My little village of Ain El Delb does try hard, you know. Today, they invited a prestigious army band over to commemorate the feast of the disciples of St Maroun, the patron of the local church. They organised a village style dinner: a simple spread of labneh (strained, salted yoghurt drizzled with olive oil), zaatar and fresh markouk bread. Markouk is our most traditional and loved bread. I’ve uploaded a video of the bread being made. Notice how thin it is. This thinness allows the sheets of bread to cook super quickly and since the bread has very little moisture, it lasts very well compared to bread loaves and the like. Check out the skill these ladies have, how they turn the dough to something seriously thin and evenly round. I thought it’s best to keep the church prayer in the background, just to give you a sense of the place.
Category Archives: labneh
Labna with olive oil, olives and rosemary sprig
Yoghurt. The oldest of all milk derived foods and the most feared. It is said (by me) that Genghis Khan’s only phobia was due to a recurring dream of drowning in a pool of horse milk yoghurt. The same goes for Alexander the Great, though he, against all odds, managed to overcome that fear through strenuous hypnosis and homeopathic practices, and in fact ended up loving the stuff. Throughout the ages, yoghurt has had many wonderful and amazing uses. Phoenicians used it for facials, and the ancient Egyptians used it in their mummification process in conjunction to consuming it with long grain Egyptian rice as they waited for the mummies to dry. Allright, enough joking around. Let’s be serious for a minute. This multi-faceted ingredient has helped shape the face of Middle-Eastern gastronomy, yet its origins are shrouded in mystery. Legend has it that after slaughtering a newborn camel, desert travelling Bedouins would saddle the mother camel’s milk encased in the baby’s stomach sack, where the stomach bacteria, along with the heat of the sun, curdled the milk into, yes, yoghurt!
If you were to consider world cuisines distilled to a singular ingredient, would you be able to imagine French food sans beurre, Chinese food with no soy sauce, Italian food before Chris C brought back the first tomato? Well, you may not have guessed it, but when it comes to Middle- Eastern food, yoghurt is the reigning champion, the jamon to Arabia’s Serrano, and without it, Middle Eastern food just wouldn’t be Middle Eastern food. I grew up eating yoghurt. All Lebanese people have. In fact, It is so prevalent that there are Middle-Eastern cookbooks solely dedicated to cooking with yoghurt. When it comes to cooked yoghurt dishes, kibbeh b’ laban (yoghurt kibbeh) is an absolute favourite, but when eaten fresh, there’s nothing that beats labna. Strained through muslin, yoghurt lets go of its whey to become incredibly creamy, and the longer you strain it, the thicker and richer it gets. This is labna: wheyless yoghurt that is salted and eaten in every single Lebanese home, every single day at every single breakfast. My memories as a child take me back to when dad would stack up the “troups” in the run down 70’s Mercedes (he loved that car) and drive us around. We’d whinge and complain about being hungry, and Mr Kassab would try to find somewhere cheap and cheerful to feed the family of six. Often, we’d end up at small makeshift bakeries with (as was usually the case) a weathered, slightly chubby but very cheerful grey-haired lady sitting cross legged in front of a saj, masterfully baking the thinnest sheets of bread, crisp and translucent. We would demolish a sheet in seconds, dunking shards and folds into most luscious olive oil drizzled labna decorated with sweet tomatoes, salty olives and fresh, fragrant mint. Pure joy.
Saj bread making
N.B. Make labna by straining yoghurt through a clean pillow case or muslin, or by pouring it over layers of absorbent paper towel. Depending on the quantity, it may take a few hours so keep it straining in the fridge. When it reaches the desired consistency, remove it, salt it and destroy it!
In case you are wondering, yes, these greens in the picture are indeed garden weeds and not micro-herbs; I don’t have easy access to micro-herbs and thought these guys are small enough to do the trick. They look pretty though, do you agree? And another thing, I know this is not a mille-feuille, but let me have this one, please…
I’ve been obsessing about this dessert for around a fortnight now. I came up with the idea in a moment of brilliance (or insanity, call it what you may) and have been dying to make it. For my non-Lebanese readers, a little explanation is needed so that you get a full appreciation of the idea behind the dessert. One of the most, if not the most popular breakfast in Lebanon is a labneh roll. Lebanese bread or saj bread (paper thin bread cooked on an inverted wok, sold in Australia as mountain bread) is slathered with snow-white salted labneh, drizzled with olive oil and rolled up with one or more vegetables and herbs such as mint, cucumbers, tomatoes or olives. Labneh is a cream cheese (yes it is a cheese) made from removing the whey from yoghurt, resulting in a rich, smooth spread. The breakfast roll is salty, savoury and creamy but also light and fresh, a true representative of Mediterranean cuisine with its lavish use of olive oil, dairy, bread and fresh vegetables and herbs.
