After college, I lived in Jerusalem for two years. Thursday afternoons, with class and work over for the week, I’d flee my office in the suburbs and hop on the 21 bus, which took me right smack into the heart of downtown. From there, I’d bound up the stairs of the Jaffa Gate, pass the first few vendors in the Shuk (market), and hook a left. Tucked across from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and just steps from the hustle of the market was Lena’s, home of the best hummus and labneh Jerusalem has to offer.
To Jerusalemites, those may be fighting words; countless stalls would lay claim to that title. But Lena’s truly is the best. Their hummus is served warm, with plenty of fresh tahini, a pile of just-cooked chickpeas , and a more-than-healthy swirl of really fragrant olive oil. And their labneh is equally perfect, dressed, too, with plenty of that olive oil and a big sprinkle of za’atar. (What is labneh? An ultra-creamy, slightly tart cheese made from straining yogurt. It's like sour cream, if it got magically thicker and more luscious.)
My time in Jerusalem flew by. Before I knew it, I was back in the U.S., without either my fun non-profit job or my beloved Lena’s. The job I could replace, but the hummus and labneh I couldn’t live without. Within a week of moving to my apartment in D.C., I was testing recipes.
Hummus proved easy, in part because recipes abound. Over the years, I’ve settled on a formula very similar to the one Yotam Ottolenghi published in his last book, Plenty, with lots of garlic, an obscene amount of tahini, and the secret ingredient: baking soda.
But then there was the matter of a labneh recipe. My Israeli friends tried to intimidate me, saying the Jerusalem water makes the original formula not replicable. But I knew that was bunk, because a) since when is labneh akin to San Francisco sourdough? And b) Jerusalem water is not my favorite, taste-wise.
As it happens, making good labneh is even easier than making good hummus. You absolutely need good extra virgin olive oil and good za’atar. Those are non-negotiables. But the method is simple:
1. Just stir a tiny bit of lemon juice and salt into Greek yogurt.
2. Set the mixture inside a cheesecloth-lined strainer, and let time do the work. (As in, 12 to 24 hours.)
3. After a nice long wait, the salt will dissolve into the yogurt, which mellows slightly as it sits. Most importantly, the whey strains out, leaving you with thick, concentrated labneh.
From there, all you have to do is drown the labneh in good olive oil, sprinkle more than a few pinches of za’atar overtop, and have warm pita at the ready. Were you hoping for something more complicated? Sorry about that. —Rivka
- Prep time 24 hours 2 minutes
- Serves 4-6
of your favorite Greek yogurt (I like Fage)
a small pinch
fresh lemon juice
good olive oil
- Line a fine strainer with a few layers of cheesecloth and set over a bowl.
- In another bowl, combine yogurt, salt, and lemon juice. Stir to incorporate. Spoon yogurt mixture into the cheesecloth-lined strainer and fold layers of cheesecloth over the yogurt to cover completely.
- Transfer yogurt (and strainer and bowl) to the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. After 12 hours, the yogurt mixture will have thickened into standard labneh; after 24 hours, it will have thickened further, into the extra-stiff labneh that you can buy in tubes at Jerusalem markets. When making it at home, I favor extra-thick labneh.
- Remove strained labneh from the fridge, unfold cheesecloth, and transfer labneh to a serving bowl. Use the back of a spoon to make a swirly pattern in the top of the labneh. Drizzle the oil over the labneh and sprinkle with za’atar. Serve cold, with hummus and sliced vegetables and/or warm pita.