Homemade Cream Cheese and the Ideal Bagel

Like most New Yorkers, I am extremely picky about my bagels. Long ago I found my favorite shops where I can count on the dough to be homemade and fresh, and I'm always willing to trek the extra blocks to go to the good bagel shop instead of a nearby cafe that happens to serve ok bagels. I order mine "extra toasted, extra cream cheese" to try to avoid a poor toasting job or insufficient amount of cream cheese, and  I often demand more when I'm not given enough. A bad bagel results in a terrible start to my day, while a good bagel can lead to instant bliss.

A foolproof method for obtaining the perfect bagel is by preparing it yourself at home. A little planning and buying in bulk gives you complete control over the toasting and cream cheese levels (for cheesers like myself this means a B to CC ratio of 1:1) all in the comfort of your own home.

If you want to get even closer to the perfect bagel, I strongly advise that you make your own cream cheese. It seems challenging, but as I learned in Bedford Cheese Shop's "Fresh Cheese Making Class: Butter, Yogurt, Cream Cheese, Ricotta," all it takes is good milk, some cheese cloth, and a bit of patience.

We made our cheese using this recipe and fresh dairy from a local farmer's market.
Hint: If you start with fresh milk you have a much better chance of ending up with great cheese.

Simple Cream Cheese Recipe
(courtesy of Jessica, who taught this awesome class)

6 cups (1.5 quarts) whole milk
4 cups heavy cream
1 cup plain cultured yogurt
1 rennet tablet (or, 1 teaspoon liquid rennet, normal strength)
¼ cup cool water

  1. Combine milk, cream, and yogurt in a large pot and stir well.  Warm to 100 degrees F over low heat.  Check temperature with thermometer.  Remove pan from heat.
  2. Dissolve rennet tablet in the water in a small bowl.  Add to warmed milk mixture, and stir thoroughly for 3 minutes (or until curd starts to set).  Cover and let stand for 1 to 1.5 hours or until curds are firm and break away from the sides of the pan.  The temperature should drop no lower than 85 degrees R, slowly reheat to correct temperature.
  3. Cut curds into 2 inch cubes.  Let stand 15 minutes undisturbed.  Lina a colander with a double layer of butter muslