Shankleesh “Cheese Balls” – Marinated Labneh from Lebanon

Shankleeshplate92Cheese balls come in many styles and flavors; likely every cheesemaking part of the world has some version of a cheesy orb, be it rolled in nuts, herbs, spices, peppers, and dried fruits, or marinated in oil. The Middle East’s traditional cheese ball is Shankleesh, or “pickled Labneh,” a dairy delicacy native to Lebanon.

I happened upon Shankleesh by Baroody  at Wekalet El Balah Egyptian American Grocery & Deli in Bayonne, N.J., where there is a large Egyptian community. EgyptianMarketThe store is named for a historical outdoor market in Cairo, Egypt, yet sells products from all over the Middle East. This local Wekalet El Balah sports a thriving cheese section full of exotic Middle Eastern cheeses—cheeses I had never heard of—and I have eaten a lot of cheese in my life!

Shankleesh is a different type of marinated cheese ball. This cow’s milk version is much firmer than the spreadable goat cheeses in oil that I usually find from other countries. Shankleeshjar79

Ingredients include “dry milk,” which I deducted was actually strained yogurt, or “Labneh,” and red hot pepper (possibly Aleppo), sweet spice (tastes like za’atar), and dry thyme. Some Shankleesh is marinatd in olive oil, but Baroody’s is in soybean. Oddly enough, since the cheeses are firm, they don’t become overly oily from the marinade; only the outside carries the oil. The flavors of the herbs and peppers, however, penetrate the little cheese balls.

Shankleesh is a crumbly cheese similar in texture to feta, and can be used much in the same way. Each 1-ounce cheese ball is about 60 calories with 6 grams of fat, making it a light accompaniment for vegetables. shankleesh10The whole cheese balls are an attractive addition to a meze appetizer selection, and in recipes, they are usually crumbled, especially over diced tomatoes and onions. Its tanginess is enhanced with a squeeze of lemon. Other additions include cucumber, parsley, mint, avocado, green peppers, and jalapeno peppers, black pepper, and olive oil.  It’s also tasty over a green salad.

An adventuresome cheese lover can make Shankleesh at home, plain or with herbs, by straining Greek yogurt or Labneh in a sieve for three days or so, and then rolling the dryer substance into balls to marinate. The blog post “Marinated Yoghurt Cheese Balls (Labneh)” by Home Cooking in Montana, gives detailed instructions on how to make Shankleesh, including step-by-step pictures.

Bil-hanā’ wa ash-shifā’! بالهناء والشفاء / بالهنا والشفا
“May you have your meal with gladness and health!”
(Bon Appétit!)

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress

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Arla Cream Cheese Spreads: Schmear Done the Danish Way

Arla06I was excited to see Arla cheese come on the market in my area. Cream cheese, though mild and fairly standard, is nevertheless a favorite of mine. Its smooth, creamy texture and taste of fine cream make it both refreshing and versatile. I once attended a seminar on the history of cream cheese. During its evolution in the U.S., this ancestor of French Neufchâtel gradually acquired gums and stabilizers as ingredients. I longed to taste the more delicate cream cheeses of a bygone era, but found none on the market. Until Arla.

Arla is a dairy-owned company in Denmark devoted to sustainable farming.

Arla23Arla’s line of Danish cream cheeses—which includes Original, Light, Peppercorn, Herbs & Spices, and Blueberry—are free of added hormones, stabilizers, thickeners, artificial flavors and preservatives. Not only are they lighter on the palate, they are also lighter in calories and fat; two tablespoons range from 60 to 80 calories with only five to seven grams of fat, depending on the flavor. One especially intriguing ingredient is buttermilk to the cream, which possibly accounts for the lower fat and added tanginess in the Light, Blueberry, Peppercorn, Herbs & Spices flavors. The Original contains both cream and skim milk.

Arla Cream Cheese Spreads are silky with a pleasant texture that is not at all sticky or gummy. Their moisture content seems to be higher than other brands’, allowing them to glide onto bagels and crackers with ease.

Arla34Peppercorn, which is spiced up with black pepper and pink peppercorns, is a personal favorite. Gerry, who was presenting samples and “$1 off” coupons, said the Herbs & Spices was especially popular for its savory blend of onion, garlic, paprika, and dill. The lightly sweet Blueberry needs no explanation.

The only drawback to these cheeses is that they are not kosher as other brands are. While they contain no offending ingredients, they simply don’t have certification. (Kosher cream cheese is a staple at many Jewish events.)

Thanks, Gerry, for the coupons and excellent cheese samples! Click HERE to print a $1 coupon online (at bottom of page).

