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Cottage Cheese Makes a Comeback

Shavuot is the perfect time to try something new with an old Ashkenazi staple

Carol Ungar
June 07, 2024

Original image: Getty Images

Original image: Getty Images

Cheese blintzes. Cheesecake. Creamy noodle kugel. Dairy foods are the dishes of choice for Shavuot, a holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah. Why? Because the Torah is likened to nourishing milk, or chalav in Hebrew. When the numerical values of each of the letters in the word chalav are added together (8 + 30 + 2), their total is 40—the number of days Moses spent on Mount Sinai receiving the Torah.

One of the most popular dairy foods you can use in your Shavuot recipes is cottage cheese. For me, it’s a taste of my childhood. I’ve been eating cottage cheese for as long as I can remember: My very first food memory is of eating it mixed with sour cream and sugar. At the time, this was considered a perfect snack for small children.

My parents ate cottage cheese, too, for its flavor—and to lose weight. In the mid-20th century, it was famed as a diet food. When my mother needed to drop a dress size, she exchanged her beloved lunchtime cheese Danish and coffee for a scoop of cottage cheese inside half a cantaloupe. My poor, perpetually overweight father, a hardworking man who loved nothing more than a good meal, scarfed down mountains of pot cheese—cottage cheese’s drier and tangier, more East European older brother—combined with fresh berries to reduce his girth. It was probably less satisfying than the heavy cream he’d eaten as a child in prewar Europe, but he seemed to enjoy it.

My parents were far from alone. Back in the early 1970s, cottage cheese rode a wave of popularity. According to the USDA, Americans consumed yearly roughly five pounds of the stuff at the time. Even President Richard Nixon was in on the trend, famously and bizarrely slathering his with ketchup. Today Americans consume barely two pounds a year.

While there’s no mitzvah to eat it, cottage cheese has long been a Jewish favorite, particularly among Ashkenazim. (Sephardic Jews typically go for heavily salted soft cheeses like Tzfatit, Bulgarian, and feta.) Our shtetl ancestors survived on the stuff. “For centuries East European meals consisted solely of potatoes or black bread and curd (cottage) cheese,” wrote the late food historian Gil Marks in his 2010 Encyclopedia of Jewish Foods. “Ashkenazim, many of whom owned their cow or goat, ate curd cheese regularly, commonly mixed with cucumbers radishes or noodles.”

In the shtetl, cottage cheese was usually homemade, often by allowing soured milk to sit outside and clabber naturally. “One of the reasons cottage cheese was so popular was because you could make it quickly,” Jewish food expert Nora Rubel, of the University of Rochester, told me. Today, if you want to make your own cottage cheese, you can slowly heat milk on the stove until it curdles, then remove it from the heat and add an acid like white vinegar or lemon juice. Then, let it rest for half an hour, strain the curds, and add salt and heavy cream. Food blogger Katie Berry of Housewife How-Tos, who offers a recipe plus a video on her site, estimates that the entire process takes under an hour to complete.

Cottage cheese found its way into our collective souls. Rubel points to a quote from immigrant writer Mary Antin’s 1912 memoir The Promised Land, which is about her immigration to Boston from Russia:

I can dream away a half-hour on the immortal flavor of those cheesecakes we used to have on a Saturday night. … If you should attempt that pastry, I am certain, be you ever so clever a cook, you would be disappointed by the result; and hence you might be led to mistrust my reflections and conclusions. You have nothing in your kitchen cupboard to give the pastry its notable flavor. It takes history to bake such a cake.

The cakes of Antin’s dreams were made of curd rather than cream cheese. My mother made her cheesecakes that way. I didn’t like it. The sweetened curd was too dry to my Americanized taste buds, but Antin’s immigrant tastes differed from mine.

It’s hard to believe that Antin was unable to recreate her mother’s recipe because, by the late 19th century, immigrants were selling curd cheeses—including the Breakstone brothers, who set up shop on the Lower East Side in 1882.

Cottage cheese also found its way to Israel, where early Zionists prided themselves on their burgeoning dairy production despite the Holy Land’s hot climate, which is less than friendly to dairy cows. Israeli agricultural know-how has turned the modern State of Israel into a cottage cheese heaven. Israel’s largest producer, the Tnuva Dairy Cooperative, sells 13 varieties of the stuff, ranging from a 12% butterfat variation to cottage cheeses flavored with garlic, olives, and dill, many of which are also exported. The best proof of the cheese’s iconic status was the 2011 cottage cheese boycott, spurred by a Facebook post complaining that the cheese had become unaffordable, which drove 100,000 Israelis to the streets to protest. Their movement succeeded. Major producers rolled back by their prices in response.

While cottage cheese has remained a staple food in Israel, by the 1980s U.S. consumers had switched over to yogurt, which still outsells the white curd by a 7-to-1 ratio. Cottage cheese became uncool. “It was something your grandmother served as a ‘side salad’ plopped on a piece of iceberg lettuce and topped with canned fruit,” writes Jason Wilson on the website Taste of Home.

That might be changing. Look up #cottagecheese on TikTok, and you’ll find an endless stream of millennials and Gen Zers consuming cottage cheese in ways that boggle the imagination.

Cottage cheese flatbread, cottage cheese chips, cottage cheese edible cookie dough, and cottage cheese fudge are only a few of the offerings. Perhaps the strangest iteration is Tiffany Magee’s mustard girl diet, which consists of chicken and apple sausages, eggs, and raw veggies dipped in a mixture of cottage cheese and mustard. Magee, who eats only these foods, claims that she’s dropped 80 pounds. The diet has also vaulted her to TikTok stardom; she and other cottage cheese-eating TikTok content creators are driving sales.

Market analyst John Crawford of Circana, a Chicago-based market research firm, reports that cottage cheese dollar sales are up 16% this year, largely because of TikTok.

Why is cottage cheese suddenly so appealing?

Food influencer and cookbook author Melinda Strauss connects the trend to cottage cheese’s high protein content. “Cottage cheese started showing up in TikTok videos about healthy eating,” Strauss told me. Dieters love it because it’s a satiety-promoting food, which means you’ll feel fuller for longer after you eat it.

High-voltage blenders have also been a game-changer because they overcome the cheese’s biggest obstacle: its off-putting, clumpy texture. “To me, blended cottage cheese was one of the biggest things that came out of the trend. It’s genius,” said Strauss. I agree. And it’s easy. Simply place it in a high-speed blender or food processor and blend for anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes. The longer you blend the thinner it gets.

Once it’s blended, the cheese can go in any direction: Add a sweetener and lemon juice for a cheesecake vibe, or melted chocolate to create a low-fat chocolate mousse. The possibilities are endless. And there’s no better time to try a new spin on cottage cheese, that old Ashkenazi favorite, than on Shavuot.

The Recipe

Cottage Cheese Cake

Cottage Cheese Cake

Carol Green Ungar is a prize-winning writer, and author of Jewish Soul Food: Traditional Fare and What it Means.

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