I started making yogurt cheese around the time I moved to Ojai after years of living in Los Angeles. On a ridge overlooking a perfumed orange-growing valley, I filled my spare bedrooms each weekend with friends from town. Every Saturday night was a festival of cooking and wine drinking, every Sunday morning a leisurely breakfast.
While there was no logical reason for making my own cheese except culinary romanticism, I thought that in my country life I should have rustic homemade foods on hand. I made goat cheese a few times, to great effect. My guests were thrilled to savor it with crostini and olives in the evening when the first bottle of wine was opened. I imagined them imagining the goat, tethered at the far end of the ridge, nibbling wild herbs. In truth, I bought the goat's milk at the 24-hour supermarket five minutes from my house.
Then I discovered something even easier than goat cheese, and more versatile: yogurt cheese. I couldn't believe the utter simplicity of making it, and the reliable excellence of the result. It had a silky, creamy texture, and a mild but tangy flavor. Served on a hand-painted plate, its slightly lopsided shape and the faint pattern of the cheesecloth imprinted on its surface were charming. "What is this yummy thing?" my friends asked, as they spread some on a bagel. "Yogurt cheese." They wanted to know what it was and where I got it, and they were incredulous when I told them I'd made it.
I'm always touched by people's excitement when they discover that something is homemade. A cheap thrill, in this case, since the work totaled maybe five minutes. One need only pour yogurt into a cheesecloth-lined colander and, by morning, it's cheese. In fact, making yogurt cheese is such a non-event that it's now a staple in my fridge, combining happily with both savories and sweets. Depending on how long it is drained, yogurt cheese can resemble sour cream, or a lighter cream cheese. Its flavor is sweeter than the original yogurt, as much of the acidity is lost with the whey. I like spreading it on a muffin or bagel with the sweet blackberry jam I buy from the Hungarian lady at the Ojai farmer's market. (I should lie and say I made that jam.) The softer version is delicious spooned into mushroom soup or piled on a baked potato. The denser kind can be mixed with chopped chives, dill, garlic, parsley or other herbs to make a savory appetizer spread.
For me, though, the best yogurt cheese experience is a simple wedge of the thick cheese on a plate, drenched in wild mountain honey, with a soft summer fruit. Almost any summer fruit will work-- white peaches, giant ollalieberries, red raspberries. But for a dish straight from heaven, pair fresh, juicy purple figs, at the peak of their season, with thick yogurt cheese in a glaze of some pungent, herb-derived honey. No cooking, no baking--just one of the most delicious things you'll ever put in your mouth.
2 cups plain whole-milk yogurt
2 cups plain nonfat yogurt
Dampen a three- or four-ply thickness of cheesecloth, about 18 inches square, and line a strainer or colander with it. Stir together the two yogurts until smooth and pour them into lined colander. Place a long wooden spoon across top of colander, and tie opposing corners of cheesecloth over handle so that yogurt hangs in cheesecloth sack (the bottom can be resting in the colander). Place colander over bowl deep enough to catch dripping whey. Pour away liquid once or twice, as needed. Leave yogurt to drain in refrigerator overnight.
For a softer version of yogurt cheese, more like creme fra'che, drain it only a few hours. For a denser cheese, twist corners of cheesecloth together, fold down and place weight on top of cheese for an additional few hours. Store it in refrigerator, covered with plastic wrap, until ready to serve.