There are some Lithuanians who dislike cheese, but they are few and far between… Many enjoy “varškė“ (cottage cheese), or “varškės sūris“ (farmer‘s cheese), which is not always available in grocery chains. The standard commercial containers of fairly wet curds, sold where you find sour cream, are just not the same. Lithuanian cottage cheese is more like Italian ricotta, and when pressed into farmer‘s cheese, can be sliced.
Would you venture to make it yourself? Here is my recipe, and many more are available online, with variations and shortcuts. This is one I learned from my mother-in-law, who was a very good cook. You can spread it on toast for breakfast or snacks, use it in recipes calling for ricotta cheese, roll it in crepes to make tasty “nalesnikai“ or blintzes, or bake it into a cheesecake.
In Canada, we use a four-litre package of milk – whole, 2%, or 1%. Pour it into a large pot, add a generous half-litre of buttermilk, and set it at the back of your stove or other warm spot in your kitchen (e.g., on top of the fridge), covered with a wire rack and a clean dishcloth. Leave it for 48 hours. Two days – or less, depending on how warm your kitchen is. How do you know when it‘s ready to heat? Jiggle the pot (this is a true culinary term) to see if the milk has soured: it will be somewhat like jello. Remove the dishtowel and rack, put the pot on medium-low heat. This is the tricky part. Do not leave the kitchen – timing is of the essence! Do not let it come to a boil, but some bubbles may come up. Usually, 20 minutes will be enough to break up the gelatinous milk and form curds, which split away from the yellowish liquid (called whey) when you draw a spoon across the surface. If you leave the pot on the heat too long, you will be able to smell the cottage cheese and it will likely be too dry, gummy at best. Take the pot off the heat. Let it cool for 20 minutes or so. The separation of curds and whey will become more obvious. Pour or ladle the contents of the pot into a large colander lined with a cotton or linen dishcloth or piece of muslin, and allow to drain for several hours or overnight. It can be put in the fridge over a bowl to finish draining.
Scoop the cheese out of the dishcloth into a jar, or a plastic or ceramic container and cover tightly. It should be spreadable. If it‘s a bit too dry and crumbly, you can mix in some sour cream. To make sliceable cheese, scoop the curds into a cloth bag (a dishcloth sewn into a triangle), tie it off and hang it on your faucet to drain, then press between two (cutting) boards weighted on top with food cans or other heavy objects. I cannot vouch for this variation as I usually make a spreadable cottage cheese, but once again, the internet is a good source of advice.
What else can you do with home-made cottage cheese, besides eating it on toast or dark rye bread (with jam or honey)? Here is a cheesecake recipe from Treasures of Lithuanian Cooking, using a flour-based crust.
¾ cup sugar
2 tbsp sour cream
1 tsp vanilla extract
½ cup butter (softened)
1 ½ tsp baking powder
1 cup flour
½ cup almonds, chopped
½ cup jam
Preheat oven to 350oF. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with parchment.
Beat eggs and sugar until light, add sour cream, vanilla and butter. Sift together flour and baking powder, add to cream mixture. Blend well. Spread dough in prepared pan, spread jam on top, sprinkle with chopped almonds. Fill with cheese filling (recipe follows) and bake for 1 hour. Cool before removing from pan.
4 eggs, separated
1 cup sugar
½ cup butter, softened
1 tsp rum flavouring (or other)
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp corn starch
2 cups firm cottage cheese
½ cup raisins (optional)
Beat egg yolks with sugar until light. Add butter, flavouring, baking powder, corn starch and cheese. Blend well. In separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff. Fold egg whites (and raisins, if using) into cheese mixture. Turn into prepared crust. Bake as indicated above.