Cheese…easy, delicious, spreadable, flavour-it-yourself soft cheese
I was at a farmer’s market some weeks back and came across a couple of girls selling little balls of white cheese. I thought at first that they were baby mozzarella, but upon closer inspection, found them to be labneh, a soft, spreadable cheese made from yoghurt. I bought a packet of six balls for R15 (about $1.50) and took it home to try.
They had flavoured the cheese by making little balls of the plain cheese, then covering the balls in olive oil into which they had put minced garlic, coarse black pepper, and some dried herbs. The idea was good, but the raw garlic was just overwhelming. But it had promise…I decided to experiment. It has taken some time, but I have finally come up with an easy way to make the cheese at home…and the results are spectacular!
The trick to making the best cheese is to get the right yoghurt. First of all, it cannot have any stabilizers in it…no gelatin or vegetable stabilizers, either. A stabilizer is a binder that prevents the whey (the watery stuff that sometimes comes to the surface of yoghurt) from separating from the curds (the body of the yoghurt). The success of your effort depends on that separation…the more thorough the separation, the drier, more robust your cheese.
I at first assumed that if the yoghurt was organic, it would have no stabilizers…wrong! Apparently there are organic stabilizers…I spent weeks buying big and little tubs of various yoghurts, eventually arriving at the conclusion that the best yoghurts for cheese making were 1) without stabilizers, 2) organic, and 3) full fat. Low fat yoghurt, if it doesn’t have stabilizers, will separate, but the cheese will be softer, taste less rich and have more tang than the full fat variety. I haven’t tried fat-free yet, but that’s the next experiment.
I also discovered that covering the cheese in flavour-infused oil was not necessary. The oil adds fat (and calories) and the flavourants do not penetrate the cheese and flavour it. The best way to flavour the cheese is to add the flavourants directly to the cheese itself.
You can make this cheese sweet or savoury. Flavourants can be fruits (well-drained, finely chopped, and sweetened to your palate with either sugar or sweetener) or herbs and spices. I like it with roasted garlic and sea salt, but caramelized onions, minced chillies, lemon zest, all have their merits. The cheese also has multiple uses: spread it on bread or crackers, thin it a bit and use as a dip for chips or crudités, use on potatoes instead of butter or gravy, on hot vegetables instead of butter or rich sauces. Use in sandwiches instead of sliced cheese, or spread it on hot toast. The sweet varieties can be used on toast, pancakes, waffles, hot cereals, scones…anything you might be tempted to put jam on. Some of this cheese, flavoured with a bit of lemon or lime zest, would even complement a mild fish. You can also use the plain cheese in the same ways you ordinarily use cream cheese.
This cheese keeps well. Once made, package in plastic containers and keep refrigerated. I’ve had it in the fridge for up to four weeks (I had to hide it so it didn’t get eaten by a certain household member for a snack!) and found it still fresh-tasting and without any mould growth. It is easy to make and delicious to eat, and making the cheese from low fat yoghurt and using it in place of butter at the table will surely reduce your calorie count…and it tastes SOOO good!
Soft White Cheese (Labneh)
Cheese cloth or coffee filters
Plate to cover bowl.
1 pint (500 ml) stabilizer-free plain yoghurt (full fat or low fat)
Flavourants (see more on this below)
Salt to taste
Place strainer over deep bowl. Make sure there is several inches (2.54 cm = 1 inch) free below the bottom of the strainer.
Line the strainer with 3 or 4 layers of cheesecloth or a coffee filter. Make sure the filters/cheesecloth cover all of the strainer wire.
Pour the yoghurt into the strainer, on top of the filter/cheesecloth. Cover with a plate and place in the refrigerator for 24 hours.
After 24 hours, remove the bowl from the refrigerator and uncover. Lift the strainer and pour the liquid in the bowl off into another container. Rinse the bowl.
Remove the cheese from the strainer to a smaller bowl. Discard the coffee filter (rinse the cheesecloth and set it aside for laundering). Rinse the strainer in running water, then return it to the deep bowl.
Add flavourants (see below) to the cheese and mix well. If using savoury (non-sweet) flavourants, add a little salt (ground sea salt recommended). Line the strainer with a fresh coffee filter or clean cheesecloth, return the cheese to the strainer, cover with a plate and return to the refrigerator for 24 hours.
The liquid that came out of the yoghurt is whey. You can discard it, but it also can be used in food preparation. It is a nutrient-packed substitute for water in baking bread, making sauces, even preparing hot cereals. It can be added to dry animal food to make it more palatable. The amount of whey drained from a volume of stabilizer-free yoghurt should be approximately 50% of the original yoghurt…so if you put a pint of yoghurt in the strainer, expect half a pint of whey in the bowl the next day.
After the second 24 hours in the strainer, the cheese should have lost most of its moisture. You can use the cheese now or, if you want it drier and stiffer, leave it to drain another 24 hours. The longer the cheese sits in the strainer, the stiffer it will become and the stronger the taste of the flavourants.
Once stiff enough to hold its shape, the cheese can be removed from the strainer and rolled into a “log,” then sliced into rounds. It can be rolled into balls in the hand, then dusted with herbs or spices. It can be pressed into moulds, like chocolate or butter moulds. Stuff cherry tomatoes with it for hors d’oeuvres. Roll balls or logs in sesame or poppy seeds for use on a snack table. Or it can simply be placed in a small bowl and served with a spreading knife. This stuff is wonderfully versatile and a quick trip to Google Images under the search criteria “yogurt cheese” will just boggle your mind!
Dried herbs, ground to a powder. Can be mixed into the cheese or balls of the cheese can be rolled in it.
Roasted garlic: 4 to 6 cloves per pint of yoghurt, mashed or pulverized and mixed into the cheese.
Chili powder: light dusting on cheese balls: serve with salsa fresca and tortilla chips.
Roasted chillies: fire roast fresh jalapeño chillies, skin, seed and mince the flesh. Mix into the cheese.
Caramelized onions: cut Spanish onions into thin rings and caramelize in butter. Once cooled, mince finely and mix with the cheese.
Spring onion: mince green spring onion tops and mix into cheese.
Masala: dust cheese balls lightly with garam masala
Capers: coarsely chop 1 tablespoon drained capers. Mix into cheese and serve with smoked salmon and bagels.
Mix honey to your taste with the cheese to make a toast or biscuit spread.
Drain ⅓ cup jam in a strainer overnight. Mix the drained jam with cheese.
Drain ¼ cup of crushed tinned pineapple and mix with cheese.
Sift a cinnamon and fine sugar mixture over cheese balls and serve with toast, pancakes, or waffles.
Photo by midiman Flickr