Thursday, April 5, 2012

cup cheese

I have a new recipe to share with you: cup cheese.

Best I can tell, cup cheese (or soda cheese) is native to Lancaster County, the land of the Pennsylvania Dutch Mennonite dairy farmers, but the first ten years of my life were spent in Lancaster Country and I never encountered cup cheese, so I’m not for sure about that. The cheese is made with soured milk—via a process of heating, straining, melting—and with the addition of several common kitchen ingredients.

The strange thing is, I’m not sure whether I like the cheese or not, and promoting a non-favorite recipe on my blog feels a little weird. But I’m going to do it anyway because 1) the recipe is way cool to make, and 2) people who grow up with this stuff are crazy about it, and 3) with a few recipe tweaks (that I have yet to try but have included below), I may decide I’m crazy about it, too.

And I really want to be crazy about it. The stuff is awesome, some of the most satiny, creamy, spreadable, scoopable cheese you can imagine. It’s glorious to behold.

The problem (for me, anyway) lies in the flavor. My cheese was on the funky side, I do believe. But since I’ve never tasted cup cheese before and had nothing to compare it to, I’m not for certain about that. However, I think I know why it turned out strong and how I might make it less strong.

Also, my kids, while not head-over-heels in love with the cheese, are open to it, so it may be worth a redo just so as adults they can say they grew up with the stuff and are crazy about it.

This is not a hard cheese to make, though it felt hard because it was my first time and I was super-vigilant throughout the whole process (which is lengthy but doesn’t involve much active work time). The main trick is getting the milk to sour. I read that raw milk will sour in about 48 hours if left to sit on the counter. After 24 hours, my milk was smelling strong but not thick so I added a cup of buttermilk. Another 24 hours and it was ready to go. Next time (and what I say to do in the recipe), I’ll heat the milk to room temperature and add the buttermilk at the very beginning—hopefully that will cut back on the funk.

This cheese has an incredible texture, creamy-smooth like peanut butter, and a luxurious richness to rival cream cheese. It’s amazing stuff, really. Most people eat it spread on bread like butter, but I think it could be mixed with all sorts of things (fresh herbs, chopped ham, boiled eggs, capers, radishes, etc) to make exciting dips and spreads.

Have you ever had cup cheese? What did you think about it?

Cup Cheese (a.k.a Soda Cheese)
Adapted from a recipe my friend Kathy sent me, as well from the recipes I found in Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll and Mennonite Country-Style Recipes by Esther H. Shank

1 gallon raw milk
1 cup buttermilk
½ teaspoon baking soda
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup cream
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon salt

Pour the milk into a large kettle and heat over medium heat until slightly warm. Remove from the heat and stir in the buttermilk. Lid the pan and set aside until the milk is thick enough to cut with a knife—about 36-48 hours. Skim off the thick sour cream and reserve for some other baking project.

Cut the curds into ½ -inch cubes with a knife. Heat the milk to 115 to 130 degrees, stirring gently. Remove from the heat (or, if you want your curds to be firmer, keep the milk at that temperature for up to an hour) and separate the curds and whey by pouring the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined strainer. (Reserve the whey for other baking projects.) Tie up the corners of the cheesecloth and let the curds drain for 8 hours or overnight.

Dump the curds into a bowl and mix in the baking soda and melted butter. Let sit at room temperature for 4-5 hours.

Put the curds into the top part of a double boiler (I set a smaller kettle inside a larger one), making sure the top part is not touching the boiling water. Melt the curds, stirring occasionally. Once the curds are melted (they’ll be creamy-smooth and stringy, like melted marshmallows), add the beaten egg, cream, and salt. Bring the cheese to a boil (mine never got there—I just cooked it for awhile) and pour into dishes. Cover and refrigerate. Serve with crackers, bread, etc.

This same time, years previous: now, he wore a dresschickpeas with spinach, the case of the flying book, spinach-cheese crepes, and skillet-blackened asparagus


  1. I've lived in Lancaster County all my life and I encountered cup cheese the first time only a few years ago. It was at an 'Amish meal' at my in-law's church (prepared & served by the youth...not fund a missions trip).

    People seem to either love it or hate it. I think it's quite yummy. I may have to try your recipe, although I'm a tad intimidated by it.

    1. Hi there! Clayton Shenk, founder of Shenks cup cheese, Lancaster PA was my great grandfather. I used to work on the farm with him, at the cheese plant. I also worked at our stand in market, selling cup cheese. I enjoyed mild cup cheese which is a bit more "rubbery" and...I have to agree, especially the sharp, has a kind of "snot" consistency. It is something that has an aquired taste. I know when I worked at Meadowbrook market, in Leola, people from out of town would spit out the sample sometimes.
      I would be happy to share info with you.

    2. Hi, Carole,

      My name is Sara and I live in Seattle but I grew up in Lancaster Co. And my mother was born and grew up there in Quarryville. She's 89 and lives with my husband and me in Seattle. She's one of the older generation who grew up on cup cheese (she calls it pot cheese) and she still loves it. We used to have it shipped out for her but can no longer get it, I think because your family's original business is suspended. Could you tell us exactly what the situation is with the business and if we can currently get the cheese shipped. I've called the number on the website but never had the call returned. Could you tell us what the story is?

