Growing up, it would come as no surprise to open our our family’s refrigerator and find a coffee filter filled with my mother’s fat free yoghurt, draining away. This was her ‘yogurt cheese’; a clever healthy substitute for cream cheese during the fat-free food trend of the 90’s. Although most of the time it was meant for her, she was always generous about sharing it whenever asked.
About eight years ago or so, whilst really getting my footing in London’s food scene I came across a familiar-yet-unknown ingredient used through out many different Middle Eastern cuisines (Iraqi Jordanian, Palestinian, Lebanese, Israeli, Egyptian and Syrian) called labneh, and a light bulb went off, I had been eating a version of labneh, a strained yoghurt based cheese, my entire life. It wasn’t diet food, or an ingredient used in the name of frugality. It was a food food, and one that when tweaked from the zero-fat variety I had come to know (and admittedly love) it could be rich, and creamy and savoury in the most decadent, yet still healthful of ways.
So, as I had watched my mother do a thousand times before, I carefully scooped a generous amount into a coffee filter (you can also use a muslin or cheese cloth but this was what I had on hand), set it carefully inside a coffee cup to drain, and set it into my refrigerator to work its magic. Twenty-four hours later I had creamy labneh, ready for use. I’ve also read that you can save the whey and use it for baking bread. *Update- 2 years later and I can confirm this adds a bit of oomph to a sourdough starter!
You can experiment with what ingredients you add into your labneh or over your labneh, once set, in a wide variety of ways. I like adding sea salt flakes and sometimes lemon zest, but you could add herbs, crushed Sichuan peppercorns for a little tongue-numbing kick, a swirl of harissa, dust it with cumin and cayenne pepper, the sky is the limit here. As for how you use the cheese once it’s ready; spread it on toast, use it as a dip with a bit of fruity olive oil, pomegranate molasses, sea salt and lemon zest, add a healthy handful of toasted pistachios for crunch, stuff it into a pita with cucumber slices or hummus, scoop it into little balls and add it to your salad like a tangier burrata… get creative (and then tell me what you did because I want to do it too!)