preserved lemon poppy seed labneh cheesecake

preserved lemon poppy seed cheesecake

Yesterday I turned thirty-one! It doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “thirty,” but so far, so good. For my birthday, we bought a big print of some figs for our living room wall, which makes me feel like we’re finally settling into our place. Since we moved to Hong Kong a year and a half ago, I’ve just been way too busy to spend any time thinking about decor. So our walls have been absurdly blank forever, and I have this tendency to blame it on minimalism, as if this particular look was an intentional design choice.

I mean, I’m definitely a minimalist, and I like that we’ve taken our time filling our tiny apartment with only a handful of things we absolutely love. But sometimes I use minimalism as an excuse to never make a decision, and never spend time (or money) on making our place feel like home. I’m so glad to have found a little balance. Next up, maybe a fig tree for our little balcony, or an area rug to add a little more warmth to the living room.

preserved lemon poppy seed cheesecake
preserved lemon poppy seed cheesecake

So yeah, fig art is definitely a highlight of my birthday week. But also, this cheesecake! I developed this recipe for my family a couple months ago, and it was a hit. It’s the perfect thing for a (shall we say…) more sophisticated birthday. It’s got that classic and familiar lemon poppy flavor, but with a little twist, since the flavor comes from preserved lemons. Lemons become much more fragrant as they ferment, and their harsh citrus notes gradually mellow as their acidity and saltiness intensify. While you usually see preserved lemons in savory recipes, I love using them in sweets, because they taste simultaneously familiar and unexpected. They’re super lemony, but not in the bright and sunny way you assume of a lemony dessert.

Preserved lemons are a little hard to track down in the US, but they’re somewhere out there, and easy enough to make at home. If you preserve your own lemons at home, be careful how much you add to this recipe, because homemade ones tend to be saltier and more flavorful than commercial ones. I had luck finding some good ones at World Market, and I know the Spice House sells them too (if you’re in Chicago, or don’t mind ordering them online). Upscale supermarkets with decent international sections often carry them (like Whole Foods). They’re not always available in Middle Eastern markets, because they’re not a staple in every region’s cuisine—they’re most commonly used in North African cuisines.

To make this recipe, it’s best not to go on a wild goose chase for the ingredients. Let the preserved lemons come to you. You’ll be walking through the supermarket one day, and—bam! You’ll see a big preserved lemon end-cap, and you’ll grab a jar, go home, and make this cheesecake, followed by lots of delicious tajine over the course of the next few weeks. But don’t be like me and the fig print—grab a bottle when you see them, and don’t let the year pass you by without this preserved lemon poppy seed cheesecake in your life.

preserved lemon poppy seed cheesecake
preserved lemon poppy seed cheesecake

preserved lemon poppy seed labneh cheesecake

active time: 20 minutes
total time: 16 hours
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PDF to print
for another variation, try my
dried mint labneh cheesecake

graham cracker crust

  • 12 full graham crackers (180g, 2 cups)

  • 5 tablespoons butter, melted (71 g)

  • 2 tablespoons sugar (30g)

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt (1g)

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F convection (177° C).

  2. Finely grind the graham crackers in a food processor.

  3. Add the melted butter, sugar, and salt, and process until everything is well-blended.

  4. Lightly coat the sides of an 8 or 9-inch cheesecake round with oil or butter.

  5. Place the crumbly crust in the cheesecake round, and press it down into 1 even layer. Use a glass, measuring cup, or something else that has a flat bottom to press it compactly.

  6. Place the cheesecake round on a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until it turns a little golden. Let it cool while you work on the filling.

filling

  • 1 1/2 pounds full-fat labneh (680g)*

  • 2 egg yolks (40g)

  • 3 large eggs (150g)

  • 1 cup sugar (200g)

  • 1/4 cup minced preserved lemon rind (35g)**

  • 2 tablespoons poppy seeds (20g)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste (2.5g)

  1. Lower the oven to 300° F convection.***

  2. Place the labneh in a medium mixing bowl. Add the egg yolks and slowly whisk together to completely incorporate (use a whisk, but do not whip it together—you don't want to incorporate too much air into the filling).

  3. Add the remaining eggs one egg at a time, mixing everything together completely with each addition.

  4. Add the sugar and stir together until it all dissolves completely. Then stir in the preserved lemon rind and poppy seeds, and season with the salt (unless your lemons are super salty—see the note below).

  5. Pour into the (slightly cooled) crust and bake for about 55 minutes, just until the very center is a little jiggly. Don’t worry if it cracks a bit (it’ll get covered).

topping

  • 1/2 pound full-fat labneh (227g)

  • 2 tablespoons sugar (30g)

  • a little extra labneh or Greek yogurt for touch-ups (reserve about 1 tablespoon)

  • more preserved lemon rind and poppy seeds for decoration

  1. Once the cheesecake comes out of the oven, let it sit while you make the topping.

  2. Combine the labneh and sugar, and pour over the top. Carefully smooth it out, put it back in the oven for 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven, run a knife around the sides, and leave it at room temperature for about 2 hours before covering and refrigerating overnight. If you don't have all night, refrigerate it for at least 3 to 4 hours. Don't worry if the edges are a little rough—you will fix it later.

