Ginger Bugs & Plum Blossoms

I originally posted this over on the Spruce Tips instagram, but thought I’d repost it here for folks who have yet to join the ol’ Spruce Tips train. 

We’ve been really into homemade sodas lately: lovage syrup became homemade Cel-Ray, bits of leftover pineapple became pineapple ginger soda, and we just turned the lingering plum blossoms from the backyard into a heady, perfumed nectar to be  transformed into a sophisticated soda using a ginger bug.

You’ll make the ginger bug with a half cup sugar and a half cup water (warm, not hot) + a small knob of ginger, grated. Mix well and leave on the counter, loosely covered, for one or two days, stirring a couple times a day. Feed with a spoonful of sugar and a spoonful of grated ginger each day. After a couple of days, you should see bubbles. If not, make sure the mixture is not too cold, and try for another day or so. Once you start to see some bubblin’ action, strain a quarter cup to use for your soda. (PS: You can find lots more info on ginger bugs at Nourished Kitchen.)

Meanwhile, make a simple syrup (a cup of sugar, a cup of water). Simmer just until sugar is dissolved, stirring. Turn off heat, add about a cup of plum blossoms, and cover. Strain off about a half cup of syrup (save the rest for cocktails or another batch of soda!), and combine with cool water (about a quart.) When mixed well, add the strained quarter cup of ginger bug, and funnel the whole mixture into a fliptop glass bottle. (We use the bottles leftover from Trader Joe’s Ginger Brew because I am not that into Grolsch, sorry.) Leave on the counter for a day or two, then pop in the fridge to chill before opening. (Make sure to chill, because you want to slow the fermentation and reduce the pressure in the bottle before opening because, ya know, safety.)

You can try just fermenting for a day, chilling, and then tasting. If it’s too sweet or not fizzy enough, leave out at room temp another day, then chill. Enjoy!

PS: If plum blossoms aren’t your thing, you can use any other infused simple syrup in the quantities listed here, or a fruit juice, just subbing slightly more fruit juice and less water than the syrup:water ratio listed above.


How to survive your first week at home alone with two children (or one. or three. or twelve.)


  • 1 c sugar
  • 1/2 c basil leaves, rinsed
  • 2 tsp ground sumac or 1/4 sumac berries
  • 1/2 c blueberries (or to taste)
  • 1/2 tsp citric acid or juice of one lemon
  • 1 c water

Combine sugar, basil, sumac, and berries in a small saucepan. Muddle until basil is fragrant but not mushed to hell.  Add water and citric acid or lemon juice. Heat over medium heat, stirring well to combine. Boil until sugar has dissolved. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into jars and cool.

Reserve until the witching hour.

Combine, in a Collins glass or sippy cup:

  • 1 oz syrup
  • 4 oz dry white wine, chilled
  • 4 oz seltzer, chilled
  • Blueberries left over from toddler’s snack (1 oz)

Do not share. Cheers.

Finally, Fermentation: Making Yogurt at Home

When I was reworking the template for this site, trying to make it a little more blog-y and a little less Angelfire/Geocities, I added the subtitle “Family // Fermentation // Faith” mostly because those are the things I like to spend my time thinking about and doing, and also alliteration. But while I’ve written a lot about family and a little about faith, I haven’t touched on fermentation, which is completely nuts because HAVE YOU MET ME?

At one point a couple weeks ago, we had a sourdough starter, lacto-fermented red cabbage kraut, yogurt, goat cheese, and plum vinegar all fermenting in the kitchen, plus all manner of pickles hogging counter space, a whole heap of homebrew supplies occupying the top of the fridge, not to mention the fermented and fermentables we buy from other people: sour beers and pet-nat wines and raw milk cheese and shrubs and ciders and miso and and and and. We’re not even the most ferment-obsessed people we know.

