Lebanese cheese:Jibin, with habibi-love
I thought that the jibin was not going to be the multi-day, better-watch-a-video-to-see-how-it’s-done kind of cheese.
Such a video does not even exist, by the way, because jibin is supposed to be so simple that nobody, I mean No One, would need a video to figure it out. That’s probably one reason this basic sort of cheese became so important and popular in Lebanese cooking and other cuisines the world over (think paneer): just curdle the milk, drain and salt the curds, press the curds together in a little patty, and go get the bread because breakfast is ready.
This cheese is so elementary that the Arabic word jibin itself (and its many variations: joban, jiban, jibneh, jibneh Arabieh) means, simply, “cheese.”
The basic recipe, found in many of my cookbooks, and here and there online, generally reads like this:
1 gallon whole milk
1 tablet rennet
Heat the milk to lukewarm. Crush the rennet and dissolve in cold water. Slowly add the rennet to the milk off the heat and let it rest for 2-4 hours, until the curd forms. Drain and form into patties. Sprinkle with salt.
When my first interpretation of the recipe gave me nothing more than a pot of milk, and the same on the second round, I started to get ready to stand up before all of you and declare: My name is Maureen, and I need a jibin-making video.
Instead, I picked up the phone and called my great-aunt Awatef, a lady of charm and charisma whose cooking is famous. She walked me through her jibneh-method—she keeps the milk over a very low fire even after adding the rennet until the milk coagulates; she adds a touch of lemon juice; she gathers the curd small-small into patties.
In the telling I received the kind of habibi-love you can only get from someone of her generation and grace, with an Arabic accent that gives you the feeling that your quest is not only okay, but absolutely necessary.
The aspects of the recipe that I needed to get under control were twofold:
The temperature of the milk: one woman’s lukewarm is another’s cool. My fingers are always just this side of chilled, and therefore not a great thermometer. Lukewarm, it turns out, is anywhere from 80 to 100 degrees. I went right in the middle at 90 degrees, which by the way was much warmer than my hand’s idea of lukewarm. My jibin turned out best taken off the heat once it reached this temp.
The acid. Most of the cheese-focused sites I read call for liquid rennet, but every Lebanese recipe calls for the rennet tablet. And not much of it; one tablet for a gallon of milk seems to be the rule of thumb (and the Junket insert says one tablet sets five gallons, which is hard to believe). When I saw a recipe in one of my mom’s cookbooks that called for two rennet tablets per gallon of milk, I clung to that ratio. I figure this must be something like making yogurt, for which I always add more of the starter than is called for just to ensure the milk will take and become yogurt. Also, I started adding lemon to my jibin milk, a lot more than a drop, and the lemon juice closed the deal every time.
My mother made jibin back in the day, shaping hers into neat oblong little patties, but it’s been years. She doesn’t recall having any trouble with it, of course. I remember her cheese was soft, tasted gently of milk, and had an open texture like feta. I couldn’t help but wonder, though, if time and nostalgia had painted this with opaque, rose-colored brush strokes.
With the success I finally had with my jibin, I discovered that memory did serve me well. Jibin is quietly, calmly delectable and reminiscent of something, even if you’re not sure what. Perhaps more importantly, I found that what appears simple is often more nuanced than it seems. And nuance is good; it invites a deeper look-see.
Likewise, making jibin reminds me why I am compelled to do what I do, and why so many of you are here too. Comes a time when there is no longer a graceful voice of an elder waiting for our calls. Comes a time when we become the ones to make and to give the recipe, plus the habibi-love right along with it, and we best be prepared.
Jibin, Lebanese White Cheese
Jibin is a fresh cheese with an open texture, similar to Greek feta but not as salty. Typically eaten for breakfast, jibin is a delicate counterpoint to olives and delicious drizzled with olive oil and eaten with tomatoes, cucumber, mint, and flatbread. The flavor of jibin is always as good as the milk used to make it. Store the cheese in brine and eat within a week or so of making it. Makes about 4 5-inch patties. The recipe can be doubled easily.
½ gallon whole milk
1 tablet rennet
Juice of half of a large lemon
In a large stainless steel (not aluminum) pot, warm the milk to 90 degrees Farenheit, or lukewarm. Remove from the heat.
Crush the rennet with a mortar and pestle (or a makeshift one; the handle end of a large knife or spoon in a small bowl works well). Add 2 tablespoons cold water to the rennet and stir to dissolve completely.
Gently stir the rennet mixture into the milk. Add the lemon juice and gently combine. Within a few minutes you should begin to see small pools of a yellow liquid forming in the milk. This is the whey separating from the curd. If the separation doesn’t appear to be happening, add more lemon juice.
Cover the pot and let it rest, undisturbed, in a warm spot for about an hour, or until a soft yogurt-like curd block has formed. There will be a separation around the edge of the pan where the formation of the curd is most evident.
Break up the curd (into the whey) with a whisk into pea-sized pieces that resemble cottage cheese. Let it rest in the pan to settle for 30 minutes.
Line a colander with a single layer of ultra-fine cheesecloth. Pour the curd into the colander (the curd will seem very wet and not particularly separate from the whey at this point; don’t worry, the whey will drain off and the curds will be evident). Drain the curds for about an hour, stirring regularly to be sure the whey drains evenly.
Line a sheet pan with white paper towel. Lightly salt the curds with a tablespoon of salt, stirring completely. Scoop a large handful of the curd and use both hands to shape the cheese into a round or oblong patty about 2 inches thick at the center, pressing out excess whey as you go.
Place the patties on the lined sheet pan and lightly cover with more paper towel. Refrigerate overnight.
To store the jibin, place whole or cut up patties in a jar and cover with brine (1 cup warm water to 2 tablespoons kosher salt; bring to room temperature or chill before covering the cheese with it).
Print this recipe here.
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