Whey Cool

Once you make the fluffy, lemony cheese, you can dress it up in different ways, including as the main course in saag paneer, served in a thick and creamy spinach-based sauce.

A farmer friend gave me a box of spinach the other week. It wasn’t long until the novelty wore off. By then I had added the dark green foliage to ramen, salad, omelets, sandwiches and anywhere else I could think. We finally killed the box with a large batch of saag paneer, in which I steamed and pureed the remaining spinach, along with some mustard greens, and cooked them with sauteed onions, garam masala and browned chunks of creamy, nutty, salty homemade cheese. Even when the spinach ran out, I kept making this fluffy, lemony cheese.

It’s easy to make and has a flavor that never gets old, and I feel like I’m only beginning to explore the possibilities of what to do with this cheese. Alas, this exploration has been restricted by a certain step in the process that I can’t stop eating.

I just can’t seem to get off my tuffet and quit eating those curds and whey, and it’s cutting into my cheese output.

Making curds and whey is the first step in almost any cheese-making process. You heat the milk and add some kind of acidic agent that causes the milk to curdle. It’s similar to what happens if you add both lemon and honey to a cup of tea with milk, but more palatable.

When you stir that acid – in my case, lemon juice – into that hot milk, what had been a homogeneous liquid quickly transforms into a thick, nearly solid curd floating in a bath of clear, watery whey. Typically the curds are filtered out and drained, which makes them more dense. These curds are the foundation of most cheeses, while the whey has uses of its own.

A warm bowl of curds and whey is not a bad thing to eat. It’s a little bit sweet, thanks to the lactose; a little tart, thanks to the curdling agent; and slightly salty, as I add salt with the acid. It’s a bit like eating cereal and milk, because you have two different textures inhabiting the same bowl. You can sweeten it, of course, but you can also turn the meal in a more savory direction. I like to drink off the whey and stir in a bit of olive oil and minced garlic, for example, and a touch more salt.

I filter the curds from the whey by pouring it all through cheesecloth (imagine that; using cheesecloth to make cheese). When the curds and whey are poured through, I tie the corners of the cheesecloth around the wad of curds and hang it above the whey pot, so I can capture the stream of draining whey.

You can try to get a second curdling from your whey. That’s how they make ricotta and other types of “whey cheese.” I’ve been doing something a bit more decadent: slowly cooking down the lemon-tinged whey until it develops into a smooth, brown caramel that’s similar in flavor and makeup to dulce de leche. I then pour this lemony caramel sauce over pieces of drained cheese, which I have fried to a golden hue, a process that somehow makes the cheese taste like the milk leftover from a bowl of Fruit Loops.

In short, once you master the basic steps that are a lot of different directions you can take the components, and the results are greater than the sum of their parts.

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