Paneer frontier.

Why would I, a non-Indian food blogger, write about Indian food when you could easily read about it on blogs written by Indians? I’ll tell you why: I, unlike most Indians, harness the power of the Germans. As a Korean-American who likes to make Indian cheese with German ingredients for use in Italian dishes, I’m one step shy of hosting a United Nations conference in my own kitchen. Curiosity piqued? Read on.

Paneer is a fresh cheese used in savory dishes like mutter paneer (peas and paneer in a rich red sauce) or in sweet treats like the divine ras malai. Fresh paneer can be pressed to create a texture similar to that of firm (not silken) tofu for savory dishes or kneaded with sugar to a soft smooth texture for use in desserts. You’ll often see advice to substitute firm tofu for pressed paneer if you don’t have paneer on hand. In my opinion, paneer has an unmistakable fresh dairy flavor that tofu’s, er, tofuiness lacks, but in a flavorful dish like saag paneer that may be acceptable.

[Pictured: Sheet of pressed paneer cubed with a pizza cutter.]

paneer

Paneer is easy to make but takes time. Basically you boil milk, add an acid, strain out the curds, and press the curds. Exact methods vary. Some people boil the milk for a while, others bring the milk just to a boil, some take the milk off the heat after adding the acid, some boil the milk with the acid for a while, and so on. Unless you need an especially soft paneer to use in a dessert, I find that the exact method doesn’t matter much. What does matter is the acid you use—either white vinegar, lemon juice, lime juice, yogurt, or whey left over from a previous batch of paneer.

Whey supposedly yields the softest paneer, but since I make paneer only a few times a year, I don’t generally have leftover whey on hand. Yogurt is an interesting suggestion that I haven’t tried because one of the greatest draws of homemade paneer is that it’s dirt cheap, and the cost of the yogurt used often exceeds the cost of the milk to make the paneer. When I’ve made homemade yogurt I’d rather just eat it or use it in other dishes. Citrus juices add a pleasant sour flavor but can also add to the price of the paneer unless you have a lemon tree. White vinegar adds that disctintive acetic acid flavor plus a trace paint thinner taste, probably because white vinegar is only about 5% acid, leaving 95% Something Else. Other vinegars such as red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, or ::gasp:: balsamic vinegar have flavor profiles that are just, well, wrong.

Which brings us to the Germans. Koreans often use vinegar in many kinds of namul, vegetable side dishes served with rice. At some point many Korean-Americans (not sure about Koreans) started using Surig, a high-acid German vinegar with a clean, pure flavor superior to that of distilled white vinegar. If you don’t have a German grocer, try looking for Surig at the Korean grocer. Because of the high acidity, you need only about a fourth or a fifth the amount of Surig that you’d need of white vinegar, giving you less Something Else to add off-flavors to your paneer. I recommend it for use in savory dishes where the acetic acid flavor won’t be a problem. In sweet dishes I’d stick to lemon or lime juice. Failing that, white vinegar works just fine, but you’ll no longer be welcome in German Club. Nein!

EIN PANEER REZEPT, JA!
Makes about 4 cups of lightly packed half-inch paneer cubes

Special equipment:
· Big pot
· Colander
· Cheesecloth
· Something heavy, preferably not alive

Ingredients:
· 1 gallon lowfat (2%) milk, allowed to come to room temperature (optional, but saves time)
· 1 tablespoon Surig, maybe more,
     OR 4 tablespoons white distilled vinegar, maybe more,
     OR the juice of 2 lemons, maybe more,
     OR the juice of 3 limes, maybe more

1) Line a large colander with 4 layers of cheesecloth cut large enough to dangle generously over the edges. Place in sink.

2) Pour milk into a large pot with at least 3 inches of spare space above the milk. You’ll thank me for this extra space later. Bring milk to a boil on medium heat. High heat may burn the milk and make a funky paneer (bad funky, not good funky), so err on the side of lower heat. A non-stick pan helps if you have one that big. Stir frequently.

3) When the milk boils and starts to foam up but not over your generous 3-inch margin of safety (you’re welcome), blow hard on the milk to keep the foam under control, then add your acid. Stir for about 15 seconds. The solids should separate out and leave behind a greenish translucent whey. If you don’t see that greenish color and a distinct separation of solids and liquids, add a bit more acid and stir again for 15 seconds. Repeat as needed. Results will vary depending on the kind of milk you use and the acid employed.

