Darn you, modern convenience. For every good measure wrought upon foodstuffs, an equal number of indignities have been suffered.
Ravioli in a can.
Bread raised only to live in plastic bags on a shelf.
Among the slighted, cottage cheese has been dealt an especially tough hand. Its small and mealy curds are suspended in sour blandness. It has a bad habit of sidling up to syrupy peach slices, and it is appreciated mainly as a protein- delivery system.
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. That grandmother, 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 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 restaurant in Washington, D.C., 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 said. "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 Point Reyes Station, Marin County.
Conley's instructor was cheese culture expert David Potter.
"He was a master cottage cheese maker," she said. "I had never tasted anything so good."
Cottage cheese began as a by-product, 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 said. 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.
These days, "natural flavor" is added to tubs of cottage cheese. But flavor comes about naturally in handmade versions.
Reh has streamlined the process to a few hours without sacrificing flavor.
Heating the gallons of nonfat milk to a temperature slightly higher than that of other 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, 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 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.
Of course, your do-it-yourself 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.