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Cooking from the World Pantry: Labneh

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Labneh Dip
Photo by: Maria Zizka

Labneh is sometimes called yogurt cheese. It has an ultra-creamy, thick texture and a pleasingly tangy flavor. Labneh traces its roots to the Middle East, but similar styles of cheese are popular in many other parts of the world. In India, a sweet delicacy called shrikhand is made of strained yogurt, dried fruits and nuts, and saffron. In Iceland, a non-fat cultured dairy product known as skyr has nearly the same texture as labneh, and has been a staple of the Icelandic diet for more than one thousand years.

You can easily purchase high-quality labneh from Middle Eastern grocery stores and health food markets. (If you live in Los Angeles, check out the terrific selection of labneh at Jordan Market on Westwood Boulevard.)

It is also surprisingly simple to make your own labneh at home. Don’t worry—if the thought of making homemade cheese sounds intriguing but perhaps too daunting, allow me to assure you that labneh is the best place to start, as it is arguably the easiest cheese to make.

You won’t need any special equipment—just a bowl and a sieve with which to strain store-bought yogurt. A fine-mesh sieve works best, but if you don’t happen to have one, a double layer of cheesecloth draped across a regular colander will work just as well. Or, if you have neither of those tools, you can use a clean pillowcase. Yes, you read that correctly!

Once you’ve selected your tool of choice, it’s time to consider the yogurt. It is the only ingredient, so pick a winner: full-fat, plain, and made of fresh cow’s milk. Scoop the yogurt into the fine-mesh sieve (or cheesecloth-lined colander) and place the sieve inside a bowl large enough that it hovers at least an inch above the bottom of the bowl. Transfer to the refrigerator and leave to strain for 24 hours. If you are using the pillowcase set-up, you’ll need to gather the cloth around the yogurt, cinching just above the yogurt to create some pressure, and then tie the whole thing up so it dangles over a bowl. My friend Dan used to always have a small, cotton pouch filled with yogurt hanging from the shelf inside his refrigerator—labneh ready-to-go, any time you want it.

After 24 hours of straining, the yogurt will have thickened considerably to a texture like that of cream cheese, and the whey will have dripped off into the bowl. You can continue straining for another 24 hours or more, if you’d like the labneh to be even thicker. Transfer the labneh to a clean bowl and store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to several weeks.

Try spreading labneh across toast, then topping with a fried egg. Or, use it as you would cream cheese on a bagel with lox. It makes a wonderful mayonnaise-like spread on a sandwich, on a lamb burger, or in warm pita bread with falafel.

Labneh can also veer sweet. I love to top it with granola, fruit, and a drizzle of honey or maple syrup. Sweetened with a spoonful of confectioners’ sugar, it works as a frosting on carrot cake. It is also delicious spread on pumpernickel bread and topped with jam.

Whether you make your own labneh or buy a container, you’ll no doubt find endless ways to enjoy it.

Labneh Dipping Sauce

This recipe is flexible. Don’t worry if you don’t have sumac, Aleppo pepper, or za’atar. Leave them out entirely, or use other spices that you do have. The same goes for the fresh mint leaves; parsley would make a fine substitution, as would basil.

Makes about 1 ¼ cups

1 cup labneh
¼ cup mixed olives, pitted and finely chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint leaves
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon sumac (optional)
½ teaspoon Aleppo pepper (optional)
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 teaspoons za’atar (optional)
Pita chips
4 Persian cucumbers, sliced lengthwise into quarters
1 bunch radishes, roots trimmed

In a medium bowl, stir together the labneh, olives, garlic, mint, lemon juice, sumac, Aleppo and 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper to taste.

Spoon the sauce into a small serving bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with za’atar, if you like. Serve with pita chips, cucumber spears, and radishes.

Labneh dipping sauce will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks.

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