The night started off with Mahima Agrawal pouring an entire gallon of whole milk into a huge pot. This is how the process of making paneer begins. As we were eyeing the huge pot, waiting for it to come to a boil, she poked at the film that formed on the top of the warming milk, which is called malai. It’s mostly fat and is used for many different Indian sweets.
Once the enormous amount of milk was at a steady boil, Mahima, a senior, poured in some diluted white vinegar, which began to form large curds that would soon be ready to eat. The vinegar adds a subtle flavor, so depending on one’s taste, other acids — such as lemon juice — can be used to curdle the milk instead.
Mahima told us the last time she made paneer was in third grade. She had a book of science experiments, where one caught her eye: “Make your own plastic, mold it into whatever shape you want!” Of course, as a third-grader, she was incredibly excited about this recipe. However, when she showed it to her mom, her mom told her, “Mahima, this is the recipe for paneer.” Mahima refuted this with childlike enthusiasm, trusting the authority of the science book publishers, and promptly got to work. She was in India at the time and her family entertained her scientific curiosity, although they all knew she would be left with a handful of paneer at the end. She boiled the milk, added the lemon juice, and at the end of the recipe, surprise surprise, she was left with a handful of paneer. Disillusioned and jaded, Mahima tried to shape the paneer, which promptly crumbled in her hands because it was paneer.
This time however, Mahima knew exactly what to expect. Once the liquid in the pot is slightly translucent, you know you have gotten all your curds. As she drained and squeezed the curds into cheese cloth, we were swept into a cloud of sweet milky steam. She then tied the cheese cloth and hung the curds to cool and dry so she could then shape them into rectangular blocks.
Growing up, Mahima’s mom didn’t make paneer at home often because the Indian restaurants they frequented in Dallas prepared it well. However, when her mom was in India, she would occasionally make paneer, using more commonly found buffalo milk. Much fattier than cow’s milk and processed differently, buffalo milk makes more paneer per unit than the cow’s milk here does.
While the paneer settled in the fridge for a couple days, Mahima asked her mom for two recipes, one for palak paneer and one for “the other paneer.” Preparation for palak paneer began with blending blanched spinach, ginger, garlic and whole milk, which was then simmered with fried cubes of our homemade paneer. The “other paneer” consisted of tomato paste, bell pepper and onion, which simmered together with the paneer until the sauce coated each block and vegetable.
The smells of spices like coriander, cumin, turmeric and garam masala quickly filled the air, and soon enough, both dishes were ready to eat with a side of rice.