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I often forget about cream cheese until I need it: A forlorn, toasted bagel begs for some schmear. A craving for cheesecake hits—and hits hard. A last-minute party demands a savory, creamy dip. Or it's someone's birthday who loves carrot cake (which, in my experience, actually means that they love cream cheese frosting). It's then that I search my fridge for the telltale foil-wrapped bricks, building blocks for any tangy, rich dish worth its salt (or sugar).
Recently, however, as I was putting cream cheese on the shopping list, I started wondering: what exactly is cream cheese, anyway? Is it a cheese? How is cream involved? And why is it so dang delicious? So I decided to investigate—and round up a few of my favorite ways to use cream cheese (both sweet and savory), in the process.
So, what is cream cheese?
Cream cheese is a soft, mild-tasting fresh cheese made from cow's milk, meaning it's unaged. To produce it, lactic acid bacteria is added to cream, causing the pH of the cream to decrease, driving the fat away from the liquid—in short, curdling it. At this point the mixture is heated, stabilizers (such as carob bean gum and carrageenan) added, and voila—you've got cream cheese.
Cream cheese is similar to Neufchâtel, a fresh French cheese also made of cow's milk, typically sold in the shape of a heart (aw). The main difference lies in the fat content: cream cheese traditionally contains cream, and thus has a higher fat content than its French counterpart, which is made only with milk. While they are quite similar in flavor, don't sub in Neufchâtel for cream cheese willy-nilly; the differing fat contents could cause some discrepancies.
Today, cream cheese is one of America's most widely-consumed cheeses—probably because its mild flavor means it's used in a myriad of sweet and savory applications. While most of us will pick up foil-wrapped blocks to use in spiced cheesecakes, creamy, savory dips, or to just to spread on toasted bagels, ambitious burgeoning cheesemakers may try to make their own. Regardless, now that you know what it is, use cream cheese to give a tangy richness to these 18 recipes—both sweet and savory.
make it sweet
What's your favorite way to use cream cheese? Or do you just spread it on bagels and that's it? Tell us below!