Artisanal cottage cheese?
The phrase trips off the tongue much the way “organic corn dog” or “hand-crafted diet soda” might. While cottage cheese has been a supermarket staple at least since your grandmother served it with pineapple slices, it retains a ho-hum image as a bland diet food. In the hierarchy of culinary esteem, it's not too far above Velveeta.
But a small number of curd-loving cheese crafters are challenging that blase image, creating cottage cheeses that are different from the stuff in tubs in the dairy aisle. An artisan, for example, might use milk from grass-fed cows, stir and cut the curds by hand and add cream for a lightly tart, full-bodied cheese.
Admittedly, it remains an ultra-niche product, nowhere near as common as artisanal hard cheeses. But the cottage industry shows the artisanal food movement's wide reach, as well as the unheralded qualities of a humble cheese.
“It's underappreciated,” said Stephanie Clark, associate professor of food science at Iowa State University. “It's so delicate that it's hard to do really well. But it can be really delicious if they have a nice blend of those dairy flavors that we naturally love.”
Cottage cheese is a “fresh” cheese, meaning it's not aged over long periods like its highbrow cousins Gruyere or Camembert. It can be made on a commercial level in six hours. But that production is different than for other fresh cheeses (all of which spoil easily). While mozzarella is kneaded and farmer's cheese is pressed, cottage cheese is just gently stirred.
At Traders Point Creamery in Zionsville, on the northwest side of Indianapolis, cheesemaker Lindsay Klaunig pasteurizes whole milk slowly at lower temperatures to keep the milk's protein from being damaged. She adds lactic acid cultures, then lets the milk set into curds overnight.
Cream then is skimmed off and the remaining curds are carefully cut and stirred by hand. The whey is drained and cream is added back with a bit of salt. Klaunig all the while pays close attention to acidity, creaminess and curd quality (high-fat curds are squishier, high-protein curds are firmer). Then comes one last artisanal touch — they sell it in a glass jar.
“My goal is to take the milk and just kind of concentrate it and put in new a form. I concentrate it, I ferment it and put it in a jar, but it's definitely still the milk, and you can certainly sense that it is still the milk as long as I get the acidity and the salt right and keep the curds at the right texture,” Klaunig said.
Traders Point is one of the few well known high-end cottage cheese makers, along with Cowgirl Creamery in northern California. There aren't too many others. Consider that the American Cheese Society's annual contest for artisanal and specialty cheeses last year had 1,676 entries. Three were cottage cheese.
Cowgirl and Traders Point distribute most of their cottage cheese close to their home base. Traders Point is looking at the East Coast market, though.
Try it at home
Could there be a food more heavily burdened with a dull reputation than cottage cheese?
But, it turns out, this aged icon of the fat-free diet movement has been getting the artisanal treatment by cheesemakers around the country. So we decided it was time to re-imagine how we eat it and come up with recipes worthy of the new breed of high-quality cottage cheeses.
Cottage cheese pepper dip
Start to finish: 15 minutes
16-ounce container cottage cheese
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika, plus more to garnish
1/2 cup chopped cherry peppers
1 tablespoon cherry pepper liquid (from the jar of cherry peppers)
1 tablespoon diced banana peppers
1/4 cup diced Kalamata olives
Chips, toasted baguette rounds, crackers or vegetables, to serve
In a medium bowl, stir together the cottage cheese, black pepper, cayenne, paprika, cherry peppers, cherry pepper liquid, banana peppers and Kalamata olives. Spoon the mixture evenly into a casserole or other serving dish. Sprinkle with additional paprika. Serve with toasted chips, toasted baguette rounds, crackers or vegetables.
Per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 50 calories; 10 calories from fat (20 percent of total calories); 1.5 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 0 mg cholesterol; 3 g carbohydrate; 7 g protein; 0 g fiber; and 280 mg sodium.
Cottage cheese pie
Start to finish: 1 hour
16-ounce container cottage cheese, divided
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 whole eggs
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
Zest and juice of 1 orange
Zest and juice of 1 lime
1/4 cup heavy cream
Fresh berries, to serve
Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
In a medium bowl, use an electric mixer to beat together 1/2 cup of cottage cheese, the butter and a pinch of salt until well combined. Add the flour and beat just until incorporated.
Form the dough into a round and transfer to a lightly floured counter. With a rolling pin, roll out the dough into a 12-inch circle, then fit it into a 9-inch pie pan. Trim off most of the overhang, leaving about 1/2 inch. Crimp the edge with a decorative flute or fold the excess under itself and crimp with a fork. Set the pie pan on a baking sheet and set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, yolks and sugar until smooth and slightly frothy. Stir in the orange and lime zests and juices, along with the heavy cream and remaining cottage cheese. Spoon the mixture into the prepared pie shell and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until just set in the middle.
Allow to cool to room temperature and serve topped with fresh berries. Refrigerate any leftovers.
Per serving (values are rounded to the nearest whole number): 290 calories; 150 calories from fat (52 percent of total calories); 17 g fat (10 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 140 mg cholesterol; 25 g carbohydrate; 11 g protein; 1 g fiber; and 260 mg sodium.