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Crafting Curds and Whey

Fine Cooking Issue 33
Photos: Daniel Proctor
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Most of us probably think of cottage cheese as a prosaic supermarket staple, but at the Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station, California, cheesemaker and co-owner Sue Conley raises it to a fine art, transforming milk into sweet, creamy curds.

The milk, which is from the Straus Family Dairy, a small, family-run farm nearby, is delicious, “like a singlevineyard wine,” says Conley, because it comes from the same small herd of cows that grazes the same land throughout the year. “People who don’t like cottage cheese change their minds when they taste ours,” Conley smiles.

It’s cooking that sets cottage cheese apart from other fresh cheeses; cottage cheese curds need both gentle cooking and gentle stirring (“kind of like making soft scrambled eggs,” says Conley). The stirring is crucial so that the curds don’t get big, hard, and clumpy. Large-scale dairies use huge rotary blades, which don’t give the tender, delicate result that comes from cutting and stirring curds by hand—as it’s done at the Cowgirl Creamery.

Skim milk is pasteurized, a high-acid culture (similar to buttermilk’s) is added, and curd-forming begins. Curds take 12 to 15 hours to coagulate; Conley then cuts them with a wire curd slicer. While large-scale dairies make up to 150,000 pounds of cottage cheese a day, Conley works in much smaller batches—a big day at the Cowgirl Creamery is 150-pounds of cottage cheese.
Slow, gentle cooking gives this cottage cheese its complex flavor. During cooking and stirring, the whey separates from the curds, starting out milky white and turning yellow as the cooking progresses. After cooking, the whey is poured off and the curds are washed twice to further firm them and to rinse away any bitter whey flavor.
Conley dresses the curds with “clabbered” cream, a mixture of milk and cream that has been cooked and cultured to bring out the sweetness and tang that’s natural to topquality milk and cultures. Stabilizers, which can make cottage cheese gummy, are never used. Now the clabbered cottage cheese is ready to be hand-packed and savored.
Hands-on and small scale, the Cowgirl Creamery turns out prize-winning cheese.


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