Can we talk about Labneh for a second? I know I have spoken about Labneh here before. Recently in fact. But I felt Labneh needed even more attention. In part because I adore it and simply cannot stop making it. But also because I wanted to share a new recipe using Labneh.
If you are not familiar with Labneh, technically a type of cheese, it is what you end up with if you strain your yoghurt overnight so that the whey drips out of it. (In a way, Greek yoghurt is already a form of Labneh since it gets its rich texture from straining out some of the whey). Common across the Middle East (where you can often buy readymade Labneh in supermarkets in similar small tubs to cream cheese), there are a number of different ways of serving it. At its most basic, it is typically seasoned with salt and served as a dip alongside other mezze (even better when there is a pool of good olive oil in the middle and maybe a sprinkle or two of za’atar). Labneh can also serve as the basis for lots of different dips, e.g. with beetroot or red peppers. Labneh is sometimes also shaped into small balls and rolled in different herbs and spices and preserved in olive oil. Labneh is so delicious because the process of removing some of the moisture (in the form of whey) from the yoghurt concentrates all the flavours and increases its fat content.
If you want to make your own Labneh, there are no hard and fast rules for how long you need to strain your yoghurt until you can call it Labneh. It depends both on how liquid the yoghurt you start with is and also what you want to use the Labneh for. Just beware, the more liquid your yoghurt is (and hence the more whey it contains); not only will more whey strain out of it, you will also be left with very little Labneh compared to how much yoghurt you started with. Another tip is to start with a good quality and flavourful yoghurt – since the flavour will be concentrated further once you strain out the whey. I typically use an organic Greek yoghurt with around 6-8 per cent fat. And while some people will salt their yoghurt before straining, I like leaving mine plain so I can use the Labneh both for sweet and savoury recipes.
Lightly seasoned with some salt, it becomes the perfect bed for roasted vegetables (like these carrots with zhough), but also eggs and za’atar oil like here. It also works beautifully as a filling for savoury buns like these Labneh and Za’atar Buns I shared earlier this year. And when it comes to sweet recipes, Labneh is a great stand-in for both cream cheese and mascarpone in many recipes – like in these German Streuseltaler with an Orange Blossom Cheesecake Layer and a Buttery Crumble Topping or in this Strawberry Tiramisu with Labneh and Sumac or indeed this Labneh Cheesecake with Cardamom and Roasted Apricots with Saffron.
The other day we found ourselves with three (!) 800g tubs of Greek yoghurt. So I decided to make Labneh. And then use that Labneh to make a Labneh cheesecake. And one loosely inspired by the recipe for the Apricot and Amaretto Cheesecake in ‘Sweet’ by Helen Goh and Yotam Ottolenghi which is accompanied by a stunning photo of one gorgeous looking cream cheese topped with beautifully syrupy apricots. Initially I thought I might make a Nespole and Tonka Bean version of that recipe, but alas Nespole season ended before I got round to it. So apricots, like in the original version, it was. But I couldn’t help and use their idea as a jumping off point and end somewhere else entirely, but armed with a recipe and a flavour combination I think they would both approve of. Here, the Labneh stands in for the more commonly used cream cheese, and there is good pinch of cardamom in the filing and a sprinkle of mahleb in the crust (optional but highly recommended). To finish, the cheesecake is topped with apricots roasted with sugar and saffron, their roasting juices then cooked down into a beautiful syrup.
Labneh Cheesecake with Cardamom and Syrupy Saffron Apricots
Inspired by the cheesecake with Apricots and Amaretto in ‘Sweet’ by Helen Goh and Yotam Ottolenghi
Notes: As is the case with many cheesecake recipes, this one lends itself to numerous variations. You can easily substitute the apricots with other stone fruits, be it peaches or nectarines which are also in season right now or, later in the summer some of the first plums (which would work beautifully with the cardamom in the cheesecake). Similarly, if cardamom is not your thing, you could simply use vanilla or grated tonka bean and maybe serve this with some syrupy cherries.
For the crust
200g digestive biscuits
Pinch of salt
1 tsp mahleb (optional but adds a nice marzipan/bitter almond note to the crust)
For the cheesecake layer
Seeds of 5 cardamom pods, ground
For the apricot topping
400g apricots, some halved, some quartered
2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp water
Pinch of saffron
*I used homemade labneh for this recipe. If you start with 1kg of Greek yoghurt (with a fat percentage of 8-10 per cent) you should end up with around 700g Labneh if you leave the yoghurt to drain overnight. If you end up with a small amount of excess Labneh, it makes an excellent bed for all manner of things, including roasted carrots and fried eggs and otherwise is a delicious stand-in for cream cheese (think Bagels and smoked salmon).
Pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius and line a small brownie pan (I used a small IKEA roasting tin that measures 20x26cm) with parchment paper.
To make the crust, pulse the digestive biscuits with the butter, salt and mahleb (if using) in a food processor until sandy. Evenly distribute the mixture over the bottom of the pan and press down into an even layer (an offset spatula comes in handy for this). Place in the fridge while you prepare the filling.
In the bowl of a standmixer (or in a large bowl and using a handheld mixer), beat the labneh, cardamom and sugar until light and fluffy, then beat in the three eggs one by one until incorporated. Spread the filling over the cheesecake base and bake for ca. 30-35 minutes or until the edges of the cheesecake are set but the centre retains a slight wobble. Switch off the oven and leave the cheesecake to cool inside the oven with the oven door propped ajar with a wooden spoon or similar. Once at room temperature, place the cheesecake in the fridge until ready to serve.
To prepare the roasted apricots with saffron, preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Add the halved and quartered apricots to a small roasting tin. Mix together the sugar with the saffron and scatter over the fruit. Drizzle with the water.
Roast the apricots for ca. 25 minutes, spooning the pan juices over the apricots every 5-10 minutes or so. Once done, the apricots will have softened but should still retain their shape.
Carefully pour the apricot juices into a small saucepan and reduce until bubbly.
To serve, spoon the apricots over the cheesecake and drizzle with the syrup.