• That cinnamon is a bark means the spice has an inherent upright strength on the palate. (Samira Damirova)

Cinnamon is my spice pantry trickster: strength masquerading as sweet. Use its wooded high notes to harmonise sweet and creamy paneer.

Serves
6

Preparation

30min

Cooking

1hr

Skill level

Easy
By
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Culinary ubiquity has done little to reduce the appeal of cinnamon; when a spice becomes a chewing gum flavour, it seems safe to say the aromatic is well embraced by mainstream food culture. And yet its savoury characteristics are far less defined.

That cinnamon is a bark means the spice has an inherent upright strength on the palate. Earth spice is dirt and dust and grounding (cumin seed, ground coriander). Forested flavour is wild sweetness (dried methi being the best example). Think of a tree trunk and think of elegance, complexity and height – this is cinnamon.

Cinnamon’s personality is poetically articulated in my old childhood favourite, mattar chaaman. Peas and paneer.

Paneer is a type of homemade Indian cheese. Make it as you would ricotta. I boil three litres of milk, adding two heaped tablespoons of plain thick yoghurt and enough lemon juice to split the liquid upon boiling - around a quarter of a cup, maybe a little more.

After hanging the cheese in muslin cloth for a few hours (if I’ve got my act together I make the cheese the day before and hang it overnight), it’s cut into cubes and shallow-fried in a kadai (shallow pan) of spitting hot vegetable oil.

Frying lends the paneer an acrid quality. In the world of spice, a little acrid is good, working as a foil to sweetness and acidity and as a companion to heat and earth.

Think of a tree trunk and think of elegance, complexity and height – this is cinnamon.

This is where cinnamon makes her high-kicking entrance.

One of the keys to deliciousness is flavour repetition. Professional chefs are brilliant with it – my recent favourite dish eaten out was scallop with carrot three ways; carrot pickled and carrot pureed, the puree itself compiled of both roasted and juiced carrots. Using different textures and techniques with single or complimentary ingredients is all about creating depth inside the same flavour profile. When a flavour has depth, it lingers in the mouth, allowing the person eating to pick up tastes of nuance that are otherwise difficult to discern.

Cinnamon’s relationship to fried chaaman is such that it echoes and highlights all of the cooked paneer’s most delicious qualities, particularly when using cinnamon quills. (Ground cinnamon is less overtly woody and so less complex.)

In the pan, paneer and cinnamon relate at three separate points. The quill’s overt tree bitterness is a foil for the acrid surface taste of fried paneer. Once the quill’s aroma is released by heat and fat, its high note emerges, finding an echo in the paneer’s lactose sweetness. Depth is the last: each spice has its own volume, and cinnamon is no different – the body of this spice is strength in nurture, a characteristic shared by paneer’s dairy richness.

Working spice with ingredients like this gives the mattar chaaman a central spine around which all of the other aromatics play. With sweetness and bitterness and volume of flavour enunciated, my paneer can handle a whole lot more spice – mace flower, clove and star anise; a single black cardamom pod for shadow; green cardamom and its cool menthol breeze.

Cinnamon; capable of being so much more than the sprinkle on your banana smoothies.

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Sarina Kamini is The Spice Mistress - spices tell her their secrets and she shares theirs with you. Don't miss her column, The Spice Mistress, on SBS Food. Keep in touch with in touch with her on Facebook @sarinakamini and Instagram @sarina_kamini.

Ingredients

Paneer

  • 3 litres milk
  • 60 ml (¼ cup) lemon juice
  • 2 tbsp (heaped) plain thick yoghurt
  • 1 piece muslin (cheesecloth), as large as a tea towel
  • vegetable oil, to fry

 

  • 1 large tomato
  • 1 tbsp ghee
  • ⅓ tsp ground ginger
  • 2 heaped tsp cumin seeds
  • ¾ tsp Kashmiri red chilli
  • ⅓ tsp ground turmeric
  • 2 tsp ground coriander seed
  • 1 quill cinnamon
  • ⅓ tsp ground cinnamon
  • ½ tsp amchoor (dried green mango powder)
  • 1 star anise
  • 1 black cardamom
  • 1 mace flower
  • 3 cloves
  • 4 green cardamom pods, cracked open
  • 1½ tsp salt
  • 20 g fresh ginger, finely chopped
  • 15 g gur (jaggery)
  • 2 cups fresh peas (see Tip), blanched, or frozen peas, cooked
  • 1 tsp garam masala

Cook's notes

Oven temperatures are for conventional; if using fan-forced (convection), reduce the temperature by 20˚C. | We use Australian tablespoons and cups: 1 teaspoon equals 5 ml; 1 tablespoon equals 20 ml; 1 cup equals 250 ml. | All herbs are fresh (unless specified) and cups are lightly packed. | All vegetables are medium size and peeled, unless specified. | All eggs are 55-60 g, unless specified.

Instructions

Hanging time: 4 hours or overnight

  1. Pour all the milk in to a large pot placed over high heat, stirring occasionally. While this is waiting to come to the boil, squeeze enough lemons to obtain around ¼ cup of juice. Keep this, along with the yoghurt, next to the stove.
    Place a colander into a bowl large enough to catch the whey. Cover the colander in the piece of muslin.
    When the milk begins to bubble, quickly add the lemon juice and the yoghurt and continue stirring over high heat until it curdles. This should happen almost instantly. If it doesn’t curdle after 10 seconds or so, turn the heat to low and add some more lemon juice until the split occurs.
    Pour the contents of the pot into the colander. The curds (this is your paneer) will be caught by the muslin. Bring together the sides of the muslin to form the curds into a ball. Tie up the corners and hang for at least 4 hours. (I most often hang it off the laundry tap and leave it overnight.)
    Retain the whey and set aside for later use.
  2. Once set, unwrap the ball of paneer and cut into 2.5 cm cubes. Heat the vegetable oil in a deep-bottomed pan or a shallow fryer. While this is heating, prepare a bowl full of cold water and keep by the stove. When the oil is hot, fry the paneer for a few minutes until golden brown. Remove it and place in the bowl of water. The paneer is now ready for use – drain well before using.
  3. Core the tomato. Cut a cross into its base and place in a bowl of boiling water for a few minutes until the skin begins to peel and the tomato softens. Remove from the water, discard the skin, dice the flesh and put aside for later.
  4. Heat the ghee in a pan on medium heat until melted, then reduce the heat to very low and add all of the spices, except the garam masala, along with the salt, fresh ginger and jaggery, stirring so they don’t burn. Typically, I keep the heat off until the spices are in the pan to avoid burning them by accident. Warm the spices until they release their aroma.
  5. Allow it to simmer until much of the water from the tomato cooks out and it begins to resemble a thicker mix. Continue to cook on low heat until the fragrant mix becomes a paste.
  6. Add the fried paneer and cooked peas along with around 1 cup of the whey. Turn to high heat until it begins to bubble. Then turn it immediately down to low heat and leave to simmer for 45 minutes or until the mix is fragrant and reduced of its excess liquid. Add the garam masala in the last moments of cooking.
  7.  Serve.

 

Tip

• In this instance I used peas, however, I make paneerusing a range of vegetables. Sometimes, capsicum, cabbage or spinach or Brussel sprouts. Add however much of your chosen vegetable you wish and always add to the pan at the same time as the paneer itself.