I’m actually not particularly skilled at the “set it and forget it” variety of fermentation–chop some cabbage, toss with salt, weigh down, and boom! kraut! or mix up some flour and water and leave in a corner of your kitchen, feeding with more flour and water, and boom! starter!– mostly because those are the exact two steps I am able to do: 1) Set it; and 2) Forget it; with primary emphasis on the second step, and zero attention paid to the unwritten third step which is 3) Unforget it, because you actually need to check on it, oh whoops, now your starter is covered in some crap called hooch and your kraut wasn’t submerged enough and has become a giant slime pile that smells like the annual convention of all farts ever to have existed in the world.

Somehow, though, the 30-minute-squeeze-into-naptime-after-you-snarf-a-PBJ-and-maybe-take-a-shower-jk-about-that-shower project tends to typically work out, such that I’ve been able to consistently make yogurt and occasionally make cheese for us. Yogurt is a couple of ingredients, just a few steps, and lots of fun to make (I mean, for people like me who delight at milk being turned into other things, which I assume you are, too, if we’re friends.)

Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

  • Half-gallon of milk, not ultra-pasteurized
  • Half-cup of your favorite plain yogurt
  • Glass jars for storing yogurt
  • Double boiler or a metal bowl that can fit snugly atop a pot
  • Kitchen thermometer
  • Some kitchen towels or cloth napkins or those receiving blankets you brought home from the hospital because, seriously, what else are you using them for?
  • A warm spot (between 90°F and 110°F)– a gas oven with a pilot light works great, or you can start the preheating cycle on an electric oven at the lowest temp for a couple of minutes, turn it off, and shut the door. Other people have used crock pots, coolers, heating pads, lots of towels, etc., for incubating yogurt– just don’t start a fire or anything, and make sure your temp is around 100°F so that the cultures can incubate and thicken within a relatively safe time frame. 

A few notes:

There are only two ingredients in yogurt, so try to make them the best you can! Homemade yogurt is so much less expensive than store-bought that you can afford to go schmancy on the milk. Also, full fat, for the love of God. This is not 1985.

Unstrained, the yield is pretty close to 1:1 milk to yogurt, meaning that a half-gallon of milk will yield close to half-gallon of yogurt.  You can easily cut the recipe in half, if you don’t go through yogurt like I do, which is akin to the yogurt intake of a professional yogurt eating team in spring training.

You can use any plain yogurt with live cultures to culture your yogurt, whether it’s strained/Greek or not, but I like to choose something I like the flavor and texture of unstrained, because it’s a more clear indication of how your own yogurt will turn out unstrained.

Okay, on with the show!


Make sure everything you’re using– jars, lids, pot, bowl, double boiler, any spoons or spatulas, thermometer probe, etc– are all cleaned and sterilized.  Since you’re trying to grow microbes in your yogurt, you want to get rid of anything extraneous–your kitchen has plenty of microbes that can cause wonky stuff in your finished yogurt, but those things are easily controlled with a good wash and sanitizing routine. I wash with hot and soapy water, and then sterilize either in boiling water or according to the package instructions on something like Star San Sanitizer, which you can use if you homebrew, too.

If you go with cream-top or unhomogenized milk, you can either leave the hunk o’cream in the milk as you warm it, or scoop it out and use it in your coffee or spread it on bread or something equally delicious, which is what I usually do.  Sometimes that extra butterfat doesn’t totally integrate into the yogurt once it’s chilled, and leaves little unincorporated globs of fat on the top of the yogurt.  Not the worst thing in the world, but I prefer to use it elsewhere.


Fill the bottom of a double boiler or a stockpot with hot water (no need to go with cold from the tap, since you’re just using the water to heat) and place over high heat. Fill the top of the double boiler or the metal bowl atop your pot with milk.


Heat the milk to between 180°F and 195°F.  You’re essentially re-pasteurizing the milk (or pasteurizing it for the first time, if you’re starting with raw), not because you hate raw milk and its proponents, but because you’re going to introduce live cultures and leave them at a temperature at which you want them to get comfy and grow– so you only want the cultures you’re introducing to grow, not any random hangers-on.  This step creates a blank canvas for your yogurt.  It also serves to denature some of the proteins in the milk (similar to the way that heat helps to denature proteins in whey when making ricotta), which will help the yogurt coagulate later.


