Saturday, June 6, 2015

Beginners' Cheesemaking I- Middle Eastern Labneh

Cheesemaking doesn't have to be complicated. It CAN be, if that's what you're going for, and hopefully I'll get a chance to experience making mozzarella and cheddar before too long. You know you'll be reading about it. Anyway, back to easy cheesemaking. I've been on a quest for some time to make homemade cheese. Farmers cheese is easily made with whole milk, and even goat cheese, if you're lucky enough to find raw goat milk, is super easy. 

Years ago while living in England we were unable to find American-style cottage cheese so making family favorites like ravioli and lasagna was a challenge. I had a cookbook written for families- different fun things you can make with your kids- and cottage cheese was one of the recipes. We made it all the time. Boil milk, add acid, stir and drain. Easy peasy. Surprisingly delicious.

Now that I live in a rural area I can get all the cottage cheese I want, but some of the others are not as easy to find. Our little small town grocery store stocks the basics, but if I want to try something unique I need to head back to the city or make it myself. Luckily, soft cheeses are very very easy to make, and this particular cheese, labneh, is super easy. Labneh is a Middle Eastern soft cheese made from yogurt. Absolutely no cooking is involved. It's nothing more than yogurt that has been drained to remove the excess whey, and if you start with Greek yogurt, you're halfway there. A pinch of salt, some fresh herbs and you can customize the labneh to whatever flavors you like. I'll be using some fresh thyme, fresh chives and lemon zest, maybe a pinch of fresh rosemary. A drizzle of good olive oil over the cheese is a nice finishing touch.

Homemade Labneh

2 cups plain Greek yogurt
pinch of salt
fresh herbs of choice

Choose your fresh or dried herbs. Both work well, but you need more fresh than dried. I used a couple sprigs of thyme, a large basil leaf, a small bunch of chives and two small garlic cloves.

Mince the herbs and garlic very finely. I also added a small bit of freshly ground black pepper and a few rasps of the zester on a lemon.

Stir the pinch of salt and herbs into the yogurt. Mix well.

Line a sieve with damp cheesecloth. Pour the yogurt into the cheesecloth.

Gather the ends up and tie into a ball. Use a wooden spoon to hang the ball over a bowl, using string to suspend the cheesecloth. I tied the cheesecloth ball and then used two skewers through the cheesecloth to form an x and propped it over the bowl.

Allow the yogurt to drain overnight. Don't press on the cheesecloth.

Remove from cheesecloth and place in serving bowl. Drizzle with a little olive oil and serve with bread or crackers. Use the cheese within a day or two. For longer storage, scoop the cheese into small balls and place in a bowl. Cover with olive oil and refrigerate. Use within two weeks.

I love the way the cheesecloth leaves a waffle pattern on
the surface of the labneh when you unwrap it.
The labneh is ready to serve within 24 hours and is delicious spread onto crusty bread, crackers, fresh vegetables. It's also great to use in recipes calling for soft cheese such as goat or ricotta cheese. Rolled in balls and rolled in minced herbs, it's also a great addition to an antipasti plate. Spread it on bagels like cream cheese and use it to make dips. 

We decided to give the labneh a taste test on some grilled focaccia. Since it's been so rainy, muggy and nasty around here I made good use of my trusty grill pan- this folks, is a kitchen necessity. It really is. 

Slicing the bread at a slight diagonal just gave it a nicer appearance. Louie, the resident American bulldog, got to eat the bread butts and he was pretty happy about that.

Brush with the slightest bit of butter or olive oil and place the bread slices on the heated grill pan. I kept the grill over medium heat so I'd get nice grill marks and the slower heat would toast the bread through and leave it crispy.

I spread a generous amount of labneh on the toasted bread and we sampled. It was good! It's definitely got the yogurt tang and the herbs and garlic gave it a nice flavor. Tomorrow night this is going to make a nice snack or appetizer with some minced Peppadews or chopped olives, maybe even a relish.

I love the tangy flavor of the labneh and think it would be a fantastic "blank canvas" for all sorts of flavor combinations- sweet touches like berries, apples and cinnamon or dates and nuts. Drizzle with honey. Go the spicy route with Italian herbs and garlic, or maybe even hot peppers- the dairy base will help take the edge off the searing heat of some of the hotter peppers.

Labneh stays soft enough for easy piping too- you can use it to fill mushrooms caps and pop in the oven, or make jalapeno poppers. I definitely will be filling a plate full of Peppadews with this stuff. You're only limited by your imagination!

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