This superb, yet everyday sort of breakfast was the inspiration for a creamy yet fresh dessert. The labneh is mixed with some whipped cream to give a lighter consistency, and then sweetened with icing sugar. Then, rectangles of saj bread are brushed with butter and crisped up in a pan, with some pressure applied on top to keep them straight. The saj and labneh “mille-feuille” is constructed on a plate drizzled with olive oil butterscotch, then served with a mint leaf tempura; and there you have it: labneh and saj bread with mint and olive oil! An experienced pastry chef could have turned out something a bit more professional looking, but I had to make do with my crooked design skills. And I also wanted to make a tomato jam to go with it but I couldn’t be bothered, so please imagine that it’s there too. See how the beautifully reddish orange hue of the tomato jam contrasts with the white?
Now unfortunately, I didn’t take note of measurements when I made this as it was just an experiment, but it was not hard to do once the concept was there. I have to admit though, the dessert exceeded all my expectations. The buttery richness of the labneh and cream is complemented by its sweetness and then offset by the yoghurt’s acidity. That’s why it’s important to use Greek style yoghurt labneh (and not that European style stuff). Then, the crispness and delicate saltiness of the saj bread intertwines with that creaminess, and the multiple layers create a textural explosion that is quite out of this world. The olive oil butterscotch added an extra layer of flavour, and the mint tempura is more a visual and textural addition than one of flavour; it’s just a bit of fun really. It may be worth noting that I made my own unsalted labneh using Meredith sheep’s yoghurt, which is more delicious as a labneh than it is as yoghurt. Sheep’s yoghurt has a sensational mouth-feel due to the high fat content and in my opinion makes a far superior labneh than cow’s yoghurt.
Saj Bread, Labneh, Olive Oil and Mint Mille-feuille Recipe
Now, being an IT guy, and seeing I didn’t really write down the measurements, here’s an “algorithm” as to how to make this dessert:
- Buy or make your own labneh. Make sure it’s low salt. Making labneh is easy: strain Greek style yoghurt through muslin or on layers of paper towel, changing the paper towels when they are fully soaked. The result should be the consistency of cream cheese
- Cut rectangles from saj bread (sold as mountain bread in Australia)
- Brush bread with butter and crisp up in a pan on both sides. Press them down to keep them flat as they crisp up
- Make the olive oil butterscotch by caramelising some sugar and olive oil and then emulsifying them with cream… Easy?
- Whip up some cream until semi-firm peaks form and then mix with the labneh and some icing sugar. Adjust the sugar to taste. Don’t use too much cream or the labneh flavour will be lost. Maybe a 60% labneh, 40% cream.
- Assemble as per the photo: drizzle the butterscotch, layer the mille-feuille with bread and labneh
- Cover a mint leaf with tempura batter and fry until crisp and put on the side
Queensland Blue Pumpkins
I have noticed that lately my blog has focused on Lebanese food. I don’t know why especially. The fact that I am Lebanese might have something to do with it, but I live in bicultural home were we live on a multicultural diet, as is befitting for a Sydney lifestyle. In my little corner of the world I can eat anything from ayam goreng to zabaglione, and I do. But lately, I often think of home. I miss my little village, our olive trees anxious for the summer time, and my parents who are waiting for that weekly phone call from their three boys who are scattered around the world. I find some solace in that phone call, and I spend hours talking to my mom, discussing day-to-day life, sharing worries and triumphs and swapping recipes. Easter is near, and normally I would have felt it approaching. You see, though Sydney has given me so much, it has also made me a stranger to traditions I used to identify with. That’s what nine years does to a migrant. In the period of Lent leading up to Easter Sunday, I would have been more aware of the approach of Easter, possibly because I usually would have had a lot of kibbet la’teen.
Kibbet La’teen – Pumpkin Kibbeh with Labneh
The days of Lent traditionally meant abstinence from meat. This has now changed, but in keeping with tradition, I wanted to make kibbet la’teen, or pumpkin kibbeh. Kibbeh is the national dish of Lebanon and we have so many variations on the theme. The most famous is the torpedo shaped balls filled with minced meat and pine nuts. Any decent or even terrible Lebanese restaurant would have kibbeh on the menu. But pumpkin kibbeh is the only kibbeh to have during Lent. I love the regional name kibbet heeleh. This names translates to “trick kibbeh”, the trick is, of course, the sneaky substitution of meat with pumpkin. The filling varies, and you can use anything. You would normally fill the little kibbeh balls with silver beet or spinach, fennel, raisins, chickpeas and onions. Another filling would be labneh (a creamy spread made by straining yoghurt) with onions and dried mint. I decided to go with the labneh filling and I also made a filling with fetta and walnuts, which turned out great. I got this recipe from yet another weekly phone call to the folks back home. Mom emphasised that I MUST squeeze the pumpkin after boiling. So please, do as Mom says.
