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Cream Cheese

While New York dairyman William Lawrence is often credited for inventing cream cheese in 1872, it was actually produced in England in the late 1500s, in France in the mid-1600s, and in America as early as 1769. Still, Lawrence was the first to manufacture large quantities of the in-demand cheese, and, while it was produced in upstate New York, he trademarked it as "Philadelphia" to tie it to that city's reputation for excellent food.

Made from cow's milk, cream cheese is a soft, unripened cheese, meant to be eaten fresh. True cream cheese must contain at least 33 percent milk fat, but reduced fat cream cheeses are available; these have a milk fat content between 16.5 and 20 percent. Light or lowfat cream cheese has no more than 16.5 percent milk fat, and nonfat has zero fat grams.

Whipped cream cheese is made fluffy by whipping air into it. Because there's less cheese per serving, it contains fewer calories per serving.

You'll also find cream cheese with herbs, spices, or fruit mixed in—especially fun for enlivening breads, bagels, crackers and muffins.

Neufchatel cheese is a similar cheese, lower in calories, with slightly more moisture and about a 23 percent milk fat content (Lawrence's recipe began with Neufchatel; he boosted the cream content).

Cream cheese is indispensable for entertaining. You'll find it the main ingredient in crab rangoon and some sushi rolls, and of course in the midst of the classic lox and bagel spread. It makes a delightful Smoked Salmon Pâté for spreading on baguettes or crackers, when combined with crème fraiche, dill and capers. And it combines beautifully with mushrooms, as in this elegant Wild Mushroom Spread. This Festive Cheese Ball, fashioned with an array of complementary cheeses, sundried tomatoes and pine nuts, is great party fare and travels well for holiday potlucks, too. Skewer these Cracked Black and Blue Canapés—made with roast beef slices spread with cream cheese, stone-ground mustard and blue cheese—onto toothpicks for an appetizer that will start the party off on a delectable note.

Cream cheese makes its way to main and side dishes, too. Try it in place of butter when mashing potatoes, for example. When combined with green chilies and taco seasoning, cream cheese makes a lively filling for Texican Buffalo Burgers.

The consistency and taste of cream cheese are perfectly suited for all kinds of desserts. But perhaps it is most greatly revered in cheesecakes. For special, individual servings, try these Miniature Cheesecakes, in which cocoa powder melds with the cheese and is nestled in a graham cracker crumb.

Cream cheese frostings are a staple in most kitchens. Easy to make and always, well, creamy, they require just a bit of sweetener for taste perfection. Here are some Fun-Shaped Carrot Cookies, frosted with a cream cheese and honey frosting.

Wrapped tightly and refrigerated, cream cheese will keep for about a week. Discard it if mold develops on the cheese. Though honestly, it's unlikely to stick around that long.