Remove the top of the double boiler or the bowl containing your milk and set to cool on a trivet or heat-safe surface.  If you’d like to speed up the cooling process, you can place the bowl of milk in a container of cool water and stir gently.

Cool the milk to between 100°F and 115°F and gently stir in your yogurt. Stir up and down, back and forth, and around, so that the yogurt is evenly distributed throughout the milk. Pour the milk and yogurt mixture into your jars, and place the lids on top. Wrap with kitchen towels/cloth napkins/receiving blankets/cloth diapers (jk, kind of), and place in your oven with pilot light or other warm place. We keep a thermometer in our oven so that I can tell what temp it is, which I highly recommend.


I like to stick the jars on a sheet pan so that they don’t wobble too much when pulling the rack in and out of the oven.

Leave the jars in the oven for six to eight hours.  If I’m making yogurt during the day, I’ll check it after six hours to see if some whey has started to separate, if it’s thickened, and if it’s as tart as I’d like, and if not, I’ll let it keep culturing for another couple hours.  If I’m letting it culture overnight, though, I’ll just put it in the oven before bed, and check it when I’m up (assuming that’s a full eight hours and Winnie didn’t wake up at 4:30 am again.)  When you check the texture, keep in mind that it will continue to thicken once cooled in the fridge.

During this incubation period, the second transformation (following the transformation through heat that we initiated earlier) is taking place: the live cultures in the scoop of yogurt you added are eating the lactose in the milk, and converting the lactose to lactic acid.  Then, the lactic acid is changing the structure of the proteins in the milk, breaking them apart and reforming them, thickening the milk into yogurt. It’s the same sort of thing that happens in creme fraiche, and it’s one of the beginning steps of cheesemaking, too.

I’ve recommended six to eight hours because that’s what’s worked for me, but you could experiment with shorter or longer culturing times, as well– keeping in mind that longer times may carry a small food safety risk, since you’re keeping a high-moisture product in the temperature “danger zone” for a longer period of time, though acid production would mitigate the risk on some level.  Anyway, you do you, and your yogurt, too.


When your yogurt is done, you’ll notice a little bit of yellow-ish, clear whey starting to separate.  You can either pour this off, strain it out (I like a fine mesh strainer as opposed to butter muslin or cheesecloth– easier to clean), or stir it in.  Your yogurt, your call.

Homemade yogurt with Blenheim apricots, dried wild Maine blueberries, and a drizzle of raw honey


Make sure to scoop out a smidge while it’s still warm– it’s one of the singular delights of making your own yogurt at home.

Check out these resources for other methods and more info:

Homemade Yogurt | David Lebovitz 

The Science of Great Yogurt | Brod & Taylor

Interview with Sandor Katz | The Splendid Table

Fermenting Yogurt at Home | National Center for Home Food Preservation

Happy yogurting!

What We Ate: Christmas Eve Edition

I’m working on recording our holiday celebrations— what we ate, what we carried over from years past, and what we started anew— so that we can refer back in future years and see how our celebratory canon has grown and changed.  For both Mike and me, food is our rhythm, what centers us, so we’ll start there— with what we ate on the eve of our celebration of the Christmas season.

Growing up, we nearly always spent Christmas Eve at my maternal grandparents’ house.  My grandmother would make a big pot of something or other, we put on Christmas carols and light the fire, and look at all of the ornaments that predated our births.  There were always sugar plums, hunks of peppermint bark, and Poppie’s chocolate-dipped, chunky peanut butter filled Ritz cracker sandwiches.  If I was lucky, I’d been there the day before, setting up the double boiler and dipping those peanut butter smeared crackers into the melted chocolate, with the bits and bobs of cooled chocolate drizzle peeled from wax paper as my reward.

We rotated what was in the aforementioned dinner pot— sometimes a stew with chicken and green chili, sometimes posole, and sometimes, most memorably for me, pashofa, a Choctaw stew of hominy and pork.

