Artisanal cottage cheese? The phrase trips off the tongue much the way "organic corn dog" or "hand-crafted diet soda" might. Because 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).
At Traders Point Creamery in Zionsville, Ind., 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.
Part of that has to do with the general lack of respect for cottage cheese. Bon Appetit's restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton recently revealed in his Foodist blog that cottage cheese was the one food he was embarrassed to eat.
"I used to hide my love of cottage cheese, only eating it at home," Knowlton wrote. "What was I afraid of, that people would think I was on the pineapple-and-cottage-cheese diet?"
Cowgirl co-founder Peggy Smith said it can take convincing to get people to try their cottage cheese, even with the enticement of serving it with fresh strawberries.
"They're usually surprised that they like it," Smith said. "It's not a runaway seller. We sell as much as we make and people really like it, but it requires selling," she said. "Once they taste it, they like it. But you have to get that spoon in their mouth."
Beyond reputation, there are logistical issues for smaller operations selling cottage cheese. It has a limited shelf life and becomes more tart as it ages. Cottage cheese just isn't as portable as wheel of hard 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.
While some fancy restaurants include artisanal cottage cheese on their menu, you're more likely to find it at a farmers market. In New Hamp shire, Brookford Farm in Canterbury added it to the list of products it sells at farmers markets this winter. Brook ford's Jamison Small said sales are off to a good start.
"A lot of our customers are trying to get a feel for food of what's its really supposed to take like instead of what they've grown to know," he said.