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How to make your own next-level cheese and crackers

How to make your own next-level cheese and crackers
Seeded crackers and cheese from Leona. (Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Cheese and crackers — it's a snack pairing as common and comforting as milk and cookies, or hummus and pita bread. At Leona in Venice (named for the original street name for Washington Boulevard where the restaurant is located), cheese and crackers are listed as a starter. But chef Nyesha Arrington doesn't just do anything at her restaurant. The "Top Chef" alum and Southern California native puts lamb belly in her wontons, uses beef heart in her meatballs and makes her cheese and crackers from scratch.

These are gluten-free crackers made with five kinds of seeds — and don't let the gluten-free part dissuade you. Served in broken, crisp thin sheets, the crackers have whole pumpkin and sunflower seeds peppered throughout. You can pick out the flavors of toasted almond, pumpkin seeds and just a hint of smoked paprika. These are the perfect vessel for Arrington's cheese — a fresh, smooth, tangy spread made at the restaurant. It's similar to the labneh (yogurt cheese) found at most Middle Eastern and small plates restaurants in the city, only better. Thus, next-level seed crackers and cheese, a pairing far better than your usual afternoon snack.

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LEONA'S SEEDED CRACKERS AND CHEESE

3 hours, 15 minutes, plus setting and draining times. Serves 6 to 8

CHEESE

2 pints whole goat's, sheep's or cow's milk

1 tablespoon plain full-fat yogurt (with live active cultures)

1. Spoon ¼ cup of the milk into a bowl and stir in the yogurt.

2. In a saucepan, bring the remaining milk to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside until the milk registers 100 degrees using a thermometer, 15 to 30 minutes; a skin will form on the surface.

3. Using a table knife, make a small opening in the skin and carefully pour the cheese mixture into the milk in the saucepan. Cover the pot with a kitchen towel and transfer to an oven. Turn on the light and close the oven door. Set aside for 16 hours, no more than 18 hours.

4. Using a skimmer or slotted spoon, lift off the skin and discard it. Carefully ladle the cheese into a sieve lined with a double layer of cheesecloth and refrigerate until much of the whey is drained and the cheese is thickened to a labneh-like consistency, about 4 hours (the longer you drain, the thicker the cheese). Transfer the cheese to a bowl and serve, or refrigerate until ready to serve; the cheese will keep up to 4 days, refrigerated. If desired, flavor the cheese with chopped thyme and lemon zest.

SEEDED CRACKERS

3/4 cup flax seeds

1 ½ cups hot water

½ cup sliced or slivered almonds

½ cup shucked sunflower seeds

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¾ cup shucked pumpkin seeds

¼ cup sesame seeds

3 tablespoons minced shallot

½ small garlic clove, minced

1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder

1 ½ teaspoons onion powder

Heaping ½ teaspoon smoked paprika powder

Pinch cayenne powder

1 ¼ teaspoons teaspoons salt

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Meanwhile, soak the flax seeds in the water until softened and the water is mostly absorbed, about 1 hour.

2. On separate rimmed sheet pans, toast the almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and sesame seeds until lightly colored and aromatic, 4 to 8 minutes (timing will vary depending on the nut or seed; check every minute or so so the ingredients do not burn). When the ingredients are toasted, reduce the oven temperature to 300.

3. Place the soaked flax seeds in a food processor and process until a thick paste forms (the seeds will be mostly whole, but the mixture will form a gelatinous paste). Remove the paste to a large bowl.

4. To the bowl, add the toasted nuts and seeds, along with the shallot, garlic, garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne powder and salt, mixing well. This makes about 3 cups cracker mixture.

5. Generously spray 1 side each of 4 sheets of parchment paper (large enough to fit within the dimensions of a baking sheet) with spray oil and place half of the nut mixture in between the coated sides of 2 sheets. Using a rolling pin, roll the mixture out until it is about 1/8-inch thick. Repeat with the remaining nut mixture.

6. Put the rolled out crackers (remove the top parchment, but keep the delicate mixture on the bottom sheet) on baking sheets and bake until the crackers are fragrant and a rich golden color, about 45 minutes. Remove the sheets and carefully flip the crackers over, removing the parchment so the crackers are directly on the baking sheet. Continue to bake until the crackers are golden-brown and almost completely crisp, about 20 minutes more. Turn off the heat and cool the crackers in the oven; they will continue to crisp as they cool.

Each of 8 servings: Calories 321; protein 14 grams; carbohydrates 16 grams; fiber 6 gram; fat 25 grams; saturated fat 6 grams; cholesterol 14 mg; sugar 7 grams; sodium 431 mg.

Note: Adapted from a recipe by chef Nyesha Arrington of Leona.

Yes, you can call me the cheese queen. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @Jenn_Harris_

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