Face it, cream cheese is the dream cheese.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when my cream cheese obsession began, but I do know it was in fairly early childhood. I think it may have started at one of my parents’ cocktail parties. And if I remember anything about that time in my youth, it’s that my parents knew how to put out a spread of party snacks. There were nuts, and olives. There were tiny sandwiches. Sometimes there was pâté. There was even shrimp cocktail! And clearly, the most interesting to my young mind and palate, things stuffed with, spread with, and covered with cream cheese.

Soft. Tangy. A little salty. I was mesmerized.

Now what exactly IS cream cheese? It is, very simply, a fresh cheese much like whole milk ricotta that is drained of its whey, and whipped or processed until smooth, with some cream. And it is actually fairly easy to make at home! Try it. I think you’ll be shocked at how simple and how delicious it is. And, it won’t have any of the stabilizers or gums found in most commercial cream cheese. (That said, you can now find “fresh” cream cheese without stabilizers in some grocery stores.)

060920_Getty Cream Cheese Dip
Credit: Westend61/Getty Images

Westend61/Getty Images

Whether homemade or store bought, one universal truth remains certain: Cream cheese is so incredibly adaptable, making it the perfect starting point for infinite easy appetizers. Virtually any herbs or spices (and even some vegetables) can be folded into a block of softened cream cheese to make something even more exciting.

  • For topping bagels or serving with bagel chips, try mixing in poppyseeds, scallions, chives, VERY finely minced carrots and celery, and even “everything” bagel seasoning.
  • Create a simple hors d'oeuvre using smoked turkey rolled with cream cheese that’s been flavored with minced sage.
  • To stuff cherry tomatoes, chiffonade some basil and stir it on in.
  • To serve with sliced beef, try adding grated fresh or bottled horseradish to the cream cheese. Better yet, pile the beef and your upgraded cream cheese onto slider buns.
  • Use long very thin strips of cucumber to roll around a fresh dill-filled cream cheese. Or, if that’s too fussy, slice rounds of cucumber and simply top with the cream cheese. A small sprig of dill on top of each is a lovely garnish.
  • Pit dates and fill them with cream cheese—plain or seasoned with a touch of rosemary.
  • Finely chop smoked salmon and fold it in, with some dill and lemon zest if you have it, to make a party-perfect spread for crackers.
  • I really love finely minced Spanish chorizo and smoked paprika mixed into cream cheese for a flavor-packed, low effort spread. But fair warning, these ingredients do turn the cheese an alarmingly pink color!
  • Stir in capers for a salty pop that pairs well with all sorts of dipping vehicles, from toasts to crudite!
  • Like cucumbers, radishes and cream cheese are a beautiful match. You can mince radish and mix it into the cream cheese or top sliced radishes with cream cheese, seasoned as you like!
  • Let’s not forget fruit. Swirl fruit preserves of your choosing into softened cream cheese for a decadent sweet spread or layer cream cheese into hulled strawberries or onto toasted baguette with fresh peach slices.

Obviously, this list is just a small glimpse at the possibilities cream cheese offers, especially when it comes to easy entertaining. But use it as a jumping off point for your own creations. Is cream cheese on its own as complex as Manchego, or Roquefort, or Gruyere? No. But with a little imagination, you may find that its versatility makes cream cheese the party cheese.