A savoury version of the Middle Eastern delight, labneh, served with olive oil, salt, herbs, olives tapenade and traditional pita bread.
A savoury version of the Middle Eastern delight, labneh, served with olive oil, salt, herbs, olives tapenade and traditional pita bread.
Image: Natasha Breen

Yoghurt is one of the few foods that’s maintained its reputation as a sort of wonder-food. This, is of course, real yoghurt that we’re talking about: unsweetened, preferably full cream, full of good bacteria, in which proper culturing has turned lactose to lactic acid. And ideally, it’s yoghurt from the milk of grass-fed, rather than feedlot, fossil-fueled dairy.

Real yoghurt contains only milk and bacteria. It does not contain – as many supermarket yoghurts do – thickeners, stabilizers, corn-starch, emulsifiers, sugar, gelatin, or other additions. Those tiny (very expensive) tubs of Day-Glo gloop which bear the name yoghurt? Well they can be quite nice I’ll admit, but they’re definitely just pudding. I’m not saying they’re Hostess Twinkie level dodgy, just please don’t think of them as your (or your children’s) daily health-fix, any more than you would a chocolate mousse.

One of my children’s teachers once quite firmly suggested that I should remove the very dark chocolate square I often added into the lunchbox, and replace it with a mini-yoghurt. Well, at double the sugar level, I declined. As for the same little tubs called ‘soy-yoghurt’? Laugh at them, and walk right on by.

One of the most rewarding and delicious things to do with really good, thick, full-cream yoghurt (you know better than to buy low-fat dairy of any kind, right?) is to make labneh. Labneh is a strained yoghurt ‘cheese’ of middle eastern origin; a little like cream cheese, only nicer. You can make a sweet version, by mixing in a dessertspoon of honey to one litre before straining, or a savoury version, slightly salted before straining. Both sweet and savoury can go dozens of different ways.

HOW TO MAKE LABNEH:

1. Pour plain yoghurt into a clean cotton dish-cloth which is lining a sieve. Place sieve over a bowl.

2. Leave to strain in or out of the fridge for anything from 24 hours to 3 days, depending on how thick the yoghurt is to start with and how firm you’d like it (keep the whey to mix into stews, curries and soups). It should be as thick as goat chevre; a bit thicker than cream cheese.

3. Roll the labneh, with hands or between two spoons, into balls no smaller than large grapes and no larger than lychees.

The sweet version: you can either leave it plain, or roll in crushed nuts – pistachios or hazelnuts are particularly glorious here - and eat with poached or fresh fruit. It’s also wonderful with halva, orange syrup and lemon zest.

The savoury version: Roll in toasted sesame seeds, cumin and black pepper and then stored in good olive oil, or of course eaten immediately. Added to a salad, in the way one might use feta, or spread on bread with grilled peppers and extra olive oil, it’s sublime. 

Tip: You can also use a plain, neutral labneh to make cheesecake.

Don’t feel like making your own? The fantastic King Arabic - at the Rosebank Rooftop Market every Sunday and now the Keyes Art Mile Market - keep a fantastic labneh in olive oil (as well as a thousand other Palestinian delights to accompany).

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