Those Lemons in That Milk

In August 2011, just a few months after I had moved to US, I volunteered to bring a dessert to a pot luck dinner.  The dinner was held at someone's place who was hosting the Teej festival for people around the area, and was expecting about 90 adults and kids for the get-together.  The pot luck was a first for me, and without understanding the time and energy it would take to make something for 90 people on the day I would be fasting – I told them I would bring Ras Malai.  I was an idiot.  An over-confident idiot.

After I brought all the ingredients and was ready to make Ras Malai, I called a neighbor-friend over to help me out.  She was as newly married and as inexperienced in the kitchen as I, but we both were prepared to make Ras Malai.  At least about 90 pieces of Ras Malai to feed 90 people, also considering there would be couple of other desserts brought by two other volunteers.

I had tried Ras Malai only once successfully.  The recipe I had used to make 12 pieces of Ras Malai required 4 cups of milk and ¼ cup of lemon juice to make the patties.  How much would I need for 90 pieces?

If that appears like one of the questions you encountered in your Math class or GRE exam, please note that the same logic does not work in reality in the field of cooking.  I realized this only later.  Much later.  Because by then I had applied mathematical calculations to the milk and the lemons.

After I came to the conclusion that we would need 15 lemons to curdle the 2 gallons of milk, my friend and I started slicing and juicing the lemons, one after another.  While the two gallon milk heated in a huge pan, there was a big pile of squeezed lemons on the other side.

By the time milk was curdled with the immense amount of lemon juice, and by the time paneer (chhena) was mashed to smoothen – I decided it would be sensible to make small balls (Angoor Rabdi) instead of patties of Ras Malai so it would suffice the number of people at the party.  Though the paneer balls had a hint of sourness to them even after expanding and cooking in sugar syrup, I tried to balance the acidity by boiling the balls longer in the sweet milk that was already sweeter than usual.

Milk starts to curdle when in contact with only a small amount of sour agent, which can be added gradually if further curdling is required.  But I learned this only at the end.  After about 6 hours of hard work, my friend returned and Alok arrived home.  He looked at the mound of lemons, the mess in the kitchen, the exhaustion on my face, and said “oh my god.  no more pot lucks for you.”

getting ready to leave tor the puja, Aug 2011
I went to get ready to go celebrate the festival.  And hesitatingly placed my bowl amid the other food on table at the dinner, hoping no one would ask “who made this dish?”  But after the puja when the women started their dinner, I got a nod from the host that my dessert tasted fine.  People still liked the Angoor Rabdi (mini ras malai) and took second servings.  But I learned three important lessons:
1. In the kitchen, math is helpful but logic is more useful.
2. Never take complicated or time-consuming food to pot lucks or large get-together.
3. Don’t let over-confidence cross the line.

Although, it does make for a comical memory for the rest of your life.
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  1. Loved your blog...mainly the diagram you interesting...:)

  2. Hello,
    Reading your blog for the first time. And the difference I noticed is that you're an honest one. To put up pictures of your failures...isn't always easy, considering that people are here to judge you by your posts. +1 for that courage. And there's some newness I the naming of the dishes. Keep them coming and the lessons that you learnt are very practical ones. I have been through this before. Good day!


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