An Indian Birthday Feast with Surprise Paneer

November 29, 2010
By Holly Jennings

Our British friends James and Laura Perry love curry, a euphemism for Indian food. James and Laura say in Britain, every town, even the smallest villages, will have at least one “curry house.” (That’s “Indian restaurant” to you and me.) What a lovely notion. Can you imagine a small town in America, like the one I live in, with a population of 5,000, having not one but two Indian restaurants to choose from? I can dig it.


The Perrys currently live in rural Vermont, making it a bit more challenging to get their curry fix. They must drive 45 minutes to get some decent curry, or make it themselves. So when I offered to bring dinner to their place to celebrate Laura’s birthday, Indian was an obvious choice. And the occasion also gave me an opportunity to share some food with them from the DCCC cookbook Entice with Spice.

Laura at her birthday dinner, with a honey extractor in the background. The Perrys have a small but diverse farm where they produce excellent honey, chicken, lamb, beef and pork. We combined delicious Indian food with a honey extracting project. More on that later in another post.


Laura is a vegetarian, and I am not. I’m sometimes stymied when cooking for vegetarian friends, especially when it comes to getting the protein part right. (In the end, though, I always come up with something, and the challenge pushes me to widen my repertoire.) Indian food is a great choice if you find yourself needing to prepare a vegetarian meal. The numerous vegetarian options found in Indian cuisine make it easy to prepare a very flavorful and satisfying meatless meal. (In fact, I really don’t miss meat when eating Indian dishes.)


I set the menu a few days ahead: Chickpea Curry (Channa Masala) with accompaniments (diced tomato and onion, thinly sliced chili peppers, and lime wedges), Stuffed Bell Peppers (Aloo Bharee Shimla Mirch), Three Vegetable Raita, Plain Boiled Rice (Chawval), store-bought whole-wheat tortillas to be warmed in a skillet, and, for dessert, Sweet Rice Pudding (Kheer). These are more dishes than I usually make for one meal, but they were easy to pull off when made in stages. I made everything the day ahead except for the raita and rice. The bell peppers I cooked in two stages: I prepared the filling the day ahead and stuffed the peppers and then cooked them just before we ate.


A couple of days before the dinner I set out to make homemade yogurt, something that’s become a routine habit in the last year or two. For the first time ever, barring my very first yogurt-making attempts, the yogurt didn’t set. In the morning, after letting the yogurt do its thing overnight, as usual, just a small amount of milk had set around the edges. What had gone wrong? I had a feeling it was the yogurt starter. I usually make yogurt weekly or every 10 days or so. This time the yogurt had sat in my fridge for nearly three weeks. Could it be that the starter had lost its oomph?


I was about to throw the tepid milk down the drain when my boyfriend suggested that I try to make it again with a fresh batch of yogurt, rather than waste the milk. Which I did. As I began to rewarm the milk (to kill anything funky since it sat out all night and get it to the right temperature for making yogurt), the milk almost immediately separated into curds and whey. (Luckily I’d previously made paneer and other simple cheeses like fresh mozzarella, making it easy for me to recognize what was happening.) With this surprise gift, I realized I could now add a paneer dish to Laura’s birthday meal, and with no sweat off my brow.


But what had caused unsuccessful yogurt to turn into paneer? I turned to the folks at New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, started by Ricki Carroll, “the cheese queen,” to get some answers. Jim, their helpful cheese tech support guy, got back with me immediately. He recommended I take at look at this story on their website on Lactic Cheese, and after a few emails back and forth, I understood what had happened.


Jim told me that milk will coagulate when heated under three conditions: with rennet; with a small amount of acid (lemon juice, for example); or with a culture that has produced sufficient lactic acid. Though the yogurt starter I used was too weak to make a new batch of yogurt—nearly all of the bacteria had died because they’d used up their food source (lactose)—there was still some bacteria remaining, enough to convert the lactose in the milk to lactic acid, a natural occurrence when bacteria has lactose to feed on. All paneer recipes call for some form of acid—white vinegar, lemon or lime juice—to be mixed in with milk to force the coagulation. So I guess I made an artisanal or “slow food” version of paneer. And I learned a good lesson: don’t use yogurt that is older than 10 days to make a new batch of yogurt. (Though I might be able to make paneer with it . . . )


I used the paneer to make Crumbled Indian Cheese with Peas (Paneer Bhurji). It turned out to be my favorite dish of the dinner. If there ever was an Indian comfort food, I think this has to be it. Because happy accidents are hard to duplicate, I’ve included the author’s recipe for making the crumbled paneer in addition to the recipe for Crumbled Indian Cheese with Peas. By the way, James and Laura liked the meal very much—good feedback, I think, from two curry-loving Brits.