4) After the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat and carefully pour the contents of the pot into the lined colander. Let the visible whey drain out for several minutes, then carefully pull up the edges of the cheesecloth and lift up your paneer to drain some more. At this point some people like to tie up the corners of the cloth into something resembling one of those packs that hobos always carry on sticks in old cartoons and hang the paneer up to drain. I’m lazy and prefer to go straight to the pressing step.

5) Place the cheesecloth on a flat surface such as a heat-proof cutting board and carefully cover the paneer with even layers of the cheesecloth edges, lifting and shaping the paneer into a flat rectangle as you do so. Slide one edge of the cutting board over the sink then place a folded towel under the other edge to slightly slant the board so that the whey drains into the sink. Place a large flat item such as a plate or a tray on top of the paneer, then place a heavy weight on top of that, making sure the paneer is being pressed flat and level. I use barbell weights, but some people like Encyclopedia Britannica volumes A through H. Whatever you use, let the paneer flatten and drain for a few hours. The longer its pressed, the firmer the paneer will be.

6) Remove the paneer from the cheesecloth and cut into desired shapes and sizes. Store paneer in refrigerator or freeze for future use, though it’s best fresh. Many recipes call for frying the cubes in ghee, but I consider that an optional step unless the paneer will be eaten plain.

Flavored paneer: You can add salt and other herbs and spices to the paneer. Mix them in with the crumbled paneer before pressing. Yum.

Different milks: Whole milk yields softer, richer paneer; skim milk yields grainy, rubbery paneer. Lowfat milk is a good compromise between flavor and health.

Reduced batches: The recipe can easily be halved, quartered, maybe even reduced some more. If you have milk on the brink of going bad, this is a great way to use it up.

On whey: According to King Arthur Flour, leftover whey is highly nutritious and due to its acidic nature has an effect like buttermilk or vinegar in baking. More information and a recipe. To save some whey, put your colander over a large heatproof container to catch the draining liquid. Lift the colander up and out of the whey, remove the container, then continue as directed. Things will be hot, so use caution.

Nutrition: According to New Indian Home Cooking by Madhu Gadia, each 1/2 cup of paneer cubes (an eighth of this batch) made with lowfat milk has 160 calories, 4 g carbs, 16 g protein, 9 g fat, and 36 mg cholesterol.

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bullet Food link recommendation
· My favorite Germany-based food blog, written in English: the gorgeous delicious days.
· My favorite Indian food blog, written in English by an Indian living in the U.S.: Mahanandi, frequently updated with amazing recipes and Indian food facts.

Firmly ensconed.

I have a little anglophile in me left over from my childhood when I thought that royalty equaled dignity and that princesses remained happy. Those beliefs faded…for some reason…but enough remained to fuel a romantic attraction to the craggy scone. Just looking at one made me think of fog, castles, and totally cool accents. But after choking down a hunk of dried clay at a sadistic cafe years ago, and after baking a batch of what turned out to be lifeless feta scallion scones, I gave up. Besides, I knew how to put out a decent buttermilk biscuit if I needed to. I was an American, damn it. I could live a fine life without scones.

That belief changed during my recent visit to Connecticut where I stopped by Atticus in New Haven, a bookstore/bakery/cafe next to two of Yale’s great art museums and serving food so consistently good that I violated my own rule about not eating more than once at any establishment on the road (a rule that encourages me to constantly try new places in the spirit of travel). Atticus brags specifically about their scones, so I decided to order the classic currant for breakfast. My first taste of the gigantic triangle won me over with its moist center and restrained richness. I gilded the lily with butter and fell in love before the last sweet corner had slipped between my lips.

currant scone[Three Fat Scones from a half batch cut into 4 wedges instead of 8]

For the last four days I have baked scone after scone trying to duplicate the Atticus scone. I started with the most obvious recipe—the alleged original Atticus scone by John Ryan. That recipe yielded dry scones. Either I screwed up, the recipe was wrong, the scone had changed since the original, who knows, but that failure caffeinated my inner geek. I scanned multiple cookbooks looking for any scrap of data that I could remember reading on topics like browning, leavening, tenderizing, temperatures, and hygroscopic . . . osity. I consulted Alton, Shirley, Beranbaum, King Arthur, Joy, Anne Willan, baking911.com, and muttered curse words about never getting around to buying Harold McGee (he’s been in my shopping cart for a year). I scoured cookbooks, websites, and magazines to compare at least fifty different scone recipes and the minute and massive ways in which they differed. Somehow I didn’t develop a headache.

