If you have been to a cheese tasting, chances are it didn't include cream cheese, but maybe it should have. The differences between various brands of cream cheese are no less important to bagel or cheesecake lovers than the nuances between hoity-toity aged cheeses from around the globe are to gourmands.
Easily spreadable cream cheese is an American creation from the late 1800s. The butterfat and moisture ratios are regulated in the cow's milk unripened cheese. Blandness is often the most noticeable quality, unless it's a specialty mixture including herbs, spices, vegetables, fruit or bits of lox.
The flavor of cream cheese, though, can be measured similarly to the world's most prized foodstuffs. Freshness and simplicity can matter, like in the cuisines of Italy or Spain. Homemade recipes often call for nothing more than cream, whole milk, salt and vinegar, but are ruled out by most since cheese-making via heating and cheesecloth straining is lengthy and messy.
Fortunately, store-bought products are usually economical compared to many other cheeses. However, scouring the ingredient lists can be interesting. Some products have added ingredients to make them firmer or last longer in market refrigerator cases.
Depending on your palate, a taste test may provide a clear winner. A large bagel chain, for instance, sells cream cheese with a fairly short shelf life of a few weeks and only cultured pasteurized milk and cream, water, salt and vegetable gum as the ingredients. Perhaps partially because of the ingredients and partially due to technique, on all of five purchases, it was lighter and fresher than any cream cheese I had ever tasted; something to crave and highly desire as an ingredient in other dishes. However, another large bagel chain's cream cheese has a longer shelf life, includes 12 ingredients, including multiple gums, a gel and stabilizers and the difference in flavor was immediately noticeable to me over five purchases, as it was in supermarket brands with long ingredient lists and long shelf lives bought five times each.
If the result of your own comparison shopping is a brand you love, here are a few tasty ideas to use it up. All ingredients are to taste.
HOT IDEA FOR HOT DIP
—In a microwave-safe container, mix cream cheese with French salad dressing, spicy mustard, maple syrup, freshly ground black pepper and heat in microwave oven, covered, for 25 seconds. Stir and serve immediately as a warm dip for corn chips and fresh vegetables.
CELERY THAT SELLS ITSELF
—Mix cream cheese with chopped fresh dill, mint and chutney, fold in finely diced cooked chilled skinless turkey breast. Spread into washed and trimmed celery stalks. Serve immediately or store tightly covered in refrigerator for up to 2 hours.
—When scrambled eggs are almost completely cooked, add a dollop or two of cream cheese, chopped fresh rosemary, basil, oregano, thyme and a dash of salt and freshly ground black pepper. Good as is served immediately, or, if desired, prebake some potato skins and serve cool enough to hold with hot cooked warm mixture as a topping.
—With an electric hand mixer, gently mix cream cheese, finely diced fresh, hulled strawberries, stevia or sugar and melted dark chocolate that has cooled, but not hardened. Place granola in bowls and spoon mixture over it. Serve immediately.
AFTER-WORK GOURMET COOKBOOK SHELF
Yossy Arefi isn't Mother Nature, but she plays a close second. The award-winning food blogger, photographer and stylist is expert at enhancing the flavors of fruit once they are off the vine or the tree. In "Sweeter Off the Vine," she pulls from her Iranian heritage and other cultures to enhance the sweetness with ingredients such as rose and orange flower waters. Pink peppercorns jazz up a raspberry sorbet, saffron is mixed with sugar in fruit tarts and blood orange juice and doughnuts comingle for innovative results. The seasonal division of recipes helps the year speed by deliciously.
Lisa Messinger is a first-place winner in food writing from the Association of Food Journalists and the author of seven food books, including "Mrs. Cubbison's Best Stuffing Cookbook" and "The Sourdough Bread Bowl Cookbook." To find out more about Lisa Messinger and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.