I don’t really like cheese. I know it’s anathema to admit that out loud but the prospect of ordering a cheese course at a restaurant makes me cringe. Goat cheese, Camembert, blue cheese. Blech! In my world, blue’s a color, not a food. I think the problem is that I grew up eating Kraft singles and I continued to define cheese as neon orange squares, plastic-wrapped and eaten with Ritz crackers long after I stopped shopping at Kids Gap. Ok, so not much has changed. I’m still petite enough to shop at Kids Gap and I still like Ritz with Kraft singles. You'll be pleased to know I recently discovered that I like Brie. Not because I was trying to broaden my cheese horizon but rather, because Brie reminded me of cream cheese. Don't hate because I'm a true gourmand :).
In light of my (extremely) limited cheese experience, it's particularly surprising that one of my favorite South Asian desserts is ras malai, or paneer in sweetened milk. Holy Batman, that even sounds unappetizing to me and I've been eating it for years. Let me elaborate. Paneer is a particularly mild, fresh cheese with no real flavor of it's own. As a result, it works really well in different contexts from main dishes to desserts. It's basically the tofu of the dairy world. Remember your last stroll through your local Indian buffet? Remember the palak paneer? Same paneer (but in a savory, spinach sauce). Whew, that explanation sounds much better than paneer in sweetened milk.
While I was growing up, my mom always made ras malai, complete with homemade paneer. There are numerous videos on the internet for the "I make my own bread, grow my own vegetables, raise my own cow" group of foodies inspired to make their own paneer. I should warn you though that it takes f o r e v e r. The voices in your head chanting "dessert now, dessert now" hit an all time high as you watch the moisture s l o w l y drip out of your paneer.
There is a shortcut. Ricotta cheese. I know, I know, numerous South Asian grandmothers just rolled over in their graves. But it's true. Ricotta cheese has an eerily paneer-like consistency without the drama of making paneer. Mix the ricotta with sugar, spread in a baking pan (or if you insist on making things more complicated, use a mini muffin pan for cute, little, paneer rounds), and bake until firm. Wait (impatiently) until the rounds are cooled, add to cooked, sweetened milk, refrigerate, and gobble quickly.
If you're feeling fancy, you can cook the sweetened milk with cardamom and top the entire concoction with pistachios and saffron threads but note the whole garnishing business takes more time (which means it'll be longer before you can eat dessert). The voices in my head prefer the ricotta cheese route but if you have a Sunday afternoon, a container of whole milk, a cheesecloth, and a hankering for paneer making, go at it. Just be sure to have some brownies at your disposal to appease the dessert-craving voices in your head while you wait for the paneer.
16 oz. ricotta cheese
1 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk
2 cups half & half
1/2 cup sugar (or more, to taste)
1/4 cup pistachios, chopped
3-5 cardamom pods
Gently mix 1 cup of sugar with the ricotta. Spread in a dish or spoon into muffin pan and bake for 20-35 minutes. After 20 minutes, peer into the oven every five minutes (feel free to insert a toothpick into the middle of the ricotta mixture to check). The ricotta should not be born but should be cooked fairly thoroughly such that there is no clumps on the toothpick. Cool completely. Cut into squares if necessary.
Mix 1/2 cup of sugar with milk and cream. You may want to add more sugar depending on preference. Cook on low heat until mixture thickens. Remove cardamom seeds from the pods and crush some of them. Add to the thickened milk/cream mixture. Cool completely.
Add cheese cubes to milk/cream mixture and refrigerate for 2 hours (or until chilled). Top with chopped pistachios and saffron threads.
Adapted from Indian Vegetarian Cooking