Labneh, or yogurt cheese is a Lebanese specialty. It is essentially the third evolution of (strained) yogurt. Strain yogurt for around 4 hours and you get thick unctuous Greek style yogurt, strain it for 2 days and you get labneh. Yogurt that has a thick cream cheese like consistency but still retains all the tangyness of yogurt. Labneh is often rolled into balls and stored in olive oil. In this recipe I spiced up the labneh with harissa and rolled them in fresh parsley and lemon zest. It tastes amazing spread on a bit of crusty bread. You can make this recipe from scratch starting with milk and a small pot of yogurt. Or make it with plain yogurt or even Greek yogurt to cut the straining time. The straining will take about 2 days but the results are worth it.
- 2.5 liters of milk and 1 small pot of Greek yogurt (cultures still intact) Or
- 2 liters of plain yogurt. Or
- 1.5 liters of Greek yogurt
- 3-6 tblsp harissa (recipe here)
- 2 lemons
- 100 g feta
- mild olive oil
- extra virgin olive oil
- big bunch of flatleaf parsley
Step 1 (skip if using store bought yogurt)
Making your own yogurt is rather easy and it ensures you have top quality yogurt without any additives. It is also cost effective if you need large quantities. Take your milk (go full fat, it's worth it) and slowly heat it in a thick bottomed pan. You want to scald the milk so bring it up to 82 c (if you don't have a thermometer watch the milk closely, it begins to steam and froth around that temperate). Turn of the heat and let it cool to 44 c (stick your finger in, it's hot but you can tolerate 10 seconds). Whisk through a small pot of yogurt to introduce the bacteria. Now all you need to do is put a lid on that pan and keep it cozy and warm. There are several methods for this (in the oven for instance) but I prefer to wrap the pan in a blanket together with a hot water bottle (you could even have it on an electric blanket). We want the yogurt to be nice and tangy so give it at least 8 hours or simply leave it overnight. The next morning you should find your milk has turned into yogurt and it will be nice and wobbly and come away from your pan like in the GIF above. The yogurt should smell clean and fresh, if not some bad bacteria came in and all your work was for nought.
Now it is time for the yogurt to drain. Place a sieve above a bowl and line it with cheesecloth, or a dishtowel, even a clean t shirt works. Place the yogurt in the sieve and place this all in the refrigerator. The first couple of hours a lot of whey will leak out so do check the bowl intermittently to see if it needs to be emptied. Once it has reached Greek yogurt consistency (6-8 hours), add a teaspoon of salt to the yogurt. This will help it to release even more whey. You can easily let the yogurt drain for 2 days but what you are looking for is a firm consistency that will allow you to form balls without any problems.
You could off course eat your labneh plain, or maybe spread on toast with some jam. But I'm going to spice it up a little bit, using my homemade harissa. Now I was quite frankly flabbergasted by how much harissa the labneh can take. Believe me that is some very spicy sauce, but the labneh needs a lot to let that heat shine through. It also takes quite a lot of salt, so just keep adding harissa and salt until you are happy with the amount of heat. Also add the zest of a lemon for some brightness. As a finishing touch finely crumble 100 g of Feta and add that to the mix.
All this mixing might have loosened the labneh a little too much. If this is the case return it to the cheesecloth and let it drain a little longer.
You could serve the labneh now, in a bowl. If so pour over a some good quality extra virgin olive oil. But if you want to preserve the labneh, roll it into balls. Take a tablespoon of the labneh and roll. Place the balls on a plate covered with kitchen towels. This way you can coax some more moisture out of the labneh. Put absorbent kitchen towels underneath and on top of the labneh balls and keep in the fridge for a bit longer. Replace the towels when they are wet.
Finely chop the parsley (do include some stems) and zest the lemon. Now roll the labneh balls through this mix. Serve the balls in shallow pool of olive oil. If you want to preserve the balls pack them into a glass jar and top with olive oil (mild). This way you can store them for several weeks.