“She likes the top of matzoun and the bottom of pilaf,” is an Armenian expression which means ‘she loves everything good.’ I was lucky enough to enjoy a lot of ‘everything good,’ this past Sunday in a hands-on Armenian cooking class fundraiser for SOAR (Society for Orphaned Armenian Relief). All the money will go directly to purchase greatly needed supplies for orphans living in orphanages in Armenia. Hearing the ‘yums’ and ‘ahhs’ echoing during the 2.5 hour class, I know that everyone attending had a delicious time.
The cooking class was held at Metropolitan Market. Lesa Sullivan, who taught the Armenian cooking class I attended at PCC Natural Markets, was the chef. She also generously donated her services at a pittance. This cause is near and dear to her heart as well since Lesa’s husband is of Armenian descent. Lesa was also very close to an Armenian family during her younger years growing up in Salt Lake City, Utah.
- S’rj: spiced Armenian coffee
- Sarma: rolled and stuffed grape leaves
- Lentil soup
- Matzoun: Armenian yogurt
- Armenian Pilaf: pasta, rice, and chopped apricots
- Bourma: sweetly spiced rolled phyllo dough dessert
Nineteen participants rolled up their sleeves and then got down to business rolling Sarma and Bourma, and stirring lentils while sipping S’rj and munching on snacks of lavash, Armenian flatbread, and Soujuk, Armenian sausage. I saw a room full of smiles, heard a constant stream of laughter and smelled the intoxicating fragrances of Armenian cuisine.
When the class ended, and after we cleaned up, Lesa gave me a special treat: two pint-jars of Matzoun. Matzoun, Armenian yogurt, is sour firm and thick. I am a yogurt aficionado and Armenian yogurt, in my somewhat biased opinion, is the crème de la creme. When I was visiting Yerevan, Armenia this past September, I got to eat some of the best darn yogurt I’ve ever had. Yogurt for breakfast with sliced fruit. Yogurt served as a ‘side’ to drizzle on top of dolma and sarma rolls. A refreshing minted yogurt, called Tahn, was chilled with ice and water and offered as a drink to pair cool down the heat of spicy Lamajoun (Armenian pizza).
One interesting thing about yogurt is that it takes yogurt to make yogurt. That’s not so much of a problem today, when plain yogurt purchased from the supermarket provides the necessary bacterial starter. But that wasn’t always the case.
Being an organic substance, getting the first yogurt starters into the United States in the 19th century was no easy task. There was absolutely no way for the immigrants to simply bring their needed starter through American customs. But American customs agents greatly underestimated Armenian ingenuity.
The essential ingredient for turning milk into yogurt is a complex set of bacteria that basically takes over the medium (milk) and transforms it. The bacteria can live for a period of time under less than ideal circumstances. Knowing this bit of information is essential. Savvy Armenian émigrés would dip some fresh white handkerchiefs into a mixture of water and yogurt before they sailed for America. The handkerchiefs were then line dried and neatly folded into their luggage. Once they were safely through customs and settled into their new homes, they would simply soak the linen in some warm milk, reactivating the culture, and make their yogurt!
I could hardly contain my excitement as Lesa nestled the pint jars of yogurt into a small carry-out container, wrapping a dish towel tightly around the twin treasures to prevent my precious cargo from too much jostling. They sat and “cured” on my counter at home for twelve hours and are now chillin’ for a few days in the fridge. I can’t wait to dive in and enjoy my homemade Matzoun.
All in all, it was a wonderful way to while away the afternoon. The class, the cuisine, the companionship, and the cause: it all made my heart soar.
Matzoun (Yield 3-1/2 cups yogurt)
- 3 cups organic heavy cream or half and half
- 1 package yogurt starter or 3 tablespoons cultured yogurt
Prepare your yogurt maker according to manufacturer’s instructions or have ready a small insulated cooler, warm, damp towels and glass jars. Wrap the jar in the warm towels while preparing the yogurt. Heat cream in a saucepan until a thermometer reaches 180 degrees Fahrenheit. Remove from heat and whisk in the starter or yogurt. Fill your yogurt making container according to the manufacturer’s instructions or fill the glass jar with the cream (or half and half). Wrap the warm towels around the glass jar and tuck them into the insulated cooler (if the towels have cooled, you can toss them in the microwave or your dryer to gently rewarm them). Close the cooler and gently place it in an out of the way place that’s a tad warm (like the top of the fridge) for 8-12 hours. Test for desired thickness; if it’s not to your liking you can let it go another 8-12 hours. Cover and refrigerate. Yogurt will stay good for up to a month and will continue to sour as it ages. When you are ready to make your next batch of Matzoun, simply take 3 tablespoons of your remaining Matzoun for a ‘starter’ and begin again.
Want to read about more tantalizing treats? Check out Wanderfood Wednesday. And, keep an eye out for upcoming weeks in Pampers and Pakhlava, where I’ll share more divinely delicious Armenian recipes.