Then I girded up my torso in an apron and began to fiddle with the original. Salt went in to boost flavor, and for simplicity’s sake, baking powder replaced the cream of tartar and baking soda. I then tried fewer eggs, more milk, less milk, smaller butter chunks, bigger butter chunks, heavy cream, heavy cream plus milk, kneading more, kneading less, baking more, baking less, baking cooler, and baking hotter. I broke scones in half and sniffed them, resisting the urge to get out a magnifying glass. I baked and ate, and ate and baked, hauled family and friends in as guinea pigs, learned that wet dough resulted in thin and misshapen scones and that dry dough resulted in, well, dry scones. Baking until the scones turned an attractive brown inevitably resulted in dehydrated scones, but eating albino scones, however moist, depressed me.

bad scone[Early scone attempt, too dry, too pale]

The result? Oh god, I’m so sick of scones. Did I crack the recipe? I don’t know, I’m so sconed out. Is it an authentic English scone? I don’t care, I just want a scone that I yearn to eat when I’m not oversconed. Did I succeed? Yes.

The big breakthrough came via a mistake, as is often the case. One of my scones fell apart in transit to the pan, so I gathered it up and shaped it into a lump. That lump, thicker than the flat triangles, yielded a soft center that took me back to the huge domed scones in New Haven, except my scone had a more attractive brown top. Thick scones solved the dryness problem. Since the scones had made me fatter, it was fitting that I’d now return the favor and fatten up my scones.

People have almost violently personal preferences on scones and biscuits, so I won’t say that this is the best scone ever. I will say only that is the best scone or biscuit that I, personally, have ever enjoyed. I did not use buttermilk, sour cream, or yogurt because though I like that tang in biscuits, I prefer these scones without it. The high baking temperature helps the scone rise quickly and brown nicely without overbaking. Ample butter adds flavor and a touch of flakiness. Overly rich biscuits tend to make me ill, so there is more milk than cream in the recipe. The result is sweet but not too rich, slightly flaky but not crumbly, and cakey but tender. While I don’t think that the Atticus scone uses any heavy cream at all, the bit I’ve added keeps me from buttering the scone. No need to gild this lily.

So here’s the result of my hard work. Phat Fat Scones.

FAT SCONES, Master Recipe, by Annie
Adapted from John Ryan’s recipe

This recipe is highly flexible and forgiving of changes. See below the recipe for detailed variations.

Ingredients:

· 2 cups flour (flour stirred, spooned into measuring cup, and leveled, 9 ounces)
· 1/2 cup granulated white sugar
· 2 teaspoons baking powder
· 1/2 teaspoon salt
· 1 large egg, lightly beaten
· 6 tablespoons milk (more if your air/flour is dry)
· 2 tablespoons heavy cream
· 6 tablespoons cold butter
· 1/2 cup dried currants, raisins, or dried fruit chopped fairly small
· Note: Egg + milk + cream should equal 3/4 cup, add more milk if necessary

1) Preheat oven to 450º Fahrenheit and lightly spray a cookie or baking sheet with non-stick spray. In a large bowl, thoroughly and gently whisk the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt together, being sure to pulverize any lumps of baking powder. With a fork, whisk the egg, milk, and cream together in a cup and place the cup in the refrigerator.

2) Mix the butter into the flour using your favorite method. (Cut in with pastry cutter, pastry fork, or two knives; pulse together in a food processor; grate in frozen butter using the large holes on grater; etc.) I have the cursed “warm hands,” so my favorite method is to place the chilled butter on a plate, cut the butter into pea-sized bits, then place the plate in the freezer for five minutes. Scrape the butter into the flour and quickly squash the bits against the bowl to make flakes. Mix in dried currants and make a well in the flour.

