Kitchn Love Letters

Cream Cheese Is the Secret Ingredient for Better No-Bake Desserts

published Sep 2, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

I’ve got this intense love for cream cheese, and my affection for it knows no bounds. In other words, yes, I have been known to slice off a little nibble from a block and pop it in my mouth — sans bagel, sans cracker, sans anything. Whether cut into my go-to pie dough, added to my no-bake peanut butter pie filling or my no-churn vanilla fudge ice cream base, or beaten with butter and confectioners sugar in order to top a cake or fill a whoopie, I love cream cheese for the creamy, fatty tang and structure it contributes when I am whipping up sweets and baking (for my job as a treat-making recipe developer). And I adore it for its perfectly mild flavor and smooth spreadability when consuming it straight-up, generously smeared on a lightly toasted bialy. 

But cream cheese is truly my number-one when it comes to making next-level no-bake desserts. In short, what cream cheese contributes (behind the scenes!) to one of my pies, or my no-churn ice cream, is nothing short of alchemy – and if you ask me, such high praise as mine, needs spreading.

Credit: Yossy Arefi

The Ingenious Creation of Cream Cheese

Although you can make a reasonable proximity to cream cheese from scratch, by warming milk and/or cream, adding lemon juice and salt, and then straining the solids (the curds) from the liquid (the whey), cream cheese is professionally manufactured by adding lactic acid bacteria to cream and milk. Once the acid works its magic and the curds separate from the whey, the curds are then heated with stabilizers and voila! Cream cheese. 

Cream cheese was first mass produced in the United States in the 1870s in New York by a dairyman who owned a Neufchatel factory. As the story goes, in an effort to create a richer, more flavorful (read: fattier) cheese, this genius man decided to add some cream to the Neufchatel, and (my beloved) cream cheese was born. Although it failed to take the world by storm initially, in 1880 a cheese distributor approached the dairyman and cleverly, albeit shadily, suggested he rebrand his NY product as Philadelphia Cream Cheese, since at that time the state of Pennsylvania was known for its high-quality diary and the product — to use todays’ parlance — went viral.

And to that I just say thank goodness. Cream cheese is not only delicious-tasting (as is evidenced by my above nibbling admission), but it is also wildly versatile, enjoying the role of major player when smeared on a bagel, and that of supporting player when stuffed in a muffin or layered in a coffee cake or spread on slices of challah in an overnight French toast. But in addition to bringing its slightly sweet but slightly sour flavor and thick, soft texture to bagels and baked goods (as well as dips, cheese balls and pasta bakes), cream cheese is just magic when it plays the role not of flavor booster, but of stabilizer in no-bake pie fillings and no-churn ice cream. 

Cream Cheese: The Secret Stabilizer You Didn’t Know You Needed

Sure, folks use cream cheese to stabilize and flavor cheesecake. But what is pretty cool about using cream cheese in a no-bake pie, or a no-churn ice cream is that its tang takes a back seat or, really, no seat at all. In other words, I do not turn to cream cheese when making my peanut butter no-bake pie because I want its slightly sour flavor to play with the salty/sweet of the PB — I turn to it because it imparts a creaminess and stability that gives my filling as much structure as a pudding-based one, but without the cooking. 

The same holds true when I add cream cheese to my no-churn vanilla fudge ice cream, a trick I learned from Jeni Britton of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream. Jeni uses cream cheese in her churned ice cream for scoopability and softness, and I had always wondered if it would work the same way in my no-churn version. Spoiler alert: It does because cream cheese is perfect. My ice cream doesn’t taste like cream cheese, but it does taste more like high-quality scoop-shop ice cream — smooth, extra-creamy, and never icy.

Finally, a thick, tangy cream cheese frosting, full of swoops and swirls, enrobing a red velvet birthday cake, or filling pumpkin whoopie pies for Thanksgiving, is truly one of life’s great pleasures and arguably is cream cheese at its best: imparting its signature flavor and contributing its telltale structure all in the name of celebration with friends and family. Consider grabbing a block (or two) next time you’re in the dairy aisle of the grocery store because even if you are not sure exactly how you will use it, cream cheese keeps unopened in your fridge for up to a month past the use-by date on the package, just saying. Cream cheese is just pretty darn special in my book, and here’s to hoping it is in yours now, too.