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress

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St. Patrick’s Day Cheese and Biscuits

Lively cheese brings out the Irish in everybody! Many Americans are of Irish descent, but no matter your background, Ireland’s fine cheeses invite you to join in on the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. From Ireland’s rich green fields come luscious golden cheeses, many of which are in the beloved cheddar style.biscuit552

This year, Irish cheeses started popping up just as I was returning from a trip home to Alabama—with a batch of my sister’s homemade biscuits. “Make sure and toast them with cheese,” she told me, “just like Grandma used to do.” Sure enough I melted my Irish Kerrygold cheeses (Dubliner and Skellig), and butter, onto my grandma’s reincarnated biscuits.

Fluffy, yet crumbly, these biscuits take you back to the “scone” age. Biscuits, like good scones and even Irish soda bread, are based on buttermilk and soda. They go great with anything from fruit preserves to simple butters, floral honeys, and lush cheeses.

It is hard to wait for fresh biscuits to cook (which is why I enjoy the raw dough), but equally difficult to watch—and watch—and watch the orange light in the toaster oven as it warms and re-crusts the biscuits from early morning festivities. It is worth it, the soft, crispy toaster version. Melted cheese and butter are an extra bonus. Plus chives.biscuit14

I open-face toasted some biscuits first with my Irish cheddar, but also made sandwich biscuits.

Biscuits may not hold up in your lunch bag. They crumble. And you may not make it to the train stop. I bit through this biscuit during its photo shoot.biscuit713

For more on biscuits and cheese, see my cheese biscuit blog post from 2011 where I tried to recreate my grandma’s and searched for a substitute for government cheese! (Spoiler alert: there is no substitute.)

Elizabeth Bland
The Cheese Mistress


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A Bite of Brie by Ile de France

BriePetit292Deep in the heart of Pennsylvania at a Sheetz gas station and grab n’ go shop, I found a basket of tiny gourmet snack cheeses. One was a single serve cup of Il de France Brie.

Ile de France is a well-known French producer whose pop-up I had visited at the Best of France festival in Manhattan. I had thoroughly enjoyed the Brie I got there, and was thrilled to see it available in .9 oz., 70 calorie miniatures. (I found out later the Brie Bites come in a bag at grocery stores, too.)

BriePetit41When I looked at the sell-by date on the side on my Brie Bite, my chest froze; the date February 24th is the anniversary of my mother’s death. Although it’s a sad day, it’s also one I spend remembering her, especially with foods she loved like pralines, Milky Way bars, and buttery cheeses.

Brie is one such cheese. Sumptuous and smooth, it satisfies the indulgent nature of the human experience.

During the last couple of decades of her life, my mother denied herself some of the world’s most luxurious, full-fat foods. It was not her weight that concerned her—she was naturally petite and skinny—but rather, her hereditary high cholesterol. The doctor suggested she adopt a low fat diet with extreme limitations on her dairy. From then on, she lamented the fat-driven world; she altered recipes; she avoided red meat and eggs; and she picked nervously at my delicious cheeses.

BriePetithand3But it was not cholesterol that shifted her fate. It was an accident. When I realized how haphazard life was, I vowed to “seize the day” and never deny myself the pleasure of dairy indulgence. As it turns out, doctors are not always right, and full fat, quality dairy is not the culprit, when part of a balanced diet.

So Carpe Cheese-um!


Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress

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Sea Change – a Shift to the Otherworldly

SeaChangelabel150The cryptic Shakespeare reference on the back of Sea Change cheese got me at “rich and strange.”(The Tempest: Act 1, Scene 2) True to the slogan “Dedicated to the Science and Art of Milk Metamorphosis,” The Mystic Cheese Company of Lebanon, Conn., brings a cheese that reflects the “sea change” of fine dairy.


Freshly opened Sea Change

Before I even tasted the 4-ounce disk of cow’s milk, I held it in my hand, assaying its weight. For such a small cheese, it felt surprisingly heavy; and with a slight squeeze, it came to life. This was a delicate cheese, but with a “rich and strange” personality.

Once I unwrapped it, I saw its similarities to Italian Robiola cheese—young fresh, sometimes lightly rinded beauties from Piedmont in northwestern Italy. Sea Change is a fat little milk-logged cheese with a yeasty, eggy aroma. Young and ready to play, it comes to the perfect texture in no time. This cheese not only has a traditional lactic tang, but it also lactates on its own.


