“Cheese—milk’s leap towards immortality”

I can’t say I have Clifton Fadiman’s quote in mind when I make chhana, cheese that Indian mothers have made in home kitchens through millennia for their families, but as my curds and whey separate into their new forms, the great upheaval of transformation is apparent. Chhana is the stuff of legend in my family. My mother would heat milk on the

Chhana (simple cheese)

Chhana (simple cheese)

stove top to make this simple cheese and turn out delicious Bengali desserts that I rarely replicate. In fact, I have often thought them impossible to replicate. However, I can and do make chhana for savory dishes. Cubes of chana (or paneer as it is called in Hindi on restaurant menus in the U.S.) is delicious with spinach or in a saucy curry. On this rainy Sunday, I am making mutter paneer or green peas with cheese. As the aroma rises and the curry becomes succulent the realization hits that I have not lost this art.

Others in Missouri make cheese, too. Even if your mother did not hand down this technique in the family, there are good cheese teachers in Missouri these days. In bursts of intense resolve, I have taken classes (see “Say Cheese,” February 2012 Missouri Life). Cheddar, you say? Brie? Oh yes! Check out Merryl Winstein (cheesemakingclass.com) near St.Louis or Janet Hurst (cheesewriter.com) near Hermann to learn about two amazing ladies and their way with goat milk.

If you’re inspired to try making a simple cheese at home today, here’s how to make my mother’s chhana:

Chhana (simple cheese)

Makes about 2 cups

1 gallon whole milk, as fresh as possible

½-¾ cup lemon juice

cheesecloth

In a heavy stockpot, bring the milk to a boil, and when it just begins to rise in the pot, add the lemon juice a little at a time until the milk separates. Strain the curd from the remaining liquid (whey) and place into the cheesecloth. Squeeze out as much water as possible with your hands (be careful as the liquid will be hot). Hang the cheesecloth around the kitchen faucet or tie it to a wooden spoon placed over a pot and slide it into the refrigerator for 6 to 8 hours.

To make plain cheese or cubes for savory dishes: After placing the cheese curds into the cheesecloth, squeeze out as much water as possible and place the cheesecloth and its contents on a cookie sheet or clean counter. Fill the stockpot with water to make it heavy and place it on top of the cheesecloth overnight. In the morning, cut the dried chhana into cubes. Add to savory curries or other recipes or serve as plain cheese. Or, heat a tablespoon of vegetable oil in a saucepan. When hot, place one layer of cubes in and fry until slightly brown, turn, and repeat until all pieces are golden. Wonderful plain or lightly fried in vegetable curries

And for a change of taste, try this North Indian curry–

Mutter Paneer Recipe

Makes: 4 servings 

1/2 cup of finely chopped onion

1 inch piece of fresh ginger, grated

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon oil

2 cups freshly pureed tomatoes or (1) 16-ounce can

1 teaspoon turmeric powder

½ teaspoon cumin powder

½ teaspoon garam masala powder

½ teaspoon cayenne powder

Salt to taste

2 cups fresh paneer cubes or purchase frozen paneer from an Eastern grocer

1/2 cup steamed fresh peas

¼ cup freshly chopped cilantro leaves

Make a combined paste of the onion, ginger and garlic and set aside in a small bowl. Heat oil in a heavy bottomed pan;  add the onion ginger garlic paste and saute on medium heat until it turns a mild golden color. Stir in the tomato puree, turmeric powder, cumin powder, garam masala powder, salt and cayenne.

Simmer the mixture until tomatoes are cooked and thickened. Add salt.

Finally stir in the paneer and steamed peas. Simmer for a few more minutes. Garnish with freshly chopped cilantro and serve hot with naan bread or rice.

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About ninafurstenau

Nina Mukerjee Furstenau teaches a Food and Wine Writing for the University of Missouri Science and Agriculture Journalism program and the MU School of Journalism School. Her book, Biting Through the Skin: An Indian Kitchen in America's Heartland was the winner of the MFK Fisher Book Award and Grand Prize Award for culinary/culture writing and designated as a Kansas Notable Book. She has also written Savor Missouri: River Hill Country Food and Wine, celebrating Missouri foodways. Her essay, "And Then There Was Rum Cake," appears in the 2017 anthology, Pie & Whiskey: Writer's Under the Influence of Butter and Booze. Ms. Furstenau was in the Peace Corps in Tunisia from 1984 to 1986 and then began working life as a journalist and publisher/editor of three construction magazines beginning in 1987. Ms. Furstenau and her husband launched and published these magazines and two others until 2001. She was a month-long resident at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont, in 2008.
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