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
download a
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

cinnamon rose meringues + a tea menu

cinnamon rose meringues

It feels weird to write this Valentine’s Day post starting with a rant, but at least it’s a very silly rant, so here it goes… There are a couple food writing clichés that kind of get on my nerves. The one that most ruffles my feathers (we’ve all done it, myself included) is when someone takes a perfectly good food, invents a problem by claiming they actually don’t really like it for x, y, and z reasons, and then solves the problem with a magical recipe that changes everything.

Like, “Guys, I just hate brownies. They’re so chocolatey and chewy instead of light and fluffy, and they have that awkward crackly layer on top that crumbles apart when you slice pieces. But this recipe for brownies will make even brownie haters happy.” Like, none of these things are actual problems. This is not a food that needs to win people over, because to know brownies is to love them. And the 1% of people who don’t like brownies can console themselves with a chocolate chip cookie.

So it’s with a lot of hesitation (and probably a little irony) that I’m about to say this next sentence:
… I hate meringues.
They’re certainly beautiful, but they usually taste awful, and I don’t really understand why people continue to buy them in cute pastry shops, order them for weddings, and—presumably?—eat them. They’re so sugary that they kind of hurt my teeth. Their texture is like what I’d imagine a fine-grained pumice stone would taste like if it could melt in your mouth. Whatever you flavor them with will just end up tasting like sugar, and nothing else.

But (again, waiting for lightning to strike me down for my hypocrisy as I type this), I recently found a way to actually enjoy eating meringues as much as I love making and looking at them. The secret? Cream cheese frosting and yogurt. The idea was inspired by Samin Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat. Meringues are in desperate need of both fat and acid, and cream cheese frosting and yogurt have plenty. Because of their acidity, the pairing is a million times more delicious than buttercream and whipped cream, two rich ingredients you’ll more commonly find paired with meringues.

You could pretty much stop reading here, and take away the idea of using cream cheese frosting and yogurt with meringues next time you bake them for a baby shower or Galentine’s Day party (by the way, did you notice that no one ever bakes meringues for themselves? It’s always for other people. Very suspicious…). But if you’re interested, I’ve also included a tea party menu, where you bake a bunch of meringues, whip up some cream cheese frosting, bake a sponge cake, and then assemble a bunch of delicious treats with a few store-bought ingredients. Feel free to make the menu for your next big get-together, or just take the individual ideas as inspiration.

My last complaint about meringues is actually just a bit of practical advice. Don’t bake meringues when it’s humid. Just don’t do it. Even if you can get them to fully dehydrate in the oven, they’ll immediately start absorbing moisture from the air like those little silica packets you find inside brand new shoeboxes, and they’ll turn to goo within hours, if not immediately. If you absolutely must make them on a rainy day, make sure you work in a climate-controlled room, allow them to fully dehydrate in the oven, and then pop the meringues in an air-tight bag about a minute after they come out of the oven, and you should be just fine. They’ll keep that way for a week or two, but if it’s humid outside, you’d better serve them just as soon as you reopen the plastic bag.

cinnamon rose meringues

a meringue tea party

download a PDF to print

your favorite tea
your favorite tea sandwiches
petit meringue-studded cakes
little meringue sandwiches
eton mess yogurt parfait

the building blocks: meringues & frosting

cinnamon rose meringues

yield: 10 to 12 dozen small meringues
active time: 25 minutes
total time: 2 hours

  • 6 large egg whites (about 210 grams)

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • 1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

  • 1 3/4 cup granulated sugar (340 grams)

  • 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons rosewater (I use 1 1/2 teaspoons)

  • 1 teaspoon "true" cinnamon*

  • about 12 drops pink food coloring (or a couple drops of red)

  • extra cinnamon for sprinkling

  • (optional) edible dried rose petals and extra cinnamon for sprinkling

  1. Wait for a dry day.** Preheat the oven to 225° F convection (105° C).

  2. Combine the egg whites, salt, and cream of tartar in the bowl of a stand mixer (or a large stainless steel bowl if you're using a hand mixer) fitted with the whisk attachment. Whisk at medium-low until frothy. Increase to medium and start to slowly add the sugar in a steady stream with the mixer running. Once the sugar is incorporated, add the rosewater, and increase to medium-high or high speed. Beat to stiff peaks.*** Add the cinnamon and food coloring toward the end of beating, or fold it in at the end.

  3. Pipe and/or scoop the meringue onto a parchment-lined baking sheet (I use an oversized star tip and a cookie scoop for this recipe). Don't worry about leaving too much room between them, as they won’t expand much.

    • To make meringue kisses (or star kisses, as pictured here), hold the piping tip pointed directly down, about 1/2 inch above the parchment, letting the bottom of the kiss fill out a bit before dipping in a tiny bit, and then lifting up. Use a steady stream, and don't worry about making them look uniform (have a confident hand and work somewhat quickly, gradually twisting the top of the bag to keep pressure on it).

    • To make more rustic scoops, use a leveled cookie scoop, and try to just let them drop onto the parchment from about 1/2 inch above. Don't mess with them, and don't worry if they don't all look the same. That's part of the appeal.

    • Optionally sprinkle some of the meringues with rose petals and/or a little extra cinnamon.

  4. Bake for about 1 hour for small meringues, longer for larger ones. Let them cool in the oven with the door open, to dry out completely. The meringues are done once they lift easily from the parchment and are crunchy all the way through once cool. You can store them in a tightly-sealed container or bag for about 1 to 2 weeks at room temperature.

