The one item you could always count on in my house growing up was a big tub of cottage cheese. Usually of the generic supermarket-brand variety, it was a fixture in our kitchen, front and center in the fridge. My vegetarian mother has had a lifelong love affair with the stuff, using it as a quick and filling source of protein on a near-daily basis. Me? I alternated between loving its milky richness and briny curds, and finding it too chalky and funky to deal with.
After moving to New York, I started noticing cottage cheese on the menu at diners and delis. I’d giggle at the thought of ordering it in a restaurant, a breakfast appetizer nestled up next to a wedge of melon or crushed pineapple. It reminded me of my mom and our breakfasts back home, but never felt like something I’d seek out in a public setting. So imagine my surprise when I learned that cottage cheese is having a moment: It’s being blended with fruit into no-churn ice creams, folded into whipped egg whites and flour to make savory, crusty loaves, and touted on TikTok as a hot-girl food.
These recent reappraisals had me considering cottage cheese again, this time as an ingredient more than as a stand-alone dish. Was I on the brink of reentering a cottage cheese appreciation phase? Many of these newer recipes advertise cottage cheese as a lighter alternative to rich dairy products like sour cream or ricotta. But I wanted to create something that celebrates cottage cheese for its natural deliciousness, funky curds and all.
A few baking references came to mind, like the farmer’s cheese pie at Brooklyn’s Four & Twenty Blackbirds, a quiche derivative made with the finer-curd farmer’s cheese, honey, and a sprinkle of thyme. The celebrated ricotta biscuits in Nicole Rucker’s fruit-centric baking book, Dappled, also use fresh cheese to enrich a batter or dough, which is a wonderful back-pocket trick for bakers. The cheese melds with the crumb in a nearly undetectable way, lending moisture, richness, and depth all at once. And the lactose in dairy browns quickly in the oven and transforms into a deeply appetizing copper color.
I chose to go with a simple baked loaf cake made with the addition of a full cup of cottage cheese and half a minced lemon. Introducing the full force of citrus balances out the cake’s milky base with complementary bitterness and acidity. As the cake bakes, the lemon pieces turn pleasantly chewy, providing a nice textural contrast to the tender crumb.
I find this cake to be even better after it sits for a day, when the moisture has settled in and the lemon has had some time to release its perfume. I top it with a sour lemon glaze for an extra hit of acidity, but a heavy sprinkle of sugar followed by a drizzle of lemon juice before baking would make a simple and tasty alternative. My mom isn’t big on baking, but I think she would be tempted by the winning combination of cottage cheese and cake. It helps that the main ingredient is always on hand!
Cottage Cheese and Minced Lemon Cake Recipe
1 lemon, divided (seek out an organic lemon as half the entire fruit is going into the cake, skin and all)
240 grams (2 cups) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
1¼ teaspoons kosher salt
200 grams (1 cup) sugar
110 grams (½ cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
240 grams (1 cup) cottage cheese, 4 percent fat small curd
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
150 grams (1⅓ cups) confectioners’ sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
Step 1: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a standard 8½-inch-by-4½-inch loaf pan with nonstick spray and line it with a slip of parchment that fits just inside the bottom of the pan and up the two long sides. The parchment should rise above the top edge by about an inch so the cake can be easily lifted out once baked.
Step 2: Cut the lemon in half and set aside one half for the glaze. Slice the remaining half into wheels, de-seeding as you go. Finely mince the slices until they resemble the size of minced garlic and set aside.
Step 3: Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a medium bowl and set aside.
Step 4: Using a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the sugar and butter for 2 minutes on medium speed.
Step 5: In a medium bowl, stir together the minced lemon, cottage cheese, egg, and vanilla extract. Add the mixture to the stand mixer and beat on medium speed for about 10 seconds, or until well-combined. The mixture might take on a curdled appearance because of the cheese. No sweat.
Step 6: Add the combined dry ingredients and beat for 10 to 15 seconds or until just blended. The batter should be thick and fluffy. Scoop it into the prepared pan and use a spoon to smooth out the top.
Step 7: Bake for 45 to 50 minutes until the cake is risen and golden on top without any visible wetness; there should be a nice brown crust that springs back to the touch. Let cool for 15 minutes, then use the high-sided parchment to lift the cake out of the pan and onto a cooling rack or platter. Wait another 30 minutes, or until the cake is mostly cool, to glaze it.
Step 8: To make the glaze, zest the remaining half lemon into a small bowl and squeeze out as much juice as possible; you should have about 2 tablespoons. Add the confectioners’ sugar and salt and stir with a fork until no lumps remain.
Step 9: Spoon the glaze over the cooled cake, then use the back of the spoon to spread it just to the loaf’s edge so it drips down the sides. Top with more lemon zest if desired and allow the glaze to set for another 15 minutes before slicing. The cake stays delicious covered and held at room temperature for up to 3 days.