For many of you labneh will need no introduction. Anyone keen on Middle Eastern food will have no doubt at least come across a mention of this delicious and creamy cheese in the food press, or even some cookery programmes. You may even have had a smear of it as part of a mezze in a Lebanese restaurant. But did you know that it is ridiculously easy to make? And make really well? Trust me, this is the easiest thing you will ever attempt in the kitchen. You think a box cake mix is easy, with just adding an egg and oil? It is even easier than that. And it is made with real ingredients. In fact, correction: just one ingredient.
All you need to make this rich-tasting, silky, traditional cheese is best quality yogurt – I like goats milk yogurt – a straining cloth, a sieve and a jug. That is it, my friend. That and 24 hours dreaming about how you will eat it.
Ideas for using labneh: In countries across the Middle East, labneh is often eaten at breakfast with warm flatbread, olive oil and wild mint. But it is also nearly always part of a wider mezze of pickled vegetables, olives, cheeses and yet more breads and dips like hummus. I love it on Swedish crispbreads (Peters Yard brand is my favourite,) or warmed pitta breads, with pomegranate seeds and mint - love the sweet, tart and lactic dance on my tongue. But another favourite is mixed with za’atar and preserved lemon and used as a dip; or as a pitta filling, accompanied by as many vegetables as I can cram in. Basically, it is a probiotic and much more flavour-packed soft or creamed cheese, and you can use it as such. Home-pickled beetroot is another thing I really like with labneh – unusual perhaps, but together it tastes as lovely as it looks.
More quick ‘recipes’:
*spread on thinly-sliced toast and topped with roasted vine tomatoes and fresh, chopped oregano – add a poached egg and you have a power breakfast
*on top of crispbread with peaches, drizzle of honey and lemon thyme
*stuffed into fresh figs and served topped with chopped pistachios and dark honey
*mixed with yolks from hard-boiled eggs and stuffed back in with added za’atar and little capers, minced preserved lemon, or lemon juice. Top with parsley.
*stirred into sauteed chard or beet tops, with smashed anchovy, lemon zest and garlic – super in pasta or on bread
*sweetened with mashed dates and banana for an instant pudding (not if you added salt!)
* rolled into balls, covered in chopped herbs and doused in best evoo – pop these in a jar (will keep a week if covered in oil) or onto a pretty plate
Considering the ingredient-heavy recipes I sometimes post, I hope this ultra-simple one doesn’t disappoint. Perhaps it is a relief! This recipe really is a keeper. I make it probably once every two weeks, sometimes doing special things with it, but more often than not just spreading some on a humble crispbread, happy to enjoy the marriage of crisp and soft, tang and grain. A simple and utterly delectable pleasure.
What is your latest food pleasure?
If you like Middle Eastern food you will probably already know about labneh – or strained yogurt. Despite it being namechecked in lots of media articles about Middle Eastern food, labneh is hard to find outside of Middle Eastern delis and very good grocery stores. But making your own is so much easier than you may think.
I’ve used goat’s milk yogurt, as I like the punchier taste (although still very mild compared to most goats cheese), but use a good quality cow’s milk or even sheep’s milk. Salt after straining if using for savoury dishes or as a dip. Otherwise keep it plain or stir in some good honey for a beautifully different dessert or breakfast. So, so easy and utterly delicious.
1 large carton best quality yogurt
Salt or honey, to taste
Special equipment: muslin square/cheesecloth/jelly straining bag; large fine-meshed strainer; jug to set the strainer on top of. A coffee filter would probably work too.
Method: Lay the muslin square in the strainer and set atop the jug. Pour in the yogurt. Draw up the edges of the cloth and twist very gently and place on top, basically to get it out of the way and stopping it turning into a moisture wick. Leave to strain in the fridge for 24 hours – up to 48 if you want it almost cuttable.
After the whey has strained into the bowl and the cheese is firm, scrape out into a bowl; taste a little bit to see how salty it is already, then add in a little more if you like. Some people add the salt before straining but I find that can lead to it being too salty. Or you can leave it as is so that you can have it sweet or savoury. One thing to note is that once the whey drains off you will be left with about half of the original volume of yogurt, possibly less. So, if you were using labneh in a specific recipe, buy at least double the weight as unstrained yogurt – maybe even one and a half times to be safe.
How to use: For a traditional Palestinian dip, smear the labneh on a pretty plate and pour over best extra virgin olive oil. In a couple of photos you will see I’ve topped it with za’atar (a brilliant herb and spice mix). Scoop it up with flatbreads, crispbreads, crunchy vegetable. It also makes a great sandwich spread, with cucumber, tomato slices and roasted peppers (mmm). I also have it with pomegranate seeds and mint – a quick and healthy afternoon snack. Overall I tend to consider it like a tastier soft, or cream, cheese and use it in the same way. See my preamble for more ideas.
Hint: Save the whey to use in baking – lots of calcium in the whey. And lots of protein and less carbohydrates in the labneh.