I can say with some confidence that, for most students, life is too short to make your own cheese. However, as I'm sure you've surmised from a) the existence of this blog and b) the fact that I post on it daily at the moment and c) most of the things I cook are slightly more labour-intensive and time-consuming than beans on toast, I am not 'most students', when it comes to the kitchen. (You could also surmise several other things, namely that I spend my time cooking in order to reassure my desperately insecure self, faced with the nightmare-inducing fear of entering the real world after a life locked in the musty closet of academia, that there is at least one thing I am able to achieve in this world of pain and constant rejection). I do not set myself apart from the general student body in a smug, self-satisfied kind of way: sometimes I wish that I could spend a whole day working on my degree without having to get up every few minutes to check the infusion progress of an ice cream base, or turn giant pieces of hare carcass over in its marinade, or knead some bread to springy, elastic perfection. But I accepted long ago that food will always interest me far more than work. People talk about finding a work-life balance: I find a work-food balance. One fine day last week when the balance swung precariously in favour of food, I decided to make my own cheese.
I told one of my friends this. His response was "Doesn't it take ages?" I replied that no, this form of cheese only needs about 30 hours. He then replied, "But isn't it still just rotted bovine lactation?" I probably shouldn't have put that quotation near the beginning of this blog post, because now you're not going to want to read on to discover just how delicious said fermented lactation turned out to be. I will persevere, however: there isn't any rotting involved in this process. In fact, it is probably easier than making most things, like cakes, bread, or even toast. All that is required is for you to mix two types of yoghurt (cow's and goat's) in a bowl, add salt, then pour it into a sieve lined with muslin, suspended over a bowl, and leave in the fridge for 24-36 hours. The whey drains out of the yoghurt, and you are left with a firmer, cheese-like substance, with the texture of cream cheese but a more tangy flavour. It's hard to describe, but it is very moreish. In the Middle East, they call it labneh. It is often dried and formed into balls then preserved in olive oil with herbs and spices. In Syria they eat it for breakfast with bread and olive oil. I had it by the sea in Jordan covered in walnuts and garlic. The crunchy nuts and tangy garlic are perfect partners with something so thick and creamy, and that's basically the gist of this recipe, too.
As with bread, there is something very rewarding about making your own cheese. I was amazed at how it had transformed with absolutely no intervention from me. Yoghurt, something that anyone who knows me will know I detest, overnight becomes a sort of more interesting Philadelphia. I spread it out in a big bowl, and topped it with a mixture of olive oil, garlic, chopped olives, pine nuts, pistachios, lemon zest and parsley. The result is rather sharp from the garlic and lemon, and goes perfectly with the creaminess of the cheese. I also roasted some tomatoes to go alongside the cheese, and baked some big Iranian-style flatbreads to scoop it up. The combination is excellent, and could probably serve as a meal in itself.
However, I decided to try out a recipe from my Iranian cookbook as a main course. It's a stew of chicken, more yoghurt, raisins, celery and saffron. I want to tell you how delicious this stew is, but it's difficult. Obviously everything I cook and discuss on this blog is edible, otherwise I wouldn't share it with the world, but generally everything I put up here has been really tasty. Which means that when a recipe comes along that is really good, it's hard to convey just how good without resorting to an excess of hyperbole. Suffice to say that this stew must be made. It's amazing how these ingredients combine to form something so good. It's rich and creamy from the yoghurt and saffron, yet with a hint of sourness, sweet from the raisins and celery, meaty and starchy from the chicken and onion, but fresh-tasting from spices and citrus. A sprinkling of crunchy pistachios on top brings the whole thing together. All you need alongside is some crisp salad, like watercress, and something to mop up the delicious juices: more flatbread, in this case, but rice or couscous would work perfectly too. It is a very rich dish, and you probably don't need either a starter or a big dessert afterwards (I'd suggest a nice fruit salad of orange and pomegranate to cleanse the palate). And even I am saying this, which means it must be true, as I am obsessed with dessert.
I ate vast portions of both labneh and stew. And I don't even like yoghurt. That's how good these two recipes are.
The recipe for the labneh, by the amazing Yotam Ottolenghi, is here.
Chicken with saffron, yoghurt, raisins and pistachios (serves 6):
Don't let the longish ingredients list put you off - this is simple to make and it's all cooked in one pot.
2 onions, finely sliced
4 sticks celery, finely sliced
1 tsp ground cumin
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp black pepper
1kg diced chicken breast or boneless thighs
1 bay leaf
550ml chicken stock mixed with 1tsp saffron threads
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Juice of 1 orange
1 tsp sea salt
350g thick natural yoghurt (I used Greek-style)
1 tsp cornflour
1 tbsp water
1 egg, lightly beaten
4 tbsp raisins
2 tbsp chopped pistachios
Heat a little olive oil in a large casserole dish. Add the onions and celery and fry until soft and translucent. Stir in the spices and fry for another couple of minutes. Add the chicken and brown over a high heat for a minute, coating with the spices. Add the bay leaf, stock, citrus juices and zest and bring to the boil. Add the salt, then lower the heat and simmer for an hour.
When the stew is cooked, whisk the yoghurt in a bowl. Mix the cornflour with the water and add to the yoghurt with the egg. Stir well to combine. Turn down the heat on the stew to barely a simmer, then stir in the yoghurt mixture. Add the raisins and pistachios and cook gently for about 5-10 minutes. Don't let the sauce boil or it will curdle, though it will slightly anyway - this doesn't matter.
Taste and adjust the seasoning, then serve with rice or flatbread, and a green salad.
(Adapted from Saraban by Greg and Lucy Malouf)