Friday, 8 November 2013

on autumn with recipes for sweet and savoury labne

a carpet of leaves in the bloomsbury

autumn is the cusp of summer and winter. it is the brief interlude between long light filled days and the short sullen days of winter with abbreviated sunlight.
it is also the season of abundance.

there are vegetables and fruits whose colours echo those of the changing leaves; squashes in hues of russet, orange and dull gold, finger staining red-purple beetroot and dark green kale. there are apples that are rosy and some of pale disposition and light green and pale yellow pears.

and yet for all its beauty autumn makes me somewhat sad. perhaps it is because its passage is quick, sometimes hurried along by wind and rain and at others by the sudden arrival of winter. i am reluctant to let it go with ease and this year i felt it acutely. this may have been because we had a summer brimming with sunshine and warmth. that put together with mama’s trip to london and our vacation to athens and mykonos made it harder to return to the daily hum-drum of work and life administration. at times like these i like retreating to the kitchen. autumn produce with its colourful palette is delightful to cook with. it requires little attention, happy as it is a rub of oil and some herbs. i like roasting because of its effortlessness and the slow caramelisation of sugars that gives way to sticky edges. but i have not been able to cook as much as i would like, given the weekends have been as busy as the weekdays.

as october came to a close everyone i knew was eating pumpkin in some shape or form and i was determined not to miss out on my share of it. so i decided to rework one of my labne recipes from earlier this summer. labne is often described as a yoghurt cheese. i assume this is because the compacted yoghurt has a consistency akin to a soft spreadable cheese like ricotta. i have been eating it since well before i knew what it was called. it was a staple in mama’s kitchen and we called it cottage cheese. she would secure yoghurt enriched with cream in a large cheese cloth and leave it to drip overnight on the kitchen counter. she would add coarsely cracked black pepper and some herbs to it to finish. i often ate this at breakfast.

labne is a kitchen staple for me too but in quite a different way to mama’s. i discovered this summer that it lends itself well to customisation. the plain version is of course the most versatile. you can add finely chopped mixed fresh herbs to it and serve with crackers or crisp toast; it is really good paired with chutney or jam and can be used as a substitute for cream cheese with smoked salmon. it loves the company of sweet vegetables like roasted butternut squash or peppers and makes remarkable breakfast toast drizzled with honey, fruit compote or jam and a scattering of nuts.

earlier this summer i made sweet labne using muscovado sugar. i think it was inspired by a childhood favourite called dahi cheeni (simply yoghurt sprinkled with sugar). the muscovado labne is a sophisticated version of the same and would work beautifully with other sugars like jaggery, gurr, brown or coconut. it tastes like caramel but with the slight tartness of yoghurt. i served it with roasted stone fruits scattered with rose petals and pistachios.

the more recent experiment of making spiced pumpkin labne was inspired by l whose abiding love for pumpkin led me to make pumpkin pecan butter last year and blue hill for the possibility of flavoured savoury yoghurt. in its savoury state you could pair it with roasted peppers or grilled aubergines with a slick of pomegranate molasses and some walnuts. or you could have it sweet like i did for breakfast one morning with flaked almonds and a generous drizzle of date syrup. it was the colour of autumn gold leaves. tucking into it for breakfast was somewhat special not just because it was a break from routine but because it captured the fleeting bounty of the season. if you have time, take the trouble to roast pumpkin or butternut squash with whole spices like cardamom or cinnamon. when the flesh is tender puree it, fold it into yoghurt and make labne. i promise it will be worth the extra effort.

now that it is winter you can leave the cheese to drip by tying the cloth over the sink. but if your kitchen is warm and your fridge is small you can use the technique below. i prefer a very thick labne and therefore allow it to drip for up to forty-eight hours.


one kg full fat yoghurt
a large cheese cloth
a large sturdy wooden spoon
two large deep bowls

place the yoghurt in a large bowl and mix it gently. line another bowl with the cheese cloth and pour the yoghurt into it.

suspend the cheesecloth over the bowl by bringing the corners together in a knot over the wooden spoon. the spoon must be large enough to rest across the bowl. make sure that the yoghurt hangs and does not touch the base of the bowl. place it in the fridge and leave it to drip overnight. alternatively you can hang the yoghurt over the kitchen sink if the weather is cool.

the labne is ready when the yoghurt has lost all its moisture and is almost halved in quantity. squeeze the labne to remove any remaining moisture and remove from the cheese cloth before serving.

{pumpkin labne}

four hundred grams full fat yoghurt
four hundred grams pumpkin puree (preferably fresh. if not use canned)
one tablespoon cinnamon
half a teaspoon all spice

follow the directions above. this labne can be used in its savoury form with roasted vegetables. to sweeten drizzle on honey, maple syrup or date syrup and finish with toasted nuts like almonds or hazelnuts.

{muscovado labne}

one hundred and thirty grams muscovado sugar
one kg yoghurt

follow the directions above. this labne pairs well with roasted fruits like peaches, apricots and plums. i have had it on breakfast toast on its own and would definitely recommend it especially on sourdough or walnut bread.

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