Clifton Fadiman, an American writer and intellectual has aptly described cheese as milk’s leap towards immortality. And if it is not for the cheese we humans would never have learned to appreciate the goodness of dairy. When initially it was considered as method to preserve the milk for longer times. Cheese making is purely accidental, just like many other life changing discoveries. In absence of any suitable method of transportation, milk in early days were carried in the bladders of ruminating animals’s stomachs, and these are inherently lined with rennet, an enzyme that is found in the stomach of all such animals. During transportation to long distances, rennet slowly curdle the milk, making cheese in the process that can be stored for longer times. Over the centuries, cheese has reshaped the human history to a larger extent.
Paneer, (not the only cheese from India) is fresh cheese, bears semblances with queso fresco et. al, and does not require rennet to coagulate the curd proteins. However, there are wide differences of opinions exists about its origin. One school of thought believes that it has references in our ancient Vedas (may be in some different name or in different form as the word “paneer” is Turkish in origin), and during Vedic period, it was prepared by curdling the milk using sour leaves, bark, yogurt and wild berries. Whereas, K. T. Achayya (food historian) holds that curdling the milk was taboo in Indo-Aryan period. Other school of thought believes that process of cheese making has come to India via Mid-Eastern nomadic pastoral tribes who devour something similar but by curdling the sour buttermilk. Technology has shifted slightly through time and in the present day, north western part of sub -continent, and in Punjab, paneer is made by curdling the milk with sour curd/ yogurt or buttermilk. It gives a more creamy, rich dairy flavour when compared to Portuguese’s acid set cheese. When Portuguese made their settlements (in many places including) Bandel (West Bengal) they also brought with them the idea of cheese making and passed it on to locals. Thus many believes thats how chenna originate, the base of all Bengali sweet dishes. Bandel cheese is indigenous, unripened, salted, smoked, made in perforated pots and can be stored for longer time.
Like every Bong women, I too have learned my lessons well in making chenna. A well knead soft (not crumbly) mound of freshly pressed chenna is key to make soft melt in mouth kind sandesh. If chenna is not perfect, your rasgullas will develop cracks and your sandesh will turn grainy. No one like grainy sandesh and cracked rasgullas. But unlike paneer, here you don’t pressed out all the liquid whey. You must preserve soft curds of chenna in little whey by pressing the cheese cloth very gently.
I have tried different ratios and different methods to curdle the milk. And over the years it has become my practice to add equal measure each of lemon juice, sour curd and vinegar to curdle the milk. But what I have noticed that lemon makes granular paneer and slightly hard if you don’t immediately stop the cooking process. Sour curd or buttermilk makes creamiest, whitish paneer with rich dairy flavour. So, depending upon my choice of recipe, sometimes I curdle it with curd, and at other times with lemon and vinegar. As paneer is protein packed food and easily digestible food too, it is highly recommended for growing up kids and babies. I feed homemade paneer to my 9 month old baby even and as citrus foods are not recommended before one year, I curdle the milk with homemade curd for her. This has become one of her favorite food now.
- Full fat cream milk : 2 l
- Acid agent (sour curd / lemon / vinegar) : 1 tbsp / 1 lemon / 1 tsp
- For making herbed paneer : dried herbs /spices
- Bring the milk to rapid boil and let it come to full boiling point twice or thrice.
- Switch off the heat and immediately add the acid agent.
- If you are using herbs or spices, use it now.
- Stir very well. If the milk is not curdled immediately, use more souring agent.
- Leave the milk for 10 minutes till the milk curdle nicely, and greenish whey separates.
- Drain the soft cheese curds in cheese cloth or muslin cloth.
- Squeeze lightly to get rid off all the whey.
- Now make a rough round shape or square shape, cover it well with cheese cloth and put a heavy weight on it.
- Leave it like that for 15-20 minute or more depending upon the water content.
- Do not leave it for too long, paneer will become very dry.
- Soft paneer is ready to cut into cubes or any desired shapes.
- If you are not using it immediately, then warp it in a cling film and store it in your chiller tray of the refrigerator.
- For making malai paneer -
- Displace one cup milk with one cup high fat content cream. And proceed similarly.
- Malai paneer are usually more whitish in color and more soft and velvety.
- Most often for making herbed paneer I use kasuri methi or dried fenugreek leaves. It gives a wonderful flavour.