Super milky Sea Change after about 15 minutes

It starts oozing milk before it comes anywhere near room temperature. The center remains firm—not curdy—but fluffy and fudgy, and towards the thin rind, there is a gap where liquid cheese can move about.

A small cheese that disappears as quickly as sea foam, Sea Change should be served to a few select friends, either on its own with bread or dried fruits, or on an intimate cheese plate.

Recommended wine: lively sparklers such as Italy’s Prosecco or Asti Spumante.

I bought Sea Change at Le District in Manhattan’s Battery Park.

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress

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It’s National Cheese Lover’s Day!

CheeseDay1I don’t just love cheese; I adore it. So much so that every day, for me, is “cheese lover’s day.” Cheese is one of the most fascinating foods around, from its myriad incarnations and international versatility to its funky history. I have compiled a list of questions and answers on my true love and appreciation for cheese. Consider this a Valentine to Cheese—How do I love cheese? Let me count the ways.

Murrays24Why cheese?
Why not cheese? I truly don’t understand this question. It’s like asking a fine pastry chef, “Why éclairs?” Cheese is delicious. It’s beautiful. It’s protein- and calcium-packed. It comes in many shapes, colors, milks, flavors, and styles. It is versatile enough for breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, and snacks. It has a rich history and regional terroir. With its many personalities, cheese is funny and quirky by nature. It is alive. It speaks if you listen closely. Oh, and it can melt! Cheese is the ultimate toy and storyteller.

How did you get into cheese?
I loved cheese from an early age, and dairy products from birth. As a baby, I drank a remarkable one quart of milk a day. I loved milk, and when I got old enough to appreciate cheese, I did. My earliest cheese memory is eating pimento cheese sandwiches in pre-school. By the time I was eighcheesebookst, I was eating chunks of Longhorn Colby like a lollipop. I truly came into cheese when my high school French teacher introduced the class to Brie and chèvre at a class party. Once I traveled to Europe in high school, I discovered even more cheese in France and Italy, where I was studying language. My passion for cheese only grew as my knowledge deepened.

What’s your favorite cheese?
My favorite cheese is usually the one I have eaten most recently! The cheese type I eat the most often is Cheddar. However, my go-to favorite cheese, my standard answer is my first love, Crottin de Chavignol, a goat nugget from France.

How do you eat so much cheese and stay thin?
Cheese is part of my healthy diet—one which keeps my weight in check. I eat cheese with great frequency on a daily basis, but not in great quantities.

BlueCheeseSalad66I have been overweight and I even had high cholesterol in my early 20’s, but it was not the cheese’s fault; I was eating too much high carb/low fiber food, namely pastries. When I switched back to cheese as my #1 filler-up source, and replaced the sweets with fruits, I lost the weight and the cholesterol issues. I also work out a lot as cheese provides me with sustaining, long-lasting energy vs. the crash and burn of sugar.

Do you make your own cheese?
Yes and no. I have made fresh (unaged) cheeses at home before, including ricotta, mascarpone, and cream cheese. My main source of cheese, however, is store-bought. Going through the cheesemaking deepened my understanding of my favorite food.

Is there any cheese you don’t like? Do you eat Velveeta?
Schtarkbowl60Yes, there are three cheeses I don’t like, but they are not the usual suspects. (Write me privately and I will name them. They are not inherently bad cheeses—just not my cup of “cheese.”) One, I will name, however. It is a horrible process cheese from the 99 Cent Store in L.A. This was the worst cheese in the world. It wasn’t even cheese. It was just plastic and rubber. It made American slices look like an aged clothbound cheddar! The 99 cent cheese was so bad, I threw it away and its name has become a repressed memory. What was I thinking?

On the other hand, I believe that (almost) every cheese has its purpose and should be appreciated per its unique reason to live. Velveeta, for example, is far from artisanal, but no one can deny that it is a great melter and part of culinary Americana. Who hasn’t enjoyed the simple pleasure of dumping a can of Rotel into a bowl of Velveeta cubes, microwaving it, and kicking back in front of the TV with some tortilla chips?

So Cheese On! Make every day Cheese Day!

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress


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Balto-Slavic Cheeses in Brooklyn? Who Knew?


1824 Kings Highway B’kln, NY Credit:

Brooklyn is one of New York City’s many melting pot boroughs, so it only makes sense that its varied cheese selections would reflect the populace.
Walking through Flatbush and Midwood, I happened upon a bustling Russian-style supermarket called Domino.


