The one dish we always order in Indian restaurants is sag paneer/palak paneer. This spinach and cheese dish perfumed by spices and combined with a simple South Asian cheese is a favorite of mine.
I made sag paneer Sunday, but before I could make sag paneer, I had to make the paneer itself. Paneer, also spelled panir, is a simple fresh cheese that doesn't really have a commercial equivalent that I've seen. Paneer is extremely simple to make and is a great experiment to do with the kids so they can see how liquid whole milk turns into delicious cheese.
I started with 1/2 gallon of whole milk. If you have a standard large stockpot, I don't recommend you make much more at a time. You'll see why as we proceed.
For equipment you'll need a large stockpot - preferably heavy and non-stick, a wooden spoon, a good sized colander, a big bowl to put the colander in, a package of cheese cloth, a bit of kitchen twine and if possible a place to hang the cheesecloth later where the paneer inside can drain.
For the ingredients, you'll need a half gallon of whole milk and six tablespoons of lemon juice. You must use whole milk because the fat and solids in the milk are what we're trying to collect up. Skim milk just won't cut it here. This is one of the very few times you'll see whle milk in my refrigerator.
Heat the half gallon of milk to a full rolling boil. Stir frequently, scraping the bottom with the wooden spoon to keep anything from sticking.
I know what you're thinking. Recipes always warn you about overheating milk, and this maniac wants me to put it on the boil!? Well, yes. The other recipes are trying to prevent the milk from doing what we're trying to get the milk to do here - separate into the milk solids, aka the curds and the remaining liquid, aka the whey.
Once the milk expands dramatically in volume...
(Yup, that's the same amount of milk) Reduce the heat to low and stir in the lemon juice. Stir for about 15-20 seonds always in the same direction (clockwise or counterclockwise). Pretty soon, the curds should start separating from the whey.
It looks pretty gross, but that's cheesy GOLD in that pot. Take the pot off the heat, cover tightly, and let it sit for ten minutes.
Cover a colander with cheesecloth or muslin folded so there is plenty extra on each side to make a sack around the cheese-to-be, but also so there are 3-4 layers of cheesecloth on top of the colander. Place the colander in a larger bowl to catch the liquid to be strained. Spoon the biggest solids out of the stockpot with a slotted spoon into the cheesecloth covered colander, then slowly pour the remaining liquid whey through the colander and cheesecloth.
Let the curds cool a bit, then gather the cheesecloth together to form a sack for the curds. Tie the curds off with a short piece of kitchen twine.
Rinse the bundle in warm water once to get rid of the residual lemon juice.
If you have a good knob on a kitchen cabinet, suspend the paneer in the cheesecloth from the knob over a bowl to catch the whey that will slowly drain. You may twist the cloth tight to press some whey out, but do so gently.
After 3 hours suspended the cheese should be ready for use. Use immediately or save for a week or so in your refrigerator.
Don't toss the whey (well, not all of it). Save some for our sag paneer recipe tomorrow.