I’ve taken a sudden and new liking to salads this summer and there are only two things to blame: gratifying green goddess dressing and luscious labneh.
Apologies, approbate all alliterations.
Green goddess dressing transforms limp baby leaves into an explosion of flavours and textures and leaves my colleagues at work wondering how on earth a salad could be so satisfying (this is because they have seen my eyes roll into the back of my head when I am enjoying a meal). But GG also leaves them a little afraid to approach. Perhaps something to do with the copious amounts of garlic, chives and anchovy paste in there? Hmmmm. . . . .
But with labneh, the only ones not smiling are those that don’t have any. And how could you possibly go without? Once you suss out how easy it is to make this delectable cheese, you will probably always have a jar on standby in the fridge. But what the hell is it?
Labneh is a ‘cheese’ from the Middle East/ Central Asia made by straining yogurt so that the curds are separated from the whey. This residual, thick and creamy mass has the tang of the yogurt and the consistency of mascarpone/ soft cream cheese. At this point, the labneh can be placed in a container, topped with olive oil and herbs and used not unlike a dip or spread, on warm flatbreads.
Or, the labneh can be made (in my opinion) more delicious by forming it into balls and rolling these in a mixture of herbs and spices before marinating in a jar with olive oil (and more herbs if you wish). All you then need to do is scoop a labneh ball into your salad along with some of the flavoured olive oil for a delicious flavour hit, no additional dressing necessary. Labneh balls are also great smashed and smeared over your favourite bread, crackers or wraps.
Don’t be put off by the long list of ingredients. Labneh is dead-easy easy to make and absolutely worth the trouble.
Labneh balls – yields about 1kg labne balls/ 2kg marinated
Start this recipe a day ahead. The labneh is good to eat as soon as it’s made but is best when it has had a week for the flavours to infuse.
This recipe is Banting-friendly and will also suit those on a Paleo diet that allows dairy.
You will need
A. Yogurt cheese + Marinating oil
- 2kg unflavoured full fat Greek yogurt*
- ½ Tablespoon salt
- 1 whole head of garlic, peeled
- the rind of one lemon
- 3-4 bay leaves
- 1 Tablespoon whole peppercorns (I used white peppercorns)
- a few sprigs of lemon thyme
- 1 litre extra virgin olive oil (I used a mixture of garlic infused EVOO and plain EVOO)
* Full-fat Greek yogurt loses about half its volume in whey ,depending on the brand. You can use regular, pot-set natural yogurt but because this has more water in it, prepare to lose more whey in volume. I’ve recreated this recipe using 5kg plain regular yogurt which yielded 2kg curds.
B. Spice mix
- Approx. ¾ Cup of store bought za’atar (spice mix)
OR make your own spice mix using your preferred herbs and spices. I made two different ones with:
- 1 Tablespoon each of:
- dried oregano
- dried thyme
- ground black pepper
- 2 Tablespoons sesame seeds
- 1 teaspoon onion powder
- 1 Tablespoon each of:
- ground fenugreek seeds
- ground sumac
- ground toasted coriander seeds
- ground toasted cumin seeds
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
Equipment: a large colander, a bucket and muslin/ cheesecloth, rolling pin or bar, sterilised jars
Hang the yogurt
- Place the yogurt in a clean large mixing bowl and mix in the salt. Stir through well. The salt helpsthewhey separate from the curds moreeasilyand also acts as a preservative.
- Centre a large piece of muslin (~1m x 1m) at the bottom of a wide colander and tip in the yogurt. Carefully gather the sides of the muslin and bring together. Tie alooseknot as low and close as possible without squeezing the yogurt and then ‘skewer’ the parcel witharolling pin. Again, carefully transfer the muslin parcel to a bucket such thatitis suspended over the bucket bytherolling pin and there is enough room forthewhey to drip.
- Hang the yogurt inthismanner overnight in the fridge or in a cool part of the kitchen (on a cool day; don’t try this on a hot summer’s day). Checkthewhey every few hours making sure to discard it often if it threatens to touch the muslin bag.
The hung yogurt will be ready to use in about 24 hours when no more whey drips from it.
Make the spice mix
If not using store-bought za’atar, prepare the spice mix of your choice by combining all the ingredients in a small bowl and keeping in an air-tight container until ready to use.
Make the marinating oil
- Place the garlic cloves between two sheets of parchment and smash roughly usingarolling pin as pictured.
- In a clean and dry sterilized jar, place the smashed garlic, lemon rind, bay leaves and lemon thyme. Add enough olive oil to just cover. You may need to use a couple of jars depending on their sizes. I used two as I intended to gift one.
Make the labneh balls
- Unwrap the hung yogurt from the muslin parcel and tip out into a large mixing bowl. Use a large spoon or silicon paddle to smooth it out andensure there are no lumps. Alternatively you can pass it through a sieve (I am lazy and don’t bother with this step).
- Place about half a cupful of the prepared spice mix on a flat dish and spread it out.
- Using clean hands, gather lime-sized portions of the yogurt and form into balls. It’s a messy job but it’s fun. Don’t worry about the shapes being even or perfect balls. Rustic is best in this case. I even deliberately rolled some labneh balls much smaller to mix things up. Place the labneh balls on a tray lined with parchment until ready to be rolled in the spice mix.
- Roll the labneh balls in the prepared spice mix, one at a time to coat. You might need to use a spoon to help things along and don’t worry if they aren’t covered completely. Remember to top up the flat dish with the remaining spice mixture every now and then.
I ended up using the two spice mixes I made and some store-bought za’atar.
- Set aside on a lined baking tray, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for an hour to firm up. I forgot to do this when I made mine which resulted in a jar of squashed labneh balls.
Assemble and Marinate
- Remove labneh balls from the fridge and gently lower them into the jar(s) one by one leaving about 1-1.5″ space from the top. I chose not to separate them by spice mix as all the flavours work well together and you get a bit of variety from the same jar.
- Carefully add enough olive oil to the jar(s) to cover the labneh balls completely. Seal the jar(s) and refrigerate until needed.
I left the labneh marinating in the garlicky, lemony, herby goodness for about two weeks before gave in to temptation. But you can eat it pretty much straight away. Don’t waste any of the marinating oil – it is fantastic drizzled over salads.
Note: labneh will keep in the fridge for about a month, sometimes longer. Remember to keep the labneh balls submerged in the oil and every time you scoop some out, gently push down any that stick up back into the oil. This way your labneh will last longer.
Also, storing the labneh in the fridge means the olive oil will solidify slightly and it doesn’t look very appetising in this form. Don’t worry though, at room temperature it comes back to good in a few minutes.
And there you have it. Homemade yogurt cheese balls that look impressive, taste heavenly and are so easy to make. The hard bit is keeping from eating more than one.
Have you had labneh before? Do you love it as much as I do?