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What Exactly *Is* Cream Cheese? + 18 Ways to Use It

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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.

5 Unexpected Ways to Use Cream Cheese
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5 Unexpected Ways to Use Cream Cheese

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

Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Icing and Caramelized Pumpkin Seeds
Pumpkin Cake with Cream Cheese Icing and Caramelized Pumpkin Seeds
Cream Cheese Cookies

Cream Cheese Cookies by Merrill Stubbs

Rose Levy Beranbaum's Perfectly Flaky & Tender Cream Cheese Pie Crust

Rose Levy Beranbaum's Perfectly Flaky & Tender Cream Chee... by Food52

Cheese-Stuffed Figs Dipped in Chocolate
Cheese-Stuffed Figs Dipped in Chocolate
Matcha-Black Sesame Cheesecake

Matcha-Black Sesame Cheesecake by Oh Sweet Day!

Butternut Squash & Spice Cheesecake

Butternut Squash & Spice Cheesecake by Food52

Meyer Lemon Cheesecake with Biscoff Crust

Meyer Lemon Cheesecake with Biscoff Crust by Lucy Mercer

Mocha Marble Cheesecake

Mocha Marble Cheesecake by Alice Medrich

Sweet Potato Roll with Cream Cheese Filling
Sweet Potato Roll with Cream Cheese Filling
Lime Cream Cheese Frosting

Lime Cream Cheese Frosting by cynthia | two red bowls

Donna Hay's Food Processor Carrot Cake

Donna Hay's Food Processor Carrot Cake by Sarah Jampel

...and savory

Caramelized Onion Dip
Caramelized Onion Dip
Creamy Sausage-Stuffed Mushrooms

Creamy Sausage-Stuffed Mushrooms by ADRIENE

Micki's Turkey, Cranberry, and Cream Cheese Comfort Sandwich

Micki's Turkey, Cranberry, and Cream Cheese Comfort Sandwich by micki barzilay

Savory Potato & Onion Knishes
Savory Potato & Onion Knishes
Yotam Ottolenghi & Ramael Scully’s Burnt Green Onion Dip with Curly Kale

Yotam Ottolenghi & Ramael Scully’s Burnt Green Onion Dip ... by Genius Recipes

Chicken Liver Mousse

Chicken Liver Mousse by Cara Nicoletti

The Perfect Cheese Ball
The Perfect Cheese Ball

What's your favorite way to use cream cheese? Or do you just spread it on bagels and that's it? Tell us below!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Cheese, Cream Cheese, Dessert