I had just left a neighborhood of Chasidic Jewish men speaking Russian and Yiddish, and entered into the chaos of this cozy market full of Russian Christmas cakes, cookies, gingerbread houses, and endless displays of festive food. It was Christmas Eve. The place was a madhouse with frantic shoppers shoving, some even yelling, angrily or excitedly—or both. It was hard to tell.


Feta-style cheeses and deli loaves    Credit:

In a back nook of the store, I found the cheese.  (I am talented in that way!)There were cheeses from all over the world, from Canada to Bulgaria. The prices on the wheels and small packs were unbelievably low, and the tubs of Feta and Feta-style cheeses were varied in both milk and flavor. On the bottom shelf were the loaves for deli slices.


The woman behind the counter barely spoke English, and when she did, she had a thick accent—I assume Russian—which I had trouble understanding. No worries. Cheese is the universal language!


Have you forgotten exactly where Latvia is?

I ordered four cheeses from Eastern European countries—Russia, Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Latvia. Each cheese was similar to a cheese style in the near-bye Western countries.


Due to difficulties obtaining imports in modern Balto-Slavic time, countries had to rely on homegrown production of international favorites.


Havarti-style Cheese, Russia


Russian Cheese

Since I was in a Russian-style market, I asked first for a Russian cheese. There was only one, in a loaf form for slicing or selling in blocks. I didn’t catch the brand or cheese type since the label was in Cyrillic, so I will call it “Russian cheese.”
This Russian cheese is extremely buttery. In fact, it’s one of the most buttery cheeses I’ve ever tasted—one that truly tastes like butter and melts in the mouth accordingly. It is even buttery yellow in color.

This Havarti-style cheese is super soft on the palate, and tastes milky, salty, and tangy. The slices crack when folded, and it has a scattering of tiny irregular eye holes. I had the choice of slices or a whole chunk. I chose slices, but regret it a bit as the cheese was so sticky that it adhered to the deli paper. I couldn’t get all the paper off and had to throw away much of the cheese, or else eat paper along with my cheese. Not an option.

Havarti-style “Dvaro” Cheese, Lithuania
Dvaro Cheese from Lithuania looks a lot like the Russian Havarti-type one. It, too, is yellow—even more yellow than the Russian cheese—and it is riddled with small curd holes. It comes in a slice pack with each slice separated by deli sheets, which thankfully do not stick to the cheese like they did with the freshly sliced Russian cheese. It is tangy with a slight pungency, and a slightly floral aftertaste. It is not overly salted. The label is in standard type Cyrillic and also cursive Cyrillic. I can’t figure out what Dvaro means besides just being a brand name. Perhaps the label gives a clue? “Литовский-сыр-“Дваро”-сливочный” Dvaro melts well and keeps its flavor under heat.

Swiss-style “Dytyachiy” cheese, the Ukraine
Mouse Cheese


The moon is made of Ukrainian cheese!

This slice pack hails from the Ukraine and the writing is in Cyrillic. I bought this because of the cute mouse on the label. The texture is a little rubbery like Swiss, and it is light yellow in color, but it has no trademark round “Swiss” holes. It is most similar in flavor to Swiss, but it also reminds me of very mild Edam. It comes in tightly packed deli slices separated by deli sheets.


It is a smooth melter; it doesn’t separate too much. Its strings are less intense than a mozzarella’s, but still significant.

Parmesan-style Džiuga Delicate, Latvia
Fairy Tale Giant Cheese
I bought this because part of the label is a sort of Viking (with no horns) or a blond mountain man holding what looks like a wheel of Parmesan. “Time to taste, Time to appreciate” the label says. Džiugas Delicate is aged at least 24 months. Although it looks like a Parmesan, it is lighter and earthier. In flavor. When shredded fresh over pasta, it melts and even gets a little stringy. It seems to have won 7 awards, but I would need a jeweler’s loupe to tell what they are.


24-month Dziugas, Ukraine

The awards’ names are written in tiny script on gold medals. The ingredients are translated first in Lithuanian since the cheese is from Lithuania. Then Litvak. Then under EE (Eastern Europe?) and in Cyrillic under UA (Ukraine?).


Click on The Legend on to see an illustrated fairy tale of Džiugas the Giant.
“The Legend about the Giant Džiugas and his Cheese”
An illustrated slide show tells the story of a giant who married the king’s daughter in the village. After the wedding, the bride and groom brought a huge hard cheese that the wedding guests feasted on for a week. The giant, Džiugas, made this cheese and used it to renew his strength. Then his wife died, leaving him so distressed that he dug a hole next to her grave and died. The townspeople kept his memory alive by continuing to make his hard cheese from the original recipe.

Elizabeth Bland, The Cheese Mistress

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