      Thanks so much,


  2. My parents were from Finland, and an old country delicacy they craved, especially in the spring and summer was the Finnish version of yogurt, called filbunke (pronounced feel bunk). When my husband and I operated a dairy farm my parents would come and get a gallon of raw milk to make their treat. Every once in a while someone coming from the old country would smuggle in a small container of starter and the process would begin again. My mother would mix the starter with the raw milk and leave the bowls on the kitchen counter to start the process, then refrigerate them. Raw whole milk made a nice layer of cream on the top, and the fermentation process, if it involved a good starter, produced a fil that would reach in long strands from the spoon back to the bowl (lang mjolk or long milk). Needless to say, my sister and I hated the stuff, even with the added inducement of cinnamon sugar sprinkled on top. And you couldn't be too greedy--you always had to save some starter to begin the next batch. For my parents, I think that filbunk in the spring and summer was a reminder of the home they had left just as lutefisk reminded them of home at Christmas time.

    1. This is beautiful---both the story and how it's written.

  3. I LOVE cup cheese - the stronger the better! My husband is weirdly fascinated by it (the brand I see most often looks like snot - sorry - and I think that's a factor in his inability to eat the stuff). My dad did get it a few times when I was growing up, but I think I would have liked it regardless because I adore funky cheeses.

    I might be up to trying this recipe. If I do, I'll report back.

    1. My cheese looked NOTHING like snot, eek!

    2. This is the best. I used to try and get my son-in-law eat some of it he said that to him it smelled like rancid beer. but that's okay I like it anyway. Am having a hard time finding it now.

  4. We lived west of Lancaster County, just over in Ohio where this was very popular with a Mennonite family I knew. Personally, I am in the group that loathes it! But then that is because the smell of soured milk does me in every, single time. I hope you can come to enjoy it!

  5. my husband (from Lancaster) loves cup cheese; up there you can buy it (Shenk's brand) in three types: mild, medium and sharp. If you don't have a taste for this, it's hard to get it past your nose.

  6. Very interesting! You are one adventurous girl Jennifer Jo! :)

    I just wanted to let you know how much it meant to me that you would stop by and leave such a sweet comment on my blog the other day. Oh....and if you lived closer, I would have LOVED a meal a la JJ! :) But, the thought (in this case) meant so very much to me!

    Happy Easter!

  7. My grandmother (born Old Order Mennonite near Dayton, VA) made soda cheese many times in my growing up years, and I remember it always being served with celery sticks. Unfortunately, I didn't have the opportunity to learn to make it from her before she passed away. Several years ago, I invited some of her nieces (my father's first cousins) to show me how to make it. The batch they helped me with turned out well, but the batch I tried on my own did not, so I haven't made it since. Now I am inspired to try it again...

  8. I googled the cup cheese after seeinng it in a series of Amish books by Sarah Price. This was helpful information thank you.

  9. Cup cheese was available at all the farmer's markets in Lancaster County when I grew up there in the 40s, 50s and 60s. It had to be sold in cups because it was a runny cheese (snotty is a good description). A few places still make and sell it, but it is much less available nowadays. My grandfather loved it and ate it on bread. I never aquired the taste for it, but people who like weird cheeses might like it.

  10. I grew up in Lititz, Lancaster County, PA. My mother would often go to the farmer's market on Saturdays and buy cup cheese. I could eat it but wasn't crazy about it like she was. It's been a long time since I had it. I'm living in Costa Rica now and may try making my own.

  11. I've lived in Lancaster County all my life. My grandmother always had cup cheese in her fridge and she would let it come to room temp before she spread it on her bread. I love it but my family doesn't!

  12. I too grew up in Lancaster Co PA and have always loved this funky smelling cheese! I no longer live there but reports are that it's difficult to find. Very few stores carry it.
    So thanks for the recipe! I think some in my family are up for making it!

  13. My mom used to make it up in Montana. I loved the stuff spread on bread. She made a mild flavored one and a strong one that she'd send with my dad to work. I preferred the mild. Wonderful stuff!

  14. Hi thanks for the recipe! My dad often bought it as a treat for himself since non of us liked it. I wanted to make the real stuff for his birthday and came across your blog. My Amish MIL makes it all the time for church but the Amish started making a easier recipe. Here's her recipe, 1 qt milk minus a 1/2 cup, 2 1/2 lbs white American cheese, 1lb of Velveeta cheese - heat milk just to boiling point, add 1/2 stick of butter and turn burner off. Add the cheese slice by slice, put on low and stir until melted. Let cool and Enjoy! I do like this version of cup cheese! :)

  15. Green Acres Jersey Farm in Lebanon Co. PA makes a very good mild cup cheese!

  16. I've made this cheese quite often. Its delicious, very creamy and not snotty. If you add a starter, and want a milder cheese, only let it set out overnight or around 8 - 10 hrs until the curd is thick.
    Another thing I always do is rinse the curds with cold water after I have them in the bag. That way they aren't as sour. then I hang the bag of curds to drain.

  17. I grew up in Lancaster PA eating cup cheese. I agree that you either love it or hate it. I haven't lived in Lancaster in 26 years, but love having it each time I come for a visit. We grew up eating cup cheese and potato chip sandwiches. Later I ate cup cheese spread on a toasted bagel - heaven! I lived in western NY from 1987-1995 and would order it directly from Shenk's . Since I moved to the Kansas City area post 1995 I've been unable to get it from Shenks. Not sure why I can no longer get it - would love to order some - any ideas?

  18. I was born in York, PA, but grew up & still live in West Palm Beach, Florida. Cup cheese was an adult-only delicacy enjoyed when we went back to York for vacations. Intrigued, I finally tried it as a teenager and decidedly loved it. I am now 61 and just returned from visiting my dear mother living in Manchester. We made our traditional trip to Central Market in York, and . . . . no cup cheese anywhere!! Very disappointing. BUT--you have given me hope with this recipe! I will attempt making my own (sharp, yes), and put it in the little Shenk's plastic cup I saved for posterity. Thanks for working out the recipe for us! :)