It wasn’t always that way. Vickie Reh watched her maternal grandmother make a tart and creamy cottage cheese, stirring in snipped scallion tops from the garden. Grace Tholstrup was a farmer’s wife in northern Kansas. After her chores were done and the children were tended to, from the 1950s to the 1970s she would drive 13 miles into Concordia to work as a restaurant cook. Reh doesn’t know whether her grandmother made cottage cheese at the restaurant, but diners were so impressed with her plates in general that they sent tips back to the kitchen.
Reh has made cottage cheese just about every other day since 2009 at Buck’s Fishing & Camping in Northwest Washington, where she heads the kitchen. She didn’t have her grandmother’s recipe, so she found one and tweaked it. “I’m a chef who doesn’t invent the wheel,” she says. “I want to produce the perfect wheel.”
Cottage cheese was the first kind of cheese that Sue Conley learned to make. It was in 1997, in Washington state, before she and Peggy Smith founded Cowgirl Creamery in California. Conley’s instructor was cheese culture expert David Potter. “He was a master cottage cheese maker,” she says. “I had never tasted anything so good.”
It became her sentimental favorite, a handmade labor of love that Cowgirl produced at a low-key 150 pounds per week until the end of last year. They called it “clabbered,” which refers to the way the curd was thickened with a blend of cultured cream and milk.
“We haven’t stopped for good,” Conley says resolutely. “Just call it a suspension of production. We need to figure out a way to improve the process.”
Cottage cheese began as a byproduct, often derived from making butter. It was allowed to curdle on its own, over days, sometimes helped along with a natural acidic culture. The problem with American cottage cheese began after World War II, Conley says. Industrial shortcuts diminished the curd on several levels. Rennet was used to hasten the process of coagulation. The milk dressing was thickened with cornstarch instead of cream, displacing the fresh dairy taste with something sour. Any clabberation, so to speak, went out the window. These days, the best-selling brands use thickeners such as guar gum and carrageenan.
The flavor has also been bred out of the commercial stuff, not unlike what has become of factory-farmed chickens. “Natural flavor” is added to tubs of cottage cheese in the grocery store dairy case. But flavor comes about naturally in handmade versions.
“Vickie’s has a wonderful taste and chewiness to it,” says Mike Daly, a D.C. tax laywer who ate at Buck’s several times a week until he moved away from the Chevy Chase neighborhood but still eats at the restaurant enough to preserve his regular’s status.
“The only kind I had before was from the supermarket,” he says. “It was boring. What Vickie serves is a completely different dish.”
Daly ordered it with abandon after he asked about the main ingredient. The curds were formed from nonfat milk. Seemed pretty healthful. Trouble was, he didn’t inquire further, and he must monitor and limit his cholesterol intake. Reh uses heavy cream to dress the large, irregular curds; this moves the dish decidedly out of the healthful realm. Consequently, Daly’s cottage cheese ordering at Buck’s has been scaled back to one or two special-occasion splurges a year.
“But I recommend it to people all the time,” he says.
After last month’s Sips and Suppers events in and around Washington, co-host and Chez Panisse restaurateur Alice Waters tried a plateful at Buck’s, served simply atop arugula. She loved it, Reh says.
R.W. “Johnny” Apple Jr. became a fan of Cowgirl’s artisan cottage cheese when he visited the California creamery in 2001. Besides dipping in repeatedly with a spoon and asking for a pepper grinder, Conley remembers, the New York Times reporter so famous for his gourmandise described the cheesemakers’ version as “what must be the creamery’s greatest treasure — a rich, creamy, subtly tart, triumphantly cheesy cottage cheese that puts soupy commercial rivals to shame.”
Cowgirl used a lactic acid culture and allowed the curds to form overnight or longer, with lots of hands-on attention. That helped create a buttery and lemony goodness and lent the curd a tender chew. Reh has streamlined the process to a few hours without sacrificing flavor.
Heating the gallons of nonfat milk to a temperature slightly higher than other DIY cottage cheese recipes — 130 degrees — creates conditions to achieve a springy raft of off-white curd. A simple pour of distilled white vinegar and a sturdy spoon set things in motion. After a brief respite for the curd, it takes considerable hand strength to squeeze the curd into a cheesecloth-lined ball. The ball is rinsed to remove as much whey as possible, then compressed to extract as much moisture as possible. That pushes the consistency past that of ricotta or even pot cheese, all the way to firm and borderline translucent. A lot of whey is left behind; it can be used for watering houseplants or making bread.
Reh pinches off thumb-size, craggy curds, letting them fall into a large bowl. They could almost pass for packing material — until the cream goes in and the stirring begins. Within minutes, cottage cheese comes to life. In a nod to her grandmother, the self-trained chef folds in tiny emerald circles of chopped chives.
In summer, additions of peak-season tomatoes, grinds of black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil ensure that emptied cottage cheese plates return to the kitchen at Buck’s. At this time of year, Reh pairs her cheese with beets dressed in a lemony vinaigrette and arugula.
Conley likes to eat good cottage cheese like a dip, with salty potato chips. “It’s terrible to say, but it’s really good that way,” she says. That doesn’t sound half as bad as eating it with ketchup. President Nixon did so, a few times a week. Former visiting White House chef John R. Hanny, author of “Secrets From the White House Kitchens” (La Marque, 2010), says the president ate it solo and as a side dish with steak. His cottage cheese was not made in-house. He preferred the full-fat kind.
“I had to try it for myself” with the ketchup, Hanny says. “And you know, it wasn’t bad. I kind of liked it.”
Of course, your DIY cottage cheese tastes just fine unadorned.
After you make a batch or two, you might vary the size of the curd or see what that slightly lower milk temperature yields. Or you might get curious about how your cottage cheese would perform in a recipe that calls for store-bought. The curds do not disintegrate or soften much, so working it into a savory pie dough or kugel is not advised. But they do hold up nicely as filling for baked pastries. And what they do for a simple pancake recipe is impressive.
Should you go to the trouble of making it for your little ones? They are probably just as happy to slurp up what you can buy in single-serve containers. It’s all they know of cottage cheese, after all.
But you love them. And you can be part of the generation that brings it back.