Saturday, May 8, 2010
The Saga of the Indian Cooking Challenge
Anyone who knows me knows that I adore Indian food. I'll eat it at restaurants both sophisticated and casual, I'll buy it from street vendors at the Art Fair and ready-to-heat from markets, and I'll cook it myself. So when I was meandering around the 'net and found the Indian Cooking Challenge … well, I was ready to sign up before I even knew the rules!
And the rules are simple: a woman named Srivalli picks a recipe each month; those of us who've accepted the mission prepare the recipe, and then we write about it. And we eat! Does it get any better than this???
This month's recipe was for Ras Malai, a dessert made from the very mild white cheese paneer that is then cooked in a sugar syrup and also immersed in a cardamom-scented custard. Rich, decadent, luscious ... and an educational experience, 'cause I didn't even know what it was until I looked it up.
So, my first job was to print the recipe and review my ingredients and instructions. Ummmm … “pista” … “maida flour” … huh??? “Pista,” as I'd guessed, was pistachios. “Maida flour,” research showed, is equivalent to pastry flour or even all-purpose flour, as opposed to “atta” which is whole wheat flour. I learned something – I love this!
Okay, now that I know what I'm cooking with and what my ultimate goal is, what do I need to do? The recipe has assured me that “thou it may sound a long process, you can trust and try for a perfect outcome … it wont let you down.” And a long process it seems – a 3-page recipe. So I continued to investigate, finding a much shorter version to help guide me a little better; this version also showed a photo of the dessert, so that I had a better idea of where I was headed.
I debated whether I should make the paneer myself, which seemed a simple process (boil milk, add vinegar, skim curds, press out moisture, declare oneself a cheesemaker!), or whether to take advantage of the ready-to-use offerings at the Om Market. Well, if you're going to sign up for a challenge, you should actually take the challenge, right? Tom and Jeremy both encouraged me to do it right, so I embarked upon my adventure.
I brought whole milk to a boil, left it overnight in the refrigerator to chill, and then came back to it the next morning. My instructions were to skim the scum from the surface of the milk … um, but there wasn't any. Oh, great – I've screwed up boiling milk!
But I continued with the recipe, pouring everything back into the saucepan and bringing it to a boil. Oh, there's little dancing zigzags on the surface – there's the scum! I scooped up that little bit (it was a very, very thin film) and discarded it.
When the milk came to a full boil – and just before it boiled over onto the stove – I added the vinegar. It stared back at me, then curdled, then there were clumps of stuff on top of the milk – paneer!
I scooped them up, placed the clumps into a cloth-lined sieve, rinsed them with clear water, tied the lot up, and placed saved-up coffee grounds (supposedly excellent nutrients for my soon-to-be garden) over everything to weigh it down and help to press out excess liquid.
And I saved the whey water, which should get sour over the course of a week and be useful when/if I make bread sometime in the future (according to the recipe's side note).
The next couple of days were very busy, so I left my paneer in the refrigerator to rest until it would be needed … and kneaded (ha!).
I wasn't particularly inclined to purchase a bag of maida flour only to use 1 teaspoon of it, especially when I had a 10-pound bag of all-purpose flour sitting in my cupboard. So I employed a strategic substitution, and broke up the paneer before kneading it with the ordinary flour and forming the little balls of cheese (about 1” in diameter).
The next instruction was to place the balls into a sugar syrup in a pressure cooker. Um ... no. I do not own a pressure cooker, and will not own a pressure cooker -- it doesn't matter to me how many billions of people around the planet use them, or how many modern advances have been made to improve their safety record. My mother has spent my entire lifetime telling me the story from her days in a Catholic boarding school, in which a pressure cooker exploded and inflicted horrible burns upon the face of one of the nuns. Back to the short version of the recipe that I found online, to see how to do this with everyday cookware.
Okay, boil a sugar syrup on the stovetop and let the cheese balls cook for 15 minutes until they expand – can do. Meanwhile, boil more milk with sugar to make a custard that the cooked paneer will then soak in. The milk kept boiling over, but eventually reduced by half; and it smelled fabulous once the tiny bit of cardamom was added!
So the balls of paneer expanded as they were supposed to, and then I placed them into the custard and put everything into the refrigerator to chill. Jeremy and I anxiously waited for the required 6 hours to pass so that we could sample this most entertaining, educational and excellent project.
I served one little ball for each of us (which, I have to say with an amused smirk, significantly resembled both matzah balls and gefilte fish!), pouring the sweetened milk (it didn't thicken into a custard) over it. I sprinkled everything with chopped pistachios. It looked just as the photo had depicted it in the shorter version I'd found online, and it smelled lovely. Sing along with Carly Simon now: “Anticipation …!”
And then we tasted it … and, I am terribly sorry to say, spat it right out. They were truly awful, with no discernible flavor and a very firm and odd consistency that wasn't quite as enticing as we'd hoped for, having presumed there might be some resemblance to other sweetened cheeses (i.e.: blintzes, cheesecake, cannoli). There was not enough thickening agent to make a custard, and not enough sweetener – or even a pinch of salt – to provide flavor to the very bland paneer. These turned out to be simply thick white rubbery balls swimming in fragrant milk … :( I normally adore Indian desserts, so I cannot tell you how heartbroken I am!!!
But I will absolutely still save the whey water for future baking endeavors. I learned a lot about Indian desserts, cooking processes, and ingredients as I proceeded. I am very proud to say that I can now make my own paneer for future projects! And I will absolutely still try the next Indian Cooking Challenge, hoping that perhaps we will be able to enjoy the food as much as we enjoy the preparation.
Here is my version of the recipe, re-written for simplicity and to demonstrate how I made it:
2 quarts whole milk
3 tablespoons vinegar
2 cups cold water
Bring milk just to a boil in a 2.5-quart saucepan over high heat. Refrigerate overnight.
Place a strainer over a bowl, and line the strainer with cheesecloth or a clean dishtowel. Heat the milk until it reaches a full boil, then add the vinegar. When the clumps of curds start rising to the top, scoop them out and place them into the lined strainer. Tie up the cloth, weight it down, and let it rest for an hour. Strain the miniscule tidbits out of the remaining whey water, and save the water for future use.
your homemade paneer
1 teaspoon all-purpose flour
Place the paneer and the flour into a large bowl, breaking up the paneer and kneading everything together until well blended. Form 1” balls – I was able to make 14 of them.
3 cups water
8 tablespoons sugar
Place water and sugar into a large, deep-sided pan. Bring to a boil, then carefully add the paneer balls. Partially cover the pan, and boil for 7 minutes; turn the balls over and boil for another 8 minutes. Remove from heat.
1 quart whole milk
8 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
Bring the milk and the sugar to a full boil in a 3-quart saucepan; cook over high heat until milk volume is reduced by half. Carefully place the cooked paneer balls into the milk, and boil for 5 minutes. Place into the refrigerator for 6 hours, to chill.
1/4 cup finely chopped pistachios
Place several paneer balls into a serving dish, pour sweetened milk over them, and sprinkle with some of the pistachios.
NOTE: The Indian Cooking Challenge asks that everyone post the recipe on the 15th of the month. But I won't be able to do that, so I am posting early, obviously!
NOTE #2: Apparently I posted too early, misunderstanding "scheduling" it early to go up on the 15th vs. posting it early as soon as I'd finished writing it. However, now that it's up all I can do is change the visible date, but I cannot bury the saga until the appropriate viewing time ... sorry!!!
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