Cream Cheese, Please!

When I’m fielding questions about cheese—what to pair with, how to put together a great cheese board, which ones melt—I always try to remind people about the fresh cheeses. Fresh cheese is the simplest style with the least amount of age (hence the name). They are the bright white cheeses with no rind. They’re the highest in moisture, making them the most perishable. Mozzarella is probably the most famous.

I make a plea for fresh cheeses because, while they’re unlikely contenders for your pre-dinner cheese plate, they’re mission critical for simple, delicious recipes. Fresh cheeses are found in nearly every cuisine around the world, from queso fresco in Mexico, Central and South American, to paneer in India and Southeast Asia. Here we have an international buffet of fresh cheese choices: Italian-inspired burrata, Greek feta (a fresh cheese that is pickled in salt water), French-looking chèvre (aka fresh goat cheese). We also have what I think of as the American fresh cheese choice: good old-fashioned cream cheese.

You’d be hard pressed to find a ladies’ auxilary or church picnic cookbook that doesn’t lean heavily on cream cheese to produce crowd-pleasing dips, spreads and desserts. One of my first “grown-up” appetizers, proudly served from the toaster oven, was dried, pitted dates stuffed with cream cheese and wrapped in bacon. Cream cheese is spreadable comfort: mild, milky and meltable with a chameleon-like flavor that manages to be sweet alongside spicy or smoky pairings and tangy when used a frosting base.

Cream cheese was accidentally invented in New York in 1872, a failed attempt to reproduce the fresh French cheese Neufchâtel. While Neufchâtel is made only with milk, American dairyman William Lawrence used a combination of milk and cream and his Philadelphia cream cheese remains the gold standard today. Cream cheese is one of a few regulated cheese recipes in the U.S., meaning the USDA enforces fat and moisture standards for cheeses calling themselves “cream cheese.” Cream cheese must have at least 33% milk fat and not more than 55% moisture. 

Modern innovation has enabled cream cheese manufacturers to take what was once an extraordinarily perishable product and extend shelf life through the addition of gums that stabilize the cheese. These stabilizers also deliver cream cheese’s signature smooth, thick, spreadable texture which is not characteristic of most fresh cheese.

Hence my delight in moving to New Orleans and discovering Creole cream cheese. Another fresh cheese local to this area, Creole cream cheese is much less like what we know cream cheese to be and much more like 19th cream cheese and traditional fresh cheese known as “farmer’s cheese.” Made of milk (without cream), Creole cream cheese relies on buttermilk to acidify, or curdle, fresh, whole fat milk, helping to transform it into a fluffy, tart, tangy fresh cheese. Creole cream cheese is typically packed with cream (meaning cream is poured over the top of the cheese once it’s packed into a container) precisely because the texture is drier and curdier than what most folks expect “cream cheese” to be. 

As lifelong consumers of Creole cream cheese know, fresh cheese can go sweet or savory. This style’s malleability is what makes it essential ingredient cheese—drizzle with olive oil, black pepper and herbs or sprinkle with honey or sugar and serve with fruit. I always talk about using spice, acidity and sweetness to cut the fat and protein of cheese, regardless of style. But this interplay is especially successful with soothing, milky, mild cream cheese. It’s why I’ll use it to stuff a jalapeno before I make artichoke cream cheese dip, and likely why it’s commonly paired with spicy-sweet condiments like pepper jelly and pikapeppa. Don’t get me wrong—the comfort calorie bomb of hot cream cheese spreads shouldn’t be dismissed, but the introduction of heat lets you enjoy the cooling relief of pure dairy sweetness.