Traditional preparation of pashofa over an open fire is incredible to me.  Ours was never so traditional, using canned or dried hominy and the stovetop rather than a fire, but it was still warming and filing. One of these days, I’ll learn to prepare hominy myself.  This recipe is what I’ve used to re-create my grandmother’s.


  • 2 lbs pork (something bone-in— I like ribs, but you could use ham hock or bone-in loin)
  • 1 lb dried white pearl hominy, rinsed and soaked overnight
  • Water
  • Oil
  • Salt to taste

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large dutch oven or stockpot.  When hot, brown the outside of pork enough to make your kitchen smell really, really good. Remove from heat, add hominy and enough water to cover by a couple inches (you’ll read a lot of recipes that say you should bring the water to a boil before adding hominy, but I’ve never noticed a difference). Bring water to a boil, reduce heat to low, and continue cooking for two or three hours. Pashofa is done when hominy is tender and broth tastes meaty.  If you find the flavor is lacking after a few hours, turn up the heat and continue cooking without a lid to concentrate the liquid.  Salt to taste.  We always served with hot sauce, raw onion, limes, and/or fresh cilantro. 




Before moving to New York, I’d never heard of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, and even still, its mysteries are still relegated to the Instagram feeds of friends. We’ve no plans to convert to Italian-American Catholic traditions anytime soon, but I was struck with a little holiday inspiration on a very, very tired shopping trip a few days before Christmas Eve.

Mike was going to be working late on Christmas Eve, and I had plans to be out of the house running around with last minute errands and serving at our parish’s family Christmas Eve service.  A big, homecooked meal wasn’t in the cards.  While we were stocking up for Christmas dinner (more on that to come later), Winnie lost it.  She was d-o-n-e with being out of the house, with being in the cart, with being held, with all of it.  While Mike stood in the checkout line, I walked the aisles with Winnie, pointing out the kitties on the pet food, the cows and goats on milk cartons, and suggesting we smell each bag of coffee beans, you know, for fun.  We meandered down the aisle containing canned fish, I remembered that we were probably low on them (we go through sort of a ridiculous amount of what Mike and I have affectionately deemed the “tiny fishes”) and I started browsing to see what looked good.  Dang, I thought, I kind of want a lot of these.  Hey! I thought again (I was doing a lot of thinking), maybe I want SEVEN of these! SEVEN TINNED FISHES?  You don’t say.

So here’s what we had.  These aren’t recipes so much as suggestions/ingredient lists.

Seven Tinned Fishes

Fishes, tinned.
Fishes, tinned.

Kippered herring

  • tossed with toasted pecans, chopped parsley, hot Calabrian peppers and golden raisins, with a splash of Bragg’s apple cider vinegar

Bonito del Norte tuna

  • combined with cara cara orange supremes, diced Cortland apples, and ruby red sauerkraut (any kimchi or lacto-fermented veggie would work)

Sardines in oil

  • pureed with sherry, a healthy dash of Colman’s mustard powder, and capers

Portuguese sardines with tomato

  • tossed with finely chopped olives (we used a variety), diced avocado, and a squeeze of lime

Anchovy filets

  • served with butter, cornichons, and bread

Smoked sprat deviled eggs

  • Boil eggs, mash yolks with mayo and prepared mustard in a 4:2:1 ratio. Add one sprat for every two eggs, continue to mash until sprats all but disappear. Fill egg whites with mixture and sprinkle generously with sweet Hungarian paprika. 

Herring with herbs

The miracle of the loaves and the fishes started to make so much more sense after this meal— I think we ate those gussied up tinned fishes for another ten days, and still didn’t make a dent in them.

Fishes, de-tinned.
Fishes, de-tinned.

For Christmas Day, Mike and Winnie cooked up a breakfast of yeasted waffles and smoked salmon tart and a dinner of cocoa and coffee rubbed beef tenderloin, Yorkshire pudding, Christmas shrimp (some day I’ll write down the recipe), and roasted Brussels sprouts.