I learned to make cheese on a farm. Not a dairy farm, mind you; rather, an educational community farm within Portland’s city limits, a community of curious, optimistic, welcoming people with a fascinating set of skills. Sue was the petite, soft-spoken woman leading the cheesemaking workshop; her husband, Russ, was a carpenter working on the farm’s buildings and outdoor educational spaces. Their children ran barefoot down garden rows lined in lavender and peppermint. If it sounds bucolic, it was.
There were maybe eight of us in the workshop, and we took turns stirring the milk as it warmed on the stove. Sue handed me the vinegar and told me to pour. I poured what seemed like an awful lot of vinegar to put in milk, but Sue nodded with a secretive smile on her face, urging me to keep going. “How do I know how much to add?” I asked, not willing to ruin the cheese for everyone. “You’ll know,” she said.
The moment milk coagulates into curds and whey is a magical one that never ceases to amaze me. I insist that you try it. If you have kids, all the better–let them pour the vinegar and watch their eyes light up when, without warning, something as everyday and common as milk becomes extraordinary. Here’s how you do it: heat milk (at least a half-gallon, preferably not ultra-pasteurized) in a large enamel or stainless steel pot. Stir constantly, or at least very frequently. When you can see steam rising up from the surface, turn the heat off and pour in the vinegar (any kind, but apple cider vinegar is a good choice); I don’t need to tell you how much because you’ll know. Ladle the curds and whey into a cheesecloth-lined colander and drain until the texture is how you like it. Throw some fresh herbs and salt in there and you’re the talk of the party.
The only drawback to this method of making fresh cheese is that you won’t be able to use the whey (because it’s full of vinegar). But other simple fresh cheeses, including panir, use coagulants that won’t affect the taste of the whey. And then you have a bowlful of cheese and a jarful of protein-rich liquid for your next bread, or pizza dough, or soup, or, or, or…..
So as of today I’m making it one of my goals to get at least one person who’s never made cheese before to take that step, to reclaim yet another tradition from the men and women in lab coats and hairnets. The truth is you don’t need a sterile room or a degree in nutrition to make cheese, or beer, or mustard, or granola bars, or scores of other foods and drinks that will taste better when they come out of your own kitchen. Sometimes you just need a push.
Consider yourself pushed.
Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making that I reference below is a fantastic guide for anyone who wants to venture into this area. She clearly and succinctly leads you through the simple fresh cheeses that I like to make, like ricotta, panir, and farmer cheese, and on through the more complicated cheeses that require rennet, molds, and jerry-rigged mini-fridges-turned-cheese-caves.
When making fresh cheese, try to use milk that is not ultra-pasteurized; here in the Northwest I recommend Garry’s Meadow Fresh or Strauss Creamery. Of course, if you have access to fresh raw milk, the more power to you.
This is not an authentic Indian recipe, but I hope it’s in the right spirit. I might play with the spices in the dumplings next time; I can imagine something with fresh ginger and chili peppers, tempered by the rich yogurt sauce.
Homemade Panir Cheese
As described in Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheese Making
1 gallon whole milk
8 T lemon juice or 2 t citric acid dissolved in ¾ C hot water
In a large pot, heat the milk to a gentle boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching. Reduce heat to low, and immediately drizzle in the lemon juice or citric acid solution. Cook for 10-15 seconds.
Remove from the heat and continue to stir until large curds form. If the whey is still milky, return to the heat and increase the temperature or add more coagulant.
Once curds and whey are well separated, remove from the heat and let sit 10 minutes. When the curds settle to the bottom, they are ready to drain. Ladle the curds into a colander lined with butter muslin or several layers of cheesecloth. Tie the corners of the cloth into a knot and hold under a gentle stream of lukewarm water for 5-10 seconds to rinse off the coagulant. Gently twist the top and squeeze out the liquid.
For a softer, crumbly cheese as for the dumpling recipe below, hang the bag to drain for 2-3 hours. To do this I either tie the bag to the rungs of the middle rack of the fridge with a bowl positioned underneath, or slide a chopstick through a pair of cabinet door handles, with the bag knotted around the chopstick in between the handles.
For firmer cheese as for recipes that involve frying panir cubes, return the covered curds to the colander and place a bowl of water or other approximately 5-pound weight on top, and press for 2 hours.
Yields: 1 ¾- 2 lbs. Panir will keep refrigerated up to 2 weeks.
Spinach Panir Dumplings
1 lb. spinach
½ C panir, crumbled
¼ C mashed potatoes
1 T whole wheat flour
½ t garam masala
Vegetable oil, coconut oil, or ghee for frying
Remove stems from the spinach and wash in a colander. Place in a pot over medium-low heat and steam using just the water left on the leaves. Drain well, squeeze out extra liquid, and chop roughly.
Combine all the dumpling ingredients in a bowl, using your hands to mix well. Add a little more potato if the mixture doesn’t come together at first. Form into 15-20 walnut-sized balls.
Heat about 1/4” of oil or ghee in a frying pan. When hot, add as many dumplings as you can, leaving yourself room to roll them around. Fry only a minute or so on each side; you are just trying to cook them enough so that they retain their shape in the sauce. Drain on paper towels.
Adapted from Daily Musings
1 C red onion, chopped
5 garlic cloves, halved
2” piece of ginger, minced
¾ C chopped tomatoes
¼ t cumin seeds, whole
½ t chili powder
2 t turmeric powder
1 t cumin, ground
2 t curry powder
1 T cashews, soaked and blended
¼ C yogurt
Saute onions, garlic, and ginger. When onions begin to brown, add tomatoes and cook until soft. Cool slightly and puree.
Heat a deep pan and add about 2 t oil or ghee. Saute cumin seeds until browned. Add spice powders and mix well. Add onion/tomato mixture and ½ C water, mix well, then add the blended cashews, and cook over medium low about 5 min. Reduce heat to low, remove pan from the heat, and whisk in the yogurt. Add salt to taste. When yogurt is fully mixed, return heat to medium and cook 5-8 minutes, adding water as desired. Add cilantro and mix well. Add dumplings and cook 5 minutes.