I shouldn’t have waited so long to make this.
But turning milk into cheese sounds intimidating. How could I tell when my curds were curdy enough given that all I knew about curds and whey I learned from Miss Muffet? But this afternoon my craving for palak paneer – that Indian restaurant staple of creamy spicy spinach and pillows of fresh cheese – got the best of me, and soon I was walking from work to the market on a cheese-making mission. Fortunately for my pocketbook, paneer consists of two ingredients: milk and lemon juice. That’s right – no salt, no rennet, even the lemon gets washed away after it performs its job as an acidic catalyst. Paneer is a perfect blank slate. And, as I learned tonight, homemade paneer is airy, silky smooth, and fries up golden crisp outside and marshmallow soft inside. Witch each bite I swooned, then regretted every bag of frozen paneer or paneer substitute (firm tofu, queso para frier) I had ever used in an Indian dish.
To make the paneer I followed the technique described by Julie Sahni in Classic Indian Cooking. It so happens that making curds and whey is as easy as finding a heavy-bottomed pot, bringing milk to a boil, and stirring in some lemon juice.
I poured it all through a cheesecloth-lined colander, rinsed away the lemon taste with cold water, and was left with the curdly good stuff.
I then tied the cheesecloth tight around the curds, squeezed out as much liquid as I could, and hung it from the faucet using the hair-tie that’s perpetually around my wrist (and now smells like cheese).
After an hour and a half of drip-drying, I moved the whole bundle to a cutting board, and pressed it flat with a heavy dutch oven, turning the cheese ball into more of a cheese puck. Half an hour later I removed the weight and unwrapped the cloth to reveal a perfectly cube-able disk of paneer.
I cut the paneer into cubes, froze the majority for future meals, and used the rest to make palak paneer, a recipe I improvised with help from here and here. This is my go-to dish at every Indian restaurant, but I might have ruined that for myself, because mine was better. Sublime really. Unlike most restaurant versions, the cheese had no hint of ruberiness or greasiness. Its crisp outside guarded a velvet interior; and it was light, much more so than I had ever tasted. That milk and lemon alone can make this (in the time between work and dinner) seems like pure alchemy. Delicious alchemy. Alchemy I shall be performing again and again.