Cut to March of last year. It’s six in the morning. The air is tinged with a blueness, and I barely keep my eyes open as I get ready to drive across LA county for a video shoot near the coast.
The kettle comes to the boil; my stomach barks. I scan the half-empty fridge and find a small glass jar of yuzu-kosho pepper mash. For some reason, I grab it and begin shuffling through expired sauces, bundles of produce, and Tupperware containers of kimchi until I find it: a block of cream cheese.
I can’t say why, but my intuition tells me that these two ingredients demand to be mixed. I spoon the cream cheese into a small bowl and scrape the pepper mash out with a pair of chopsticks. I begin whipping, mixing the mash into the cheese until a homogenous, light green spread begins to form. A small pinch of salt and a slice of brown toast later, and voila. Breakfast.
As I get into my car, I take a quick bite before turning on the ignition. Milky, sweetish, tangy flavors from the cream cheese float alongside the citrusy, spicy, savory notes from the yuzu and the peppers. They are perfect complements to one another. The engine roars. I leave home and drive with the radio off — racking my brain, thinking about this weird yet tasteful combination.
Cream cheese has its own special character that lends itself to customization. A bit tangier and thicker than ricotta, mascarpone or cottage cheese, cream cheese is a welcoming canvas for a variety of flavors — be it seasonings or herbs or other sauces, cream cheese does it all. It also does wonders with textures. It can thicken sauces, cling ingredients together; it can be a base or a garnish. It’s endlessly adaptable to its circumstances.
As a second generation Korean American, dairy always piqued my interest when it came to cooking Korean food. Due to westernization, South Korea adopted a variety of cheeses in the late twentieth century — adding mozzarella to a tteokbuki or slices of American cheese to budae jjigaes have grown from novelty into widely-accepted modifications. This knowledge served a safety net as I dove into the world of cream cheeses. It allowed me to approach the project with an openness. If dairy could bolster and support the funky, acidic, and spicy flavors I grew up with, I knew it could take anything I threw at it.
All summer long, I spent time testing, tasting, and thinking about smears. I present now six of my favorite flavored spreads. Think of each recipe as jumping off points for your own creativity to be expressed. The joy of cream cheese is discovering what surprising variations you can imagine.
As a home cook, I always gravitated toward dips and spreads, as a type of recipe. They are great opportunities for the home cook to experiment with. I started by thinking about basic flavor combinations I enjoy, then iterated from there. Salty and acidic. Sweet and spicy. I wondered, If I add Herbs de Provence to a dip, what will pair nicely with those vegetal and savory flavors? Perhaps a squeeze of lemon. What if I add a dollop of miso into cream cheese? What does that need? A little furikake can help. Spice? Throw in some red pepper flakes. Want sweet? Stir in almond butter and a drizzle of date syrup for a nutty, dark smear.
As I was cooking, I found that liquids and oils were the trickiest parts. Too much liquid can break the emulsion, curdling the entire thing into something resembling cottage cheese. Too much oil and you risk coating the mouth with a film of excessive fat, resulting in an unpleasant feel.
I came to the following six flavor combinations from real life conversations I had with various friends and colleagues about cream cheese. If they even had a remote interest in cream cheese, I asked them to imagine the most fun yet delicious spread they could. Their mouths would smile as they let their brains move beyond the deli counter or red velvet cupcake. This endeavor is a community effort, built on an allowance to be as creative and playful as possible.
Yield: 2 servings
Active time: ~1 minute
Total time: 5 minutes
Instructions for all: Assemble ingredients and mix well with a rubber spatula or chopsticks.
All the major flavors of quintessential Korean bibimbap in an easy, to-go dip. The cream cheese mellows out the funky, spicy notes of the cream cheese. Slices of green onions and sesame seeds add freshness and toastyness, respectively.
Pair with: Korean kimbap (rice and seaweed sheet rolls), a seedy bagel, bell pepper slices
Based on traditional French Onion dips, we sub out sour cream for cream cheese. The textural contrast between the fresh shallots and the fried shallots made every bite fun. The biggest skeptics of my milk-based crusade became converts after I whipped this up in the studio. Spoons were licked clean.
Pair with: sea salt and vinegar potato chips, charcuterie meats, anything (this was one of the most versatile and beloved dips I recipe tested)
The sesame seeds for this spread are like little roasty sprinkles, so load it up! The more, the merrier! This recipe is special in that it transforms from dessert to savory dip with a little pinch of salt.
4 tablespoons cream cheese
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon sesame seeds
Pair with: sweet stone fruit, English muffins, graham crackers
This spread tastes like bacon in the best way. The black pepper is more savory than spicy here. You want to commit to it. Grind your pepper mill as if this dish was cacio e pepe. Our recipe developer Aubrey pitched this, and it can honestly be eaten on its own, sans any pairings.
Pair with: bacon, pancakes, scrambled eggs, puffed brown rice cakes
By mixing in the tinned fish, you elevate cream cheese from breakfast spread to charcuterie paté. The squeeze of lemon and the dill really lift up the delicious pungency of the tinned fish. The cream cheese keeps all the disparate elements together.
Pair with: salty crackers, sourdough bread, crudité
To make this spread into a pasta sauce, first cook your pasta to box directions and drain, reserving a half cup of the starchy pasta water. Off of the heat, add the pesto cream cheese mixture to the noodles and mix vigorously. Add pasta water in spoonfuls if the sauce breaks or thickens. Add Parmesan cheese to finish. (You can also eat this on any piece of toasted bread if you don’t want a full meal.)
Pair with: crustini, penne, fresh tomato (halved)
The bits of real fruit and toasted nuts are held in suspension by the cream cheese. I love the fruit and cream sandos you’d find in Japanese convenience stores. This is our play off of that, but with half the effort that goes into those sandwiches.
Pair with: two slices of white bread (crusts removed), buttery crackers, muffins
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