Bulgarians are very proud of their food.  And with tomatoes this good, who wouldn’t be?  Bulgarian food, while not a crucial cuisine in the curriculum of international culinary arts, has some wonderfully simple dishes based on fresh, seasonal, often home-grown food, and there are many ingredients and dishes that I am so happy to have eaten.  Sirene, the feta-like cheese about which I frequently wax poetic, is an essential here, and red bell peppers are a way of life.  I’ve been asked often if XYZ exists in the U.S., and sometimes I have to stifle a laugh – yes, we have tomatoes – but many folks are astonished when I tell them that red bell peppers can reach $6 a pound.

There is one ingredient so vital to the Bulgarian kitchen that its Latin name references the importance it has here: yogurt, soured with the culture Lactobacillus bulgaricus, is so common that if you go to the shop and ask for milk, they’ll ask if you want fresh milk or sour milk, “sour milk” meaning yogurt.  Bulgarians have little problem substituting yogurt for milk in almost any recipe and put it in everything from soup to sauces.  I am lucky to have a dairy in my town that makes fantastic yogurt, and there is always a container or seven of it in my fridge.  I was never one of those that was afraid of plain yogurt before I came here, and would often stand in the kitchen at my parents’ house, eating spoonfuls of Cascade Fresh straight out of the jumbo tubs we bought it in, but I was a little fearful of yogurt cheese.  I saw some little balls of it on a buffet table once and thought they were mozzarella, so I popped a whole one in my mouth and bit down on what I soon assumed to be bocconcini gone bad.  Moments later, still trying not to grimace at the flavors lingering on my gums, I overheard someone say, “Aren’t these little yogurt cheese bites just wonderful?” but it was too late.  I was scarred.

But I have gained nothing in Peace Corps if not resiliency, so I decided not too long ago to strengthen my resolve and make what Bulgarians call “dry yogurt” – basically, yogurt with much of the liquid strained out.  This is, seriously, the easiest thing ever, and so smooth.  You can use this as a substitute for sour cream, whipped cream, cream cheese… you get it.  Creamy.

A ridiculously simple dessert that I like to make is to add cocoa powder, sugar, and a pinch of cinnamon to the yogurt before I strain it.  If you don’t dig chocolate, use something else – caramel, fresh or dried fruit, dulce de leche?  A wonderful base for any number of combinations.  Just make sure to use yogurt with no additives – if it says ‘gelatin’ anywhere on that package, just put it back on the shelf.  No one should be eating that garbage, anyway.

Dry Yogurt with Chocolate and Cinnamon
serves 1

12oz plain low-fat yogurt (I use 2%, but if you don’t see any 2%, get whole rather than fat-free)
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
sugar to taste
toasted walnuts, to garnish

OK now, focus. This is tremendously complicated.  Ready?  Ready.

Combine yogurt, cocoa powder, cinnamon, and sugar and stir well.  Pour into a cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a bowl.  Come back in three hours.  Spoon into a bowl.  Garnish with walnuts.

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I also just wanted to show you this picture I took of some bucatini that I put in baked spaghetti last week.  (Well, baked bucatini, I suppose.)  I’m not sure I understand the culinary advantage of having center holes so tiny, but hey, it makes for cool photos.

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