It would be hard to disagree with anyone who argued that the spiritual home for a dollop of cream cheese is on a toasted bagel, in my case accompanied by an equally large spoonful of crunchy peanut butter.
As I hope the Iron Chef and his challenger proved during their exciting battle, however, this fresh, tangy cheese is far more versatile than some people might imagine and is definitely worth keeping on hand as a refrigerator basic.
What is cream cheese?
Cream cheese is a soft, fresh unripened cheese that is made from a combination of milk and heavy cream and by definition must contain at least 33 percent milk fats and less than 55 percent moisture.
It is one of the most popular cheeses in the United States and the most recent research I could find from 2008 reports that the average American consumes a little over 2.5 pounds of cream cheese every year.
While there are low-fat varieties available, traditional cream cheese does not offer many great nutritional benefits. It contains less calcium than many other cheeses and is unsurprisingly very high in saturated fats. Some brands also contain considerable amounts of salt.
Cream cheese is usually sold either in brick form wrapped in foil or in tubs, where the contents have been whipped with air to make the cream cheese easier to spread. It can also be found mixed with a variety of other ingredients such as herbs, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes.
Where does cream cheese come from?
Although many people consider cream cheese to be a quintessentially American product, there are records of similar cheeses being sold in Europe dating back to the 16th century.
In 18th century England, an early version of the famous Stilton cheese was known to be made in a similar fashion to today’s cream cheese, while in France there are mentions of cream-rich cheeses being made as far back as the 1540s, although these were probably aged.
It’s American dairy owner William Lawrence of Chester, N.Y., who is credited with making the first cream cheese in 1872, which many believe happened as he tried to re-create NeufChatel en Bray, an aged cheese from the Normandy region of France. Lawrence began selling it soon afterward in the foil bricks that are still familiar today, and it was an almost instant success.
There are varying stories about how cream cheese became known as Philadelphia Cream Cheese, with some claiming that it was because the cheese was packed and distributed from the city. Most believe, though, that it referenced the fact that Philadelphia was known as a city with very high standards of food production.
How do I cook with cream cheese?
As I said above, while few things beat a toasted bagel smothered in cream cheese, there are lots of other ways that this versatile ingredient can contribute to your cooking.
In winter I like to place a large spoonful of cream cheese into a bowl before ladling in a spiced carrot and parsnip soup, and the addition of cream cheese to a pan of wild mushrooms sauteed with garlic and lots of parsley makes a fantastic sauce to serve over pasta, pork chops or steak.
Try mixing cream cheese with a few tablespoons of fresh chopped chives to make a delicious filling for an omelet, or consider adding the same mix to a pan of slow-cooked scrambled eggs to elevate an otherwise humble breakfast dish.
One of my favorite recipes is to use cream cheese as the filling for croquettes by making a paste with cheese, eggs, salt and flour, forming into round balls, freezing, breading with panko and deep-frying it in vegetable oil. The outside will be golden and crunchy, while the inside will be creamy and delicious.
Cream cheese is obviously perfect for making cheesecake, but for a different take on dessert try mixing the cheese with a compote of berries to make a filling for turnovers or with grated chocolate and lemon zest as an accompaniment to pies and tarts.
Finally, if all you really crave is stuff between bread, I am going to let you into the secret of my own favorite sandwich. It’s a take on Elvis Presley’s infamous go-to snack: a toasted cream cheese, honey, peanut butter and banana sandwich made with thick slices of whole wheat bread. Try it. It’ll change your life, I promise.
Where can I buy cream cheese?
Obviously you can buy cream cheese in any supermarket, but bear in mind that most of the big brands will contain preservatives and even some organic varieties will include gum emulsifiers to increase the shelf life of their product in store.
Many good delicatessens produce fresh cream cheese and though it will have a much shorter shelf life than the versions you can buy in supermarkets, it will have a much fresher taste and be better both for cooking and just eating on its own.
Best of all, cream cheese is quite easy to make at home, with ingredients and equipment that is readily available. It may take a little time and a bit of practice to get it just right, but the end result is well worth the effort.