Although it has a fairly high fat content (about 33 per cent), cream cheese isn't as flavoursome as
many other rich cheeses, making it a good ingredient to spread on toasted bagels and to make into cheesecakes.
What is it? A rich, heavy cheese with a mild taste.
It was developed in the United States and the best known brand is Philadelphia, which sells the original product in foil-wrapped blocks. Newer products include whipped cream cheese, low-fat or fat-free varieties and versions that are smoked salmon, pineapple and strawberry flavoured.
What are the differences? Regular cream cheese is too firm to spread easily when it's taken straight from the fridge. As its name suggests, whipped cream cheese, which comes in small tubs, is beaten so it's soft and spreadable even when cold. It's not suitable for using in most recipes because by volume, there's less of it than an equal measure of regular cream cheese. Low-fat and fat-free varieties have reduced calories but at the expense of flavour and texture. Smoked-salmon cream cheese is a poor substitute for the popular combination of cream cheese with smoked salmon, and it's difficult to think of any good use for strawberry or pineapple cream cheese. If you want flavoured cream cheese, make your own.
What else? In an effort to make cream cheese seem less fattening, the Philadelphia people came out with a television commercial saying cream cheese has one-third fewer calories than butter. What the ad neglects to say, of course, is that cream cheese is usually used in much larger quantities than butter. Nobody uses a measly 30 grams of cream cheese on a bagel, but that would be a generous portion of butter. Face it: except for the reduced-calorie versions, cream cheese is fattening.
How to use: in cheesecakes, brownies, tarts and cakes. It's a delicious spread for bagels - with or without smoked salmon. If you want to make a smoked-salmon cream cheese, beat plain cream cheese that is at room temperature then use a rubber spatula to fold in snipped chives and hand-shredded, good-quality smoked salmon.
Because cream cheese has a mild flavour, it's good for 'extending' ingredients that are strong. For a cheese dip, beat cream cheese with goat cheese or blue cheese and fold in some seasonings, such as black pepper, chopped spring onions, a little chilli powder and/or a few drops of Tabasco sauce. You can chill the mixture, shape it into a ball and roll it in chopped nuts, but it's less fussy to fold the nuts into the dip and serve it from a bowl with crackers and crudites.