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Food, Wonderful Food: Youngstown’s Brier Hill and Greek Festivals

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

I made a pilgrimage back to Ohio last weekend. Ostensibly it was to catch up with the folks and perhaps check out the Brier Hill Italian Festival. I’ve long loved local festivals of all sorts in any community, but I knew there would be bonus points if I stumbled on the making secrets of Youngstown’s famed contribution to the pizza dialectic. (I would share them with you here, of course.)

When all was eaten and gone, however, I flew away with something quite unexpected, if not as neatly original (and admittedly quite solipsistic). At one point in the weekend, my dad mused aloud how different things might have been if I had never left suburban Ohio–if, well, New York, and then later Brian Sacawa had never happened to me. It was a startling thing to consider after experiencing so much Youngstown community in the form of local Italian and Greek food festivals and making nostalgic explorations of now-abandoned or much-altered local landmarks. I came home to Baltimore slightly disoriented, as if I had stepped a little too far through an alternate doorway and failed to return at the appointed hour. I did, however, remember to take a few photos. It was all exceedingly tasty.

Things started out well enough with some dedicated sweets-eating at St. John’s Greek Orthodox Church.

Youngstown's Greek Festival 2013

Sample box of famed pastries at St. John’s Greek Festival.

Loukoumades: the delicious danger of fried dough bathed in warm honey syrup.

Loukoumades: the delicious danger of fried dough bathed in warm honey syrup.

Youngstown's Greek Festival 2013

It’s hard not to be joyful in a room filled with phyllo dough pastries and powdered sugar.

Later on, it was admittedly the pizza not the moon that hit us in the eye. What can I say? It was hard to look away and leave the last piece for midnight snacks. The sauce staining our fingers, we left Brier Hill feeling a little more Italian than when we had arrived.

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Fantastic greens and beans gave the pizza a run for it, and that’s saying
quite a bit.

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Campobasso Wine: $3. Raise a glass to Dee Dee!

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

Youngstown's Brier Hill Festival 2013

All of this eating resonated as a fairly powerful statement about the links between food and personal history. And so in my case, when all was said and done of course, it was the shared tea and biscuits with mom, and coffee and donuts with dad, that meant the most. (Awww….)

Columbiana's Barley Twist Tea Room

Columbiana’s Barley Twist Tea Room

Youngstown's Plaza Donuts and Coffee

Youngstown’s Plaza Donuts and Coffee

UPDATE: Dad throws down a challenge:

Dad's Brier Hill Pizza Pies

Dad’s Brier Hill Pizza Pies

Real Deal: DIY Greek Yogurt


I am not generally a “doing the math” kind of person. As a result, I end up economizing in weird ways. I’ll stand in a grocery store aisle agonizing over the cost/benefit of something based on price and ingredients and brand, maybe saving a dollar here with a bulk buy or spending a dollar there to get the organic option. Later that night, however, I won’t think twice about going out to dinner with my husband, making the utility of the entire exercise somewhat questionable.

When it comes to the Greek yogurt consumed in our house, however, I finally did all the math for my latest Serious Eats column, a process which left me convinced I no longer knew how to divide. I was shocked by what kind of savings I might manage in a given year if we could get off the little cups with the parchment paper tops and start making it all at home. But I was going to need a much more streamlined process than my yogurt-making appliance filled with little glass jars would allow, so the research began.

Producing yogurt at home may not be quite as simple as making ice cubes, but it’s not much more complicated than measuring liquid into containers and letting it reach or hold certain temperatures. Ultimately, if you can stir and read a thermometer, you have all the skill needed to culture your own. The process takes a lot of hands off time, however, so if you’re more accustomed to the immediate gratification of cookie baking, this may take some getting used to.

DIY Greek Yogurt: strained and portioned

A few things to consider before you begin:

  • Both the milk and the starter you select will impact the taste and consistency of the final product, and you will likely need to experiment some before you hit on your ideal ingredients. If you’re using fresh yogurt as your starter rather than freeze-dried, be sure to use a plain variety that contains live and active cultures.
  • There is more than one way to incubate at 110°F—from a simple thermos to a special appliance specific to yogurt making. I found the method below (which I first learned about here) to be both simple and consistent, but you may want to experiment and use the process you find most efficient.
  • A useful trick I picked up from Alana Chernila’s The Homemade Pantry is to incubate a small portion of the milk and starter mixture in a 1/2-pint jar alongside the two filled quart jars. Reserve this smaller portion to culture your next batch of yogurt. If using the small cooler method outlined below, you can keep this smaller jar above the water line by setting it on top of a narrow, empty 1/2-pint jar.

DIY Greek Yogurt: ingredients

DIY Greek Yogurt
8 cups milk
4 tablespoons plain yogurt with live and active cultures or freeze-dried yogurt starter

DIY Greek Yogurt: hot and cold

In a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat, bring milk to 180°F, stirring regularly to prevent scorching.

Once milk has reached temperature, allow it to cool to 110°F (place pot in an ice bath to speed cooling, if desired). When milk has cooled, add yogurt to the pot and whisk thoroughly to combine.

DIY Greek Yogurt: incubation

Pour milk and starter mixture into two quart-sized jars (and smaller 1/2-pint, if using) and screw on lids. Place them in a small insulated cooler and fill with 120°F water until jars are submerged nearly up to their lids. Close cooler and leave in a draft-free, undisturbed place for six hours or until desired tartness is achieved.

When incubation is complete, remove jars from water bath and place in refrigerator for at least six hours to halt culturing and set yogurt.

DIY Greek Yogurt: straining

At this point, yogurt may be eaten, but to achieve a Greek-style consistency, it will need to be strained. Place a fine mesh strainer over a bowl and line it with two layers of cheese cloth. Spoon yogurt into lined strainer and allow to drain for two hours or until desired thickness is achieved.

Transfer yogurt to a storage container and refrigerate until needed. Remaining leftover whey (approximately two cups) may be reserved for another use if desired.