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When I was a girl, I was told not to play with my food. I pushed bits around my plate, only nibbling. Of course, everyone else was finished before I was.

Today when I play with food, others would call it cooking or baking. It's a winter activity for me, when slippery weather keeps me inside — I hate falling. Bob slipped on the ice last week. He's okay, only a bit bruised.

Since we've been trying to eat a healthy diet, I don't often make cakes or cookies — I think I heard Bob groan. More veggies are served at meals — now Bob's really groaning. Since I'm thinking healthy, or at least healthier, I have to be creative, and play with my food.

Not long ago, we were down to the bottom of our last store-bought yogurt, but we had some skim milk left. It was time to do some magic and turn that milk into yogurt. I don't have a yogurt maker, but that didn't stop me. I started thinking of ways to do a batch of yogurt with what I had at hand.

All a yogurt maker does is keep the milk mixture at a constant warm temperature, around 115 degrees, for eight to 10 hours. Without a maker, what could I do?

In the pantry, I found a thermal lunch pail that would keep heat in. My milk went into a quart jar with about 2 tablespoons of plain store-bought yogurt with a live active culture — read the label. I mixed and warmed it in the microwave; the first time I didn't warm it at all, and it took forever to get it to 115 degrees.

I covered the jar and set it in the thermal pail, and then I filled the pail with warm water. I didn't use a thermometer but went by how the water felt on my hand, not too hot.

All day long, the jar sat in warm water. When the water cooled, I replaced it with more warm water. A machine would alleviate all this puttering, but I was home and it wasn't difficult work.

This method took about 12 hours. Eventually, I could see a bit of whey on top and yogurt in the jar. I then put the jar in the fridge. Later, I poured off the whey and added yogurt to fruit — even Bob loved it.

To make the yogurt thicker, I put a paper coffee filter in a strainer, added some of the yogurt and let it drain, for hours. The whey drained into a container (I'm thinking of using this whey when I make bread, but I haven't yet).

The water bath worked, but I wondered what else I could do. That's when the idea of using a heating pad came to me.

With the same thermal lunch pail, I tucked our small heating pad around a quart of my milk mixture and set it on low. That was all I did. The milk didn't overheat, and by the end of the day, I had yogurt.

Today, I went to the Internet to see what other people had for making yogurt without the expense of buying a maker. One woman set her jars of yogurt milk mixture in her oven with a 60-watt bulb on. That worked for her so I might try it. I just have to remember to keep some leftover yogurt to use as my starter.

Now I know exactly what's in my yogurt. No additives or sugar, unless I add them myself, which I won't — well, maybe a bit of honey or maple syrup.

There's no guarantee with my method of making yogurt. I'm only telling what I've done. At least a failure isn't expensive, and a success is, well, yummy.

Susan Manzke, Sunnybook Farm, N8646 Miller Rd, Seymour, WI 54165; Sunnybook@aol.com; www.SusanManzke.net

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