Crumbled Indian Cheese with Peas (Paneer Bhurji)

This simple recipe is from Entice with Spice by Shubhra Ramineni. It’s one of my favorites from the book. The crumbled paneer has an enticing pillowy soft texture, which contrasts nicely with a bit of “pop” supplied by the peas. Once you make the paneer, the dish is very easy to prepare. It comes together in just minutes. I used a heaping ¼ teaspoon of cayenne for this dish. You might start with that amount, taste it, and then adjust according to your taste. Ms. Ramineni suggests eating Crumbled Indian Cheese with Peas with an Indian flatbread rather than rice. Follow it.  It’s a very good delicious combination. (For a fast flatbread substitute, warm whole-wheat tortillas in a skillet. Author’s suggestion, not mine.) If you’re not eating this dish with other things, it’s likely to serve just two or three people, if you like it as much as I do.


Serves 3 to 4


Prep time: 5 minutes + 10 minutes to make Crumbled Indian Cheese
Cook time: 20 minutes
Refrigerator life: 3 days
Freezer life: 1 month
Reheating method: Place the refrigerated or defrosted cheese and peas in a skillet over medium-low heat and stir periodically. Or, place the cheese and peas in a microwave and stir periodically.


3 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ small onion, grated on the largest grating holes on a box grater or shredded in a food processor
1 small fully ripe tomato, such as plum (Roma), cut into 4 pieces
1 recipe Crumbled Indian Cheese (recipe follows)
½ cup (60 g) frozen or fresh parboiled green peas
½ teaspoon ground turmeric
½ teaspoon ground red pepper (cayenne)
½ teaspoon salt


1. Pour the oil into a medium nonstick skillet and place over medium heat. When the oil is heated, add the onion. Sauté until the onion is golden brown, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes.

2. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Add the tomato. Cover the skillet. Cook until the tomato becomes completely soft and mashed and is combined with the onion to form a coarse paste, stirring every minute or so and lightly mashing the tomato, about 5 minutes.

3. Add the cheese, peas, turmeric, red pepper and salt. Stir to combine. Increase the heat to medium. Cook until the cheese slightly darkens in color to a golden-yellow shade, stirring frequently and breaking apart the cheese into small pieces, about 7 minutes. Enjoy now or let cool to room temperature and refrigerate or freeze for later!

 (Recipe ingredients and instructions reprinted with the express permission of Tuttle Publishing, Recipe introduction has been modified by Holly Jennings.)


Crumbled Indian Cheese (Paneer)

This recipe for paneer, “cheese” in Hindi, is from Entice with Spice by Shubhra Ramineni. This is the crumbled form of paneer; there is also a firm block form that is more thoroughly drained and pressed into a block.  In Entice with Spice this version of paneer is use to make Crumbled Indian Cheese and Peas and two desserts: Sweet Cheese Dessert and Sweet Cheese Ball Dessert. I am planning to make one of them for the first DCCC potluck. At the end of the instructions Ms. Ramineni mentions that the paneer can be kept for a day before using. I think you can probably get away with keeping it for two or three days. (I kept my batch for a few days, and it was fine.) She also suggests using whole milk instead of reduced fat milk to get a higher yield and the creamiest taste and texture . . . oh, yes.


Makes 1 cup (135 g)


Prep work: 5 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Refrigerator life: 1 day
Reheating method: None! Simply use to make desired dish.


4 cups (1 liter) whole milk
Juice of 1 lime


1. Pour the milk into a heavy bottomed, medium-sized stockpot. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, stirring frequently as it comes to a boil. Don’t let the milk boil over and out of the pot! Immediately reduce the heat to medium-low.

2. Add the lime juice and gently stir for about 45 seconds, or until the milk separates into curds (solid clumps) and whey (watery liquid). (If the milk does not separate, add more lime juice—2 teaspoons at a time—until it does.) The whey may appear to be light green in color from the lime juice.

3. Fold a large piece of cheesecloth into 4 layers (this will keep the cheese from falling through). Line a colander with the folded cheesecloth and place it in the sink. Gently pour the separated milk into the cheesecloth–lined colander. Let the whey drain through the colander down into the sink.

4. When the whey has stopped draining (about 1 minute), gather up the sides of the cheesecloth to create a bundle. Using the back of a spoon, gently press the bundle against the side of the colander to squeeze out most of the excess whey. It is okay if the cheese is somewhat moist. Be careful, as it will be hot.

5. Remove the cheese from the cheesecloth and place in a small bowl. The paneer is now ready to be used in Crumbled Indian Cheese with Peas or another recipe in the book. Or it may be placed in an airtight container and refrigerated up to 1 day before using.

(Recipe reprinted with the express permission of Tuttle Publishing,

2 Comments to “An Indian Birthday Feast with Surprise Paneer”

  1. Patricia Holyszko says:

    I truly enjoyed reading about the surprise paneer because I attempted to make yogurt from Entice with Spice and was unsuccessful. Now, I know the starter yogurt was older than ten days and was too weak to create a new batch. Thank you!

  2. I’m glad you found the information useful. Besides having a healthy culture, the other important thing to do is to make sure the warmed milk and culture stays warm as long as possible while the yogurt sets. In the north, this can be a challenge. I’ve had success using a preheated crock pot that I cover with a towel. (Don’t leave the crock pot on; it will get too hot.) Others put the warm milk and culture in warmed glass jars, which they then set in a cooler filled with warm water. Others place the jars of warm milk and culture in a warm water bath and place that in an oven. Good luck!


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