There's something precious about the way mesta (homemade yogurt) is made. You slowly simmer milk, swaddle it in a blanket right before going to sleep, and then you wake up to the most perfect breakfast. But for all its preciousness, the process is not the least bit fussy. So if you've never fermented anything at home, yogurt is a nice first project. It doesn't take very long, it doesn't require any special equipment, it's very hard to mess up, and the results are so much more delicious than anything you can buy in a store. All you need is milk and a little bit of leftover yogurt, which we call the khumsah.
If you have a lot of friends or relatives who make their own yogurt, you should be able to track down some real khumsah, left over from the last batch of homemade yogurt. The khumsah gets passed on from friend to friend and generation to generation, so that it eventually becomes impossible to pinpoint where or when it started. But if you don't have a homemade yogurt fanatic friend, you can always start your first batch off with a scoop of store-bought yogurt. After you make the first batch, just be sure to set a little bit of yogurt aside to make more—you'll be on a roll and soon your friends will start showing up at your house, asking you if they can borrow a scoop.
If you've never tried plain homemade yogurt, you don't know what you've been missing. But there are also a lot of tasty ways to dress up this humble bowl. Try out some of these serving suggestions (crowd-sourced from my friends and family), whether you've got homemade or store-bought:
Rosewater, pistachio, and honey (pictured above)
Figs, dates, honey, and cinnamon
Slivered almonds and a dollop of jam or honey
Apple, pomegranate, and slivered almonds
Za'atar and extra virgin olive oil (above left)
Oregano, garlic powder, and extra virgin olive oil (above right, pictured with Cuban oregano)
Mint or dill, cucumber, garlic powder (a variety of jajik)
+ Add some pita chips or prakhe (stuffed grape leaves) to any savory option
Yield: 4 quarts, unstrained
Active time: 35 minutes
Total time: 8 1/2 to 24 hours
1 gallon whole milk
1/4 cup yogurt with live active cultures (also known as khumsah) *
- Heat the milk very carefully over medium-low heat so that it doesn't scorch or boil over. Stir it every few minutes and keep a very close eye on it.
- As soon as it starts to simmer, take it off the heat and pour it into the container you're going to store it in (either glass or ceramic). Or you can leave it in the same container you heated it in, as long as it's a non-reactive metal and you have avoided scorching the bottom.
- Let it cool down a bit, checking periodically to make sure the milk doesn't cool down too much. It should still feel warm, but should be cool enough that you can stick your finger in the milk without burning yourself. Once it's at this point, add the khumsah to a small bowl and combine it with 1/4 c of the warm milk.
- Add this mixture back into the container, mix it together, and cover it with a loose-fitting lid or plastic wrap.
- Wrap the whole thing in a blanket. This will keep it insulated so that it keeps some of the residual heat from the milk.
- Store the blanketed container in the oven and put a note on the control board so no one turns it on while your yogurt is inside.
- Let it ferment anywhere between 8 to 24 hours, depending on how sour you want it to be. It will become more sour as it ages. 12 hours is usually perfect.
- Once you're happy with the consistency, put it in the refrigerator to let it chill.
- Once it's chilled, put a couple of layers of undyed paper towels or clean tea towels (washed without dryer sheets, fabric softener, or fragrance) on top to soak up some of the whey. Discard after they absorb as much liquid as they'll hold.
- Enjoy the mesta as is, or hang it with cheesecloth to turn it into Greek yogurt (hung for about 4 hours) or labneh (hung for about 12 hours).
* The khumsah can be from a homemade batch of yogurt, or a scoop of store-bought yogurt.