What exactly is labneh? It's a soft, cream cheese made from strained yogurt, that's popular in Middle Eastern cuisine. You can buy it in specialty gourmet and ethnic food stores but it's actually quite easy to make at home. And, at about half the fat and calories of standard cream cheese, it's the perfect healthier alternative. It can be used in any way you would normally use cream cheese, such as a spread on bagels, as a baking ingredient or as a dip for your favorite fruit and vegetables.
The primary ingredient in labneh, the yogurt, is itself a common ingredient in Middle Eastern cooking. It's used raw as an accompaniment to breakfast or as a snack with fruit and it can be stirred into cooked dishes instead of sour cream or milk.
Making labneh involves stirring a teaspoon of salt into about 2 cups of yogurt and straining it through a piece of cheesecloth until you've achieved your desired consistency. After about a day of straining in the refrigerator, you will have a softish consistency that's perfect for dipping. Just drizzle on some good olive oil, sprinkle on some za'atar and grab the pita bread. I prefer to start with Greek style yogurt which is already partially strained.
The longer you let it strain, the thicker the labneh will be until it is eventually the texture of a block of cream cheese. Then you can use it to make a lighter version of cheesecake, either baked, like this labneh cheesecake with honeyed figs, or no bake like these pumpkin and labneh cheesecake parfaits or these ginger labneh cheesecake shooters. If you leave it on the softer side, it's ideal as a dip with the olive oil and za'atar or as a tangy substitute for sour cream on top of a stack of these potato and butternut squash latkes. Or you can stir in a flavoring such as honey or a sweet syrup. Combining it with some of the juice in the arils of pomegranates makes a refreshing labneh with honey and pomegranate breakfast.
One of my favorite appetizers is to take the thick labneh, form it into 1 oz. balls with a scoop, and marinate them in a jar of olive oil, za'atar and herbs. Perfect for spreading on toasted bread or crackers with a glass of wine.
I usually have a container of labneh in my fridge and, in all probability, several balls of cheesecloth dripping into bowls to make more. I absolutely love the tang of it, even more than the higher calorie cream cheese. But, considering how much cookie and cake baking I did for the holidays, I'm happy to have a lighter alternative for a sweet treat.