  3. Once it's chilled long enough, you can touch up the edges before removing from the pan.**** Simply add a tiny dab of labneh or Greek yogurt to any rough spots around the edges, and smooth it out a little with the back of a spoon. Wash your hands very well or wear gloves, wet your finger, and smooth out the dabs of labneh. Without running a knife around again, remove from the pan, place on a serving plate, and sprinkle with poppy seeds and sliced preserved lemons (don’t go too crazy with the preserved lemon decorations—they’re extremely flavorful, and you mostly just want them for decoration).

* I developed this recipe with store-bought labneh, but you can use homemade. Just be sure to strain it long enough (the full 12 hours, or longer) or the cheesecake might not set correctly. If you buy store-bought labneh, make sure it’s really good quality. It needs to be very thick and sour.
** See the notes above the recipe for where to find preserved lemon, and make sure there’s no garlic or savory spices in the brine (a little hot pepper’s just fine though). Commercially processed preserved lemons tend to have much less sodium than home preserved lemons, and brands vary. If you have particularly salty lemons, proceed with caution, and add them to taste instead of just adding the entire 1/4 cup. Don’t add the extra 1/2 teaspoon of salt until you’re sure your lemons aren’t too salty. This amount worked perfectly with the brand I chose, but you should use your judgment.
*** If you don’t have a convection oven, it will just take a little longer to bake all the way through. When I’ve used a conventional oven for this recipe, it’s taken about 15 to 20 minutes longer to bake through.
**** I feel like food stylists usually don’t tell you their secrets to getting a picture-perfect result, so I included my trick to getting clean edges on a cheesecake. Whenever I make cheesecake, the very top edges get all messed up when I run a knife around the sides. I’ve never found a way to avoid this. I think using parchment paper would prevent the problem, but I don’t like the crinkly look that gives the sides. But this is a super easy way to fix the problem, and it works like a charm. You can of course just serve it as is and not worry about it, but if you’re really going for it on Instagram, make sure you reserve an extra tablespoon or so of labneh for touch-ups.

preserved lemon poppy seed cheesecake

see more:

mujadara-inspired French onion lentil soup

mujadara-inspired french onion soup

As you might notice if you browse my recipes, French bistro food isn’t really my style. It’s just not something I usually find inspiration in, and while I totally get the appeal, I just don’t personally crave it. But despite this ennui, even I can’t resist a bowl of French onion soup. What’s not to love about a cheesy croûte on top of caramelized onion soup?

Underneath all that cheesy bread, I think it might just be my one exception because the flavors remind me so much of mujadara, one of my favorites. Mujadara is simply lentils and rice with a ton of caramelized onions, sometimes served with yogurt and crispy fried onions on top. And as it happens, adding lentils to French onion soup turns it into much more of a vegetarian main, sprinkling on crispy fried onions is just the thing to send it over the top, and blending za’atar with fresh thyme strikes the perfect balance between the two dishes. I channeled my inner Julia Child for this one (though I’m still not sure if she’s in there), and I hope you enjoy it on one of these chilly winter evenings. Brr!

mujadara-inspired french onion soup
mujadara-inspired french onion soup
mujadara-inspired french onion soup
mujadara-inspired french onion soup

Before I leave you with the recipe, let me just tell you how excited I am that yesterday was my blog’s second anniversary! This time last year, I wrote a bit about how difficult it is for me to recover from a disastrous recipe developing day, and I’m proud to say that I’ve had a record low number of pity parties this year. If I’m being totally honest (and probably also if you ask my family), I haven’t actually gotten much better at taking recipe developing disasters in stride, but I’ve become better at avoiding them in the first place, and productively working through them when they happen.

In my first year of blogging, there were so many times that I’d make something, it wouldn’t go well, and I would have no idea how to fix it and move forward. I’d head to the kitchen the next day with a fuzzy idea of what to do differently, and things would go even worse. Or I would come up with a half-baked idea, not spend enough time fleshing it out before heading to the kitchen, and then (shockingly! hah) it wouldn’t pan out. Of course, these failed experiments never made it onto the blog, which meant that I had to work that much harder before stumbling into a recipe I was actually excited to share with you guys. I’m proud of everything that made it onto the blog in my first year, but sheesh—I did not get there in the most efficient (or mentally healthy) way possible.

But now, I feel so much more prepared whenever I start working on a new idea. And when things don’t go right, it’s become so much easier to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. I’ve learned so much since starting, especially this last year, and I hope to keep challenging myself, learning, and growing this year. So I guess—resolution met! Kind of! Maybe I can work on the mindfulness side of the equation this time, and try to take on a more blissfully enlightened, easygoing, no-worries kitchen persona when things go wrong. Probably not, but I’ll check back in with an update next February.

