. My favorite dish was the risotto with swordfish, capers, and smoked scamorza cheese.
Recreate this board: Ask your local cheesemonger about these selections or similar selections. In Philadelphia, Di Bruno Bros. carries Piacentinu and Tuma Persa. You may find others at Eataly in New York. If not, you just may have to plan a trip to Sicily. Itinerary coming soon!
Posts in this Series: This is the 4th in a series of posts about the cheeses of Sicily. I traveled around the island this summer to chronicle its cheeses as part of an ongoing project curated by Marianne Bernstein, called Due South.
Before my Sicilian cheese trek began, I saw images of “Ricotta Infornata” — sheep’s milk ricotta pressed into forms and baked to a dark chocolate-brown color. Naturally, I was curious to find a source.
My co-conspirators, Marriane and Cindi, helped me suss out the small town of Mirto in the Nebrodie Mountains which is home to a renowned cheese and meat shop, La Pasianella. Here, Luisa and Agostino Sebastiano continue their family tradition of making traditional cheeses and wild boar salami. Any food fiend who travels to Sicily should plan a stop. (Pack a cutting board, you’ll want to picnic.)
La Paisanella is pristine, its entrance flanked by award certificates. When we arrived, Luisa treated us to a tasting of all the cheeses in her case, including the cheese I’d been looking for: Ricotta Infornata.
She also showed us the oven where the ricotta is baked “for two to three hours.” The long baking time yields a delicacy that tastes caramelized, like flan. Delicious. I can imagine eating slices of it for dessert with coffee liqueur.
If you stop through Mirto, here are 3 things not to miss:
– House-cured black boar sausage from the family’s black pigs (Suino Nero)
– Nebrodi Provola (the local mountain cheese, which has been inducted into the Slow Food Presidium)
– Ricotta Infornata (slow-baked ricotta, pictured below)
If You Visit: Mirto is an exquisite small town in the Nebrodie Mountains. You won’t find any tourists, just stray cats, Byzantine ruins, incredible mountain vistas, and friendly locals hanging out at La Cometa, the local pastry shop, where the old men like to watch soccer and nibble butter cookies. Try the gelato and pick up some baked goods for the road.
Note: This post is Part 3 of a Sicilian cheese trek I am undertaking as part of Due South, a Philadelphia-based arts collaborative.