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Shiftwork Bites: Paneer

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The realities of Shiftwork Bites cooking - little space, little equipment, one burner - dictate what I can and cannot reasonably prepare at work. A lot of my meals tend to be one-pot affairs, as this makes setup and cleanup much easier, and doesn't stretch me too thin. I am still at work, remember. The overt simplicity of many of these efforts often inspires me to find ways to elevate them just a bit. If I revert to 1970s casserole cooking, making open-and-dump, heat-and-eat entrees, I might as well give up the ghost.

Since I'm pretty committed to this project, I've made a habit of doing what I can to up the ante a bit. I might make stock the day before, for homemade (should that be office-made?) turkey and bacon gravy on Thanksgiving, or perhaps I'll shave an entire head of cauliflower by hand (it takes forever) for shrimp and cauliflower grits. A few weeks ago, I fumigated the entire office with capsaicin, toasting chiles for mole. Most recently, I decided to make cheese.

As soon as I decided that I was going to make Paneer Makhani, I lit on the idea of making my own paneer. It's actually a relatively simple process, and results in cheese with a much silkier texture and fresher flavor than anything you can get at the store -- if you make it properly. I didn't.

There are basically three methods for making cheese, all of which work by forcing the casein proteins in milk to clump together, forming curds. The method used for paneer, acid/heat coagulation, goes an extra step and forces whey proteins (which will not coagulate using rennet coagulation, the process used for aged cheeses) to coagulate along with the casein. As you may have guessed, acid/heat coagulation works by heating milk to just below the boiling point, then adding acid. The heat causes the whey proteins to denature, allowing them to coagulate with the acid-curdled casein proteins.

For my paneer, I added half a gallon of 2 percent milk to my electric skillet, and set the heat to medium. I didn't have a thermometer with me, so I made a guess as to when the milk was approaching 212 Fahrenheit, and added 2T of lemon juice. I shut off the heat, stirred in the lemon juice, and waited. Slowly, the mixture began to thicken a bit, as small clumps of curd began forming in the pan.

I waited and waited for the curd to form completely, but to no avail. Dejected, I poured the curds and whey through a cheese-cloth lined strainer, and found about two cups of yogurt-like curd settled in the bottom. The curd was extremely loose and fine, and was certainly not going to work for my dish. I gently wrung out more whey, suspended the cheese-cloth bundle over a bowl, and refrigerated it. On my way home from work, I bought some paneer at Fiesta, and used that for dinner the following night.

Not wanting to totally abandon my cheese, I weighted it to remove additional moisture, then compressed it into a log and sealed it in a zip-top bag, removing as much air as possible to firm up the texture. Once it was firmed up and holding its shape, I sliced it into rounds and began converting it into an ad-hoc composed cheese course.

Two circles of cheese went down on each plate, along with some local honey for sweetness, pimentón for smoke and just a hint of heat, ground pistachio for salt and crunch, and a halved dried calimyrna fig for a bit of richness. The cheese was subtle, with milky creaminess and just a hint of tang from the acid. The other flavors paired nicely, and were much improved by the addition of a bit more paprika and some fleur de sel. While I was disappointed to have been unable to use the cheese in the main course, it was nice to turn it into something tasty as a cap-stone to the meal.

Upon further reflection, I decided that the culprit was the ultra-pasteurized milk I'd bought. I'm not exactly sure why (partial denaturing of the milk proteins, perhaps), but the process disrupts coagulation during cheese making. If I had paid a bit more attention at the store, we probably would have had homemade cheese for dinner, but nothing for dessert.

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