Kibbet La’teen – Pumpkin Kibbeh Recipe
A visual guide to making kibbeh
For the kibbeh dough
- Pumpkin – 2 kilos
- Burghul – 400 grams (burghul is also known as bulghur wheat)
- 1 finely diced onion
- 2 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp pepper
- 1 loaf of Lebanese bread
Labneh Filling (adjust quantities to suit)
- Labneh – 2 cups
- ½ cup finely diced onion
- Salt, to taste
- Dried or fresh mint (optional)
Fetta Filling (adjust quantities to suit)
- 2 cups Fetta
- Handful of chopped walnuts
- ½ cup finely diced onion
- Cut the pumpkin into equally sized pieces
- Boil enough water to cover the pumpkin and add to the boiling water
- Remove after around 15 minutes. You want the pumpkin to be cooked, but still firm. Set aside to cool
- Put small amounts of the pumpkin in an old, but clean pillowcase. Squeeze to drain as much water as possible. Preserve the liquid that comes out
- Repeat the above step with the remaining pumpkin. You should be left with around 650 grams of dry pumpkin flesh
- Wet the Lebanese bread in the strained pumpkin water and then squeeze the excess liquid. Afterwards, shred the bread
- Put the pumpkin flesh, shredded bread and the diced onion in a food processor, and whizz away
- When the flesh and the onions are well processed, put in a big mixing bowl and add the burghul, salt and spices and knead well
Putting it together
- Put a bowl of water nearby and wet your hands when necessary
- Grab a small handful of kibbeh dough
- Shape into a ball and hold in your left hand
- Use the index finger on your right hand to make a hole in the ball
- Gradually flatten the dough making it longer around your index
- Make sure you don’t create any holes
- It doesn’t have to be perfect, as long as it holds the filling. It gets better the more you do it. When the kibbeh is around the length of your index, place the filling of choice inside and close it up by either rounding the edges or flattening them.
- Use the different edges to distinguish different fillings
- Now to cook them, you can either bake, deep-fry or boil them. Deep-frying is the tastiest but least healthy, which is of course what I did. You want the colour to deepen to a nice dark brown. If boiling, do so for around 5 minutes. The colour will not go brown, but they will be cooked.
- Eat hot or cold. It doesn’t matter, as long as you eat them. Enjoy, and if I don’t see you, Happy Easter.
I remember breakfasts of Labneh, Zaatar, mint, tomato and cucumber with fresh, paper thin markouk bread. On weekends, when time was a luxury we could afford, it would be kishk and qawarma hiding full cloves of garlic in creamy whiteness speckled with shallow fried pine nuts. We burnt our tongues in impatience and never learned to wait. Eggs with sumac were fluffy and crunchy, slowly fried with olive oil in pottery and devoured within seconds with farm fresh home made goat’s milk yoghurt. Every once in a while, mom would send dad down to the baker’s with a variety of containers to be made into Lebanese pizzas and pies. The one for manakish would be full of her special zaatar mix – hand picked mountain thyme, dried and mixed with freshly roasted sesame seeds, sumac and of course, olive oil from our decades old olive grove. Another would have spinach and wild silver beet mixed with onions and used to fill the triangular Fattayer b’Sbenekh w Selek. Then there was Lahm b’Ajeen, mutton and beef mince mixed with onions, tomatoes, pine nuts, pomegranate molasses and spices served piping hot on top of the crispy golden brown pastry. A squeeze of lemon juice was all it needed to become the perfect meat pie. Let’s not get into an argument here.
Dad would drive on missions in search of the freshest produce. On his way back home, he would beep the horn, sending a special message that got us on to our feet and out to greet him. The three boys would help dad carry boxes full of the freshest produce upstairs where mom would complain. On a good day. electricity was only available for two or three hours if we were lucky, and that meant that produce needed to be bought and consumed very quickly. But Dad had a problem. Buying a kilo or less of anything was a strange concept he never embraced; and so mom got busy cooking three or four meals at a time, preserving what she could and handing out the rest to the neighbours, who were all too keen to repay the favour and offload their own husbands’ overzealous shopping habits, undermining mom’s evacuation efforts.
Over the next few posts, I want to cover many of the Lebanese breakfast foods we eat. I will aim to recreate the recipes using high quality raw ingredients sourced locally from Sydney wherever possible . Wish me luck.