3) Pour the cold liquid into the well and toss with a silicone spatula or wooden spoon until dough just comes together. Press and shape the dough into a ball with your spatula and dump the ball out onto a lightly floured surface. Flatten dough into a disk no wider than 6 inches. Cut the dough into 8 wedges and place at them at least 1 inch apart on the prepared baking sheet.

4) Bake scones until top and edges are lightly browned, about 15 minutes. Let cool on rack for at least 10 minutes before eating. Cool completely before wrapping in foil where they will stay fresh for a couple days. Scones can be reheated in the foil.

Variations and suggestions are endless, but the following have been personally tested except where noted:

Half batch: To get around the half-egg problem, mix up a full quantity of liquid and use half of it, saving the rest in the fridge for a later batch. Or you can use egg substitute or make an eggless version and simply make half a batch. Shape the dough into a 4.5-inch disk and cut into 4 triangles.

Make ahead: After shaping, dough can be covered and refrigerated up to 24 hours (the longest I tested) on the baking pan to bake the next day. Baking time may increase slightly.

Sugar top variation: For a more attractive scone, lightly brush the tops of the scones before baking with a mixture of beaten egg and a bit of water. You can also sprinkle any sugar on top. Demerara sugar or pearl sugar look particularly nice.

Whole wheat variation: Wheat flour can replace half of the white flour with surprisingly little impact on flavor. Scone will be just a bit hearty tasting and won’t keep as well.

Less sweet variation: (Not tested, I like them sweet.) Halve or even quarter the sugar for a more traditional scone good for eating with preserves. Scone won’t keep as well.

Flaky variation: (Not tested, I like them cakey.) Cut the egg and increase the liquid to compensate. Scone will be less cakey and more crumbly. Scone won’t keep as well.

Rich variation: Replace milk with cream or half and half, but you may need a little extra liquid to make a cohesive dough. Flavor will be exceedingly soft, rich, and more sweet (the fat seems to accentuate the sugar). Scone will keep well.

Lean variation: Reduce butter to 4 tablespoons and replace cream with milk, you may need a little less liquid to make a cohesive dough. Flavor will be leaner and less sweet (the reduction in fat seems to dull the sugar). Scone won’t keep as well.

Other variations: Cut the currants for a plain scone, or substitute other chopped dried fruit, nuts, etc. I like lemon zest and chopped candied ginger. This morning I made a batch with chopped dates and whole wheat. Flavor combinations abound. Fresh fruit such as blueberries should work as long the moisture stays in the fruit and doesn’t ooze out into the dough during the kneading and rolling.

Calories: Each master recipe scone has approximately 310 kilocalories.

Tomato Time.

Pick vegetables and herbs in the morning because they’re most nutritious then, I’ve read. No wait, pick them in the afternoon because they’re most nutritious then, I’ve read. Pick them after a rainfall. Pick them after a short drought. Pick them on sunny days. Pick them on foggy days. Pick them on partly cloudy days with a thirty percent chance of thunderstorms.

Or you can do what I do and pick them when you want. I’ve been known to grab a flashlight at midnight and snip basil in the light of the full moon. Hasn’t killed me yet! When you’re lucky enough to have a garden with ripe tomatoes and fragrant basil, you don’t wait for an ideal time because the ideal time is always now.

garden tomatoes and basil

My breakfast this morning: Fresh-picked Roma tomatoes, fresh-picked basil, Parmigiano-Reggiano, extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper. If I’d used mozzarella instead of parm I would have had a Mozzarella Salad Caprese, but I’ve yet to find buffalo milk mozzarella in my town, and cow milk mozzarella doesn’t impress me much. Odd as it sounds, homemade paneer (fresh Indian cheese) works well in salad caprese, albeit rendering the dish untraditional, but I didn’t have any milk on hand this morning, and Parmigiano-Reggiano’s crunchy salty butteriness works well. Besides, I wanted my tomatoes and basil now.

carnageEver notice how you always see lots of tasty Before pictures but rarely see any After pictures? Well here’s an After picture. Good god, look at that carnage—that poor basil never had a chance. You won’t see a During picture because it was too terrifying, with the olive oil smeared all over my fingers, my chin, the table, the camera…