Overall, it’s been a rewarding year! I wrote and posted seventy-six new recipes, I was nominated for a Saveur award in the best food culture blog category, I got involved with the Cook for Syria movement and contributed a recipe to the Bake for Syria book, and I’ve just recently started thinking about next steps and new projects. One project is way too early on to really talk about in detail, but I’ll just say that I’m having so much fun with the research stage, which has involved interviewing my Middle Eastern/North African chef/food blogger friends and spending all day thinking about, cooking, and researching one of my all-time favorite foods. Can’t wait to see what becomes of it. But in any case, I have a feeling this is going to be a good year, and I can’t wait to share some of my favorite new recipes with you here.

mujadara-inspired french onion soup
mujadara-inspired french onion soup
mujadara-inspired french onion soup
mujadara-inspired french onion soup

mujadara-inspired French onion lentil soup

yield: about 8 servings
active time: 40 minutes
total time: 1 hour 15 minutes
download a
PDF to print
see also:
mujadara, mujadara tacos, and mujadara french onion soup
notes on multitasking: While the onions finish caramelizing, start frying the ones you set aside. While the soup simmers, assemble the croûtes.

french onion lentil soup

  • 4 tablespoons butter

  • 3 pounds onions, thinly sliced (about 5 to 6 medium onions)

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste

  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed through a press or finely minced

  • 2 tablespoons flour (optional)

  • 1/2 cup dry red wine (feel free to substitute more broth if you can’t have wine)

  • 8 cups vegetable broth

  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

  • 1/2 teaspoon rubbed sage (I used Palestinian sage, which was perfect, but you can use any)

  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme or za’atar (or an equal amount fresh thyme)

  • 3/4 pound green or brown lentils, sorted and rinsed

  1. Place the butter in a large dutch oven and set over medium-high heat. Once the butter has melted, swirl to coat and add the onions and 1/2 teaspoon salt. In the first couple minutes, you'll want to keep them moving to help them wilt. After about 5-10 minutes, you'll notice the bottom of the pot gathering a brown film. Scrape it up with your wooden spoon (preferably flat-edged) and let the onions absorb the brown bits. Let the onions sit for a couple minutes, until the brown film shows up again—scrape it up again and give the onions a stir.

  2. Continue to caramelize the onions this way, scraping the brown bits from the bottom whenever they accumulate. Control the heat so the bottom doesn't burn. Toward the end, you may need to reduce the heat to medium to keep the onions from burning. *

  3. Once the onions are very soft and golden brown (after about 25 minutes), remove 1/3 of them to a plate, and continue cooking the rest for about 10 more minutes, until they're deeply brown. You'll need to stir more frequently in these last 10 minutes, and you might need to occasionally deglaze the bottom with a couple teaspoons of water if it's too hard to scrape up.

  4. During the last minute or two of caramelizing, add the garlic and stir for just 1-2 minutes.

  5. Lower the heat to medium-low, add the flour, and cook stirring constantly for about 2 minutes.

  6. Add the wine and scrape any bits still stuck to the bottom of the pan. Stir in the broth a little at a time while whisking, until the mixture smooths out a bit, then add the rest of the broth, black pepper, sage, thyme, and lentils and increase the heat to medium-high. Tate and adjust the seasoning if necessary.

  7. Once it comes to a boil, cover, reduce heat to medium-low and cook for about 15 to 25 minutes. Once the lentils are done (no longer mealy, but not yet mushy), remove from heat (it'll stay warm if covered for about 30 minutes). Taste and season a little more if necessary.

fried onions

  • 1 cup neutral-flavored oil (canola oil or refined olive oil—not extra virgin—works great)

  • The set-aside golden-brown caramelized onions

  1. Heat the oil in a skillet over medium-high heat until an onion sizzles when dropped in (about 5 minutes). Carefully add a scoop or two of the reserved caramelized onions and use tongs to spread them out into a single mostly submerged layer.

  2. Cook, stirring every minute or so, for about 3 to 5 minutes until crispy-chewy and deeply golden brown (control the heat to make sure they don’t burn). Before they burn or become too brittle, remove them with a slotted spoon to a paper-towel-lined plate, and then add a couple more scoops of the onions to the pan, working in batches until they're all done. Discard the remaining oil after it cools.

croûte

  • 1 French boule (or another loaf of crusty bread), cut into thick bowl-width slices (about 400-450g)

  • Butter

  • 8 ounces sliced or grated melting cheese (swiss, mozzarella, gruyere, etc.) (or 12 oz. if you want stretchy gobs)

  • 1/4 cup finely grated parmesan cheese

  • (optional) thyme for garnish

  1. Preheat the broiler. While you wait, lightly butter both sides of the bread slices and place them on a sheet pan (parchment-lined for easy cleanup). Broil until toasted on one side (about 1 to 5 minutes, depending on your broiler–check very frequently!), then remove from the oven and flip them over.

  2. Place the cheese slices on the un-toasted sides, then sprinkle with parmesan cheese. Place back under the broiler until the cheese is melted and browned in spots (another 1 to 5 minutes).

  3. Serve by ladling some soup into a bowl, topping with a croûte, and sprinkling with fried onions and a little thyme.

* If you want a method that requires less babysitting (but more time), try the method I use in my mujadara recipe

mujadara-inspired french onion soup