* "True" Ceylon cinnamon has a delicate flavor, which doesn't overwhelm the rosewater. You can also use cassia cinnamon (more common in the US), which has more bite. Spice to taste, and hold back a little with cassia.
** It’s really important to bake meringues on a dry day. If you absolutely need to bake them on a humid day, make sure you do so in a climate-controlled room. You’ll probably need to bake them a while longer to dry all the way. Once they’ve baked through and are dry to their centers, let them cool for just a couple minutes, and move them straight to an air-tight bag or container. If you let them sit out too long, they’ll get sticky and turn to goo.
*** Stiff peaks means that when you lift the beaters, the peak that forms won't fall over, but will stay sticking up (it might wobble a little, but it will bounce right back to where it started). You should be able to hold the mixing bowl over your head without any risk of disaster. As soon as stiff peaks form, stop beating before it is overdone (check it periodically to make sure you don't overshoot).

cream cheese frosting

  • 2 8-ounce bricks of cream cheese, softened to room temperature *

  • 1 1/2 sticks (12 tablespoons) butter, softened to room temperature

  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

  • 2 cups (330 grams) powdered sugar

  1. Mix together the cream cheese, butter, salt, and powdered sugar over low speed with a stand mixer and whisk attachment. Once the powdered sugar is all mixed in, increase speed to medium-high, and continue mixing until it lightens in color and consistency (this should take about 2 minutes). Use at room temperature.

* This makes a lot of frosting, so that you have enough to decorate both the mini cakes and fill the sandwiches. Feel free to halve the recipe if you're not baking for a crowd, and want to have a lot of plain meringues left.

cinnamon rose meringues
cinnamon rose meringues

petit meringue-studded cakes

  • 5 large eggs (260 grams)

  • 120 grams granulated sugar

  • 120 grams all purpose flour

  • 3/4 teaspoon baking powder

  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • cream cheese frosting

  • meringues

  • (optional) ground pistachios for sprinkling

  1. Preheat the oven to 350° F convection, and line the bottom of a 12x16-inch nonstick rectangular pan with parchment paper.*

  2. Combine the eggs and sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer (or use a stainless steel bowl and hand-held mixer). Beat on medium-high with the whisk attachment until it looks like this (about 5 to 8 minutes). It should increase significantly in size and become much lighter in color. When you lift the beaters, the trail will slowly disappear back into itself after 1 full second ("one Mississippi").

  3. Combine the flour, baking powder, and salt. Sift about 1/3 of the flour mixture evenly over the surface of the whipped eggs/sugar and carefully fold it in with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom. Repeat with the next 1/3, and then the final 1/3.

  4. Spread the batter evenly all the way to the edges of the parchment-lined pan (careful that the parchment doesn’t shift). Drop the pan from about an inch above the counter once or twice to knock out any big air bubbles (don't worry, it won't collapse).

  5. Bake for about 10 to 15 minutes (in my oven it takes 13 minutes, but it can vary). To test for doneness, gently press on the surface toward the middle—it should spring back after a second. Carefully run a knife around the edges to free the cake (go around once sawing up and down, then once dragging the knife), and invert it onto a (non-onioney) cutting board. Peel off the parchment, and let it cool for about 30 minutes.

  6. Once cool, use a very large cookie cutter to stamp out as many rounds as you can. Enjoy or discard the scraps. Build the cakes by sandwiching a thin layer of frosting between layers of sponge, and building up at least 4 layers of sponge per cake (you'll probably end up with 2 5-layer cakes, depending on the size of your cookie cutter). Make sure they're straight, and then frost the tops and sides with an off-set spatula (using a rotating turntable, if you have one).

  7. Move the cakes to their plate or display (carefully lift each with a spatula), and decorate with the meringues however you'd like (optionally, sprinkle with pistachios after the meringues go on). Save the rest of the frosting for making little meringue sandwiches. The cakes can be made hours ahead of time, but don’t decorate with meringues until the hour before serving, or they will soften too much.

* If you don't have convection, it'll just take a little longer.

cinnamon rose meringues
cinnamon rose meringues

little meringue sandwiches

  • meringues

  • cream cheese frosting

  • ground pistachios or sprinkles

  1. Use the rest of the cream cheese frosting to sandwich more meringues together. Pipe (or spoon) a generous tablespoon of frosting in the center of one meringue, and then squeeze another meringue on top, letting the frosting balloon out of the sides a little.

  2. Immediately roll the sides in ground pistachios or sprinkles. These should be made within an hour of serving.

cinnamon rose meringues
cinnamon rose meringues

Eton mess yogurt parfait

  • plain yogurt (either whole milk or 0% fat)

  • strawberry or raspberry preserves or jam

  • strawberries or raspberries

  • meringues

  1. You can serve a family-style bowl, which people can scoop from, or you can serve them individually (which is much more of a tea party thing, but either will totally work). Clear bowls, glasses, etc., work best, but tea cups or little bowls work great too (just try to keep them on the small side if you're serving individual portions). Don't use tall champagne flutes, even though they look festive, because they're difficult to eat from (and also a pain to plate).

  2. Swirl several spoonfuls of the jam/preserves into the yogurt (sweeten it to taste, and only fold it a couple times to keep it swirled). Scoop spoonfuls of the yogurt into the serving bowl/bowls, top with berries and meringues, and serve immediately. Or make and plate everything ahead, and add just add the meringues at the last minute.

cinnamon rose meringues