Many years ago, in Paris, my mother took cooking lessons with Florence Pomana, who specializes in Ayurvedic cooking. I remember eating all these delicate creations that required dozens of spices and hours of preparation. My mother has very few cookbooks, she mostly cooks from memory, but the one she always returns to is Florence Pomana’s Cuisine Ayurvédique. Each recipe is accompanied by a beautiful photo and a long explanation of the dish. We are told when to cook the dish (the paneer is best made in autumn or spring), we are told why it is beneficial for our body. The writing is both poetic and quirky: “curdled milk encourages bone marrow growth and the growth of a fetus in a pregnant woman.”
We never drank milk at home as my mother assumed I was lactose intolerant. The first time I tasted milk in our kitchen was for my twelfth or thirteenth birthday when she prepared a hot chocolate (made from scratch with raw milk and barely sweetened). Today there is milk in the fridge, not to drink by the glass, but for making cheese. Sometimes she makes mozzarella or ricotta, but mostly she likes to prepare a soft paneer, a recipe she learned from Florence Pomana. Paneer has the peculiarity of not melting when heated. The one we make retains the lemon-y flavor of the lemon juice used to curdle the milk. We bake it in lasagna or use it as a savory crepe filling with spinach and leeks. But the simplest way to cook with soft paneer is sautéed with vegetables. We call this a cheese-vegetable scramble.
For a scramble: heat a knob of ghee* in a pan, sauté a cup of fava beans, 1 teaspoon of cumin seeds, half a teaspoon of turmeric, half a teaspoon of mustard seeds, peeled sliced tomatoes, and fresh cilantro.
What I love about this cheese recipe is that it’s ridiculously simple. For some reason, making cheese sounds difficult. In the same way that making your own butter is one of the easiest things in the world, it’s also impressive. Imagine showing up at a dinner party with a bar of butter sprinkled with sea salt and wrapped in wax paper, or a small tub of homemade, delicate cheese?
1 liter of whole milk (1 liter of milk is just over 4 cups)
Juice of one small lemon
You need: 1 large saucepan, cheesecloth, and a colander.
Squeeze juice of one lemon into a small bowl. Set aside.
Pour milk into a very large saucepan so that it won’t overflow when it boils. We use a good quality whole milk.
Heat milk over high heat and just as it begins to boil (and rise in the saucepan), add two tablespoons of lemon. Lower heat and wait for the milk to curdle. This should happen fairly quickly, within a minute or so, but if it doesn’t curdle add another spoonful of lemon. When the milk has curdled (see photo), turn off the heat and wait for the cheese curdles to gather.
Meanwhile, cover a colander with cheesecloth and place the colander over a big bowl. The bowl will catch the whey. Pour the cheese and whey over the colander-cheesecloth. Set aside for five to ten minutes.
The whey is rich in minerals and can be used to cook rice or to clean copper or to soften your hands (for the latter, just dip your hands into the whey).
To get rid of the lemon flavor you can rinse the cheese (still in the cloth) under cold water, but I personally enjoy the lemon-y tang, especially if the cheese is sautéed with vegetables for a “scramble.”
*To make ghee: In a saucepan with a thick bottom, and over very low heat, melt your best quality unsalted butter. Let the butter foam. A translucent film will form. The butter will be completely clear, the color of gold. Touch it only with the tip of your spoon. As soon as the butter smells nutty, turn off the heat, and let it cool. Strain the butter over cheesecloth and there you’ll have your ghee. Keep in a jar, in a dark and cool place but not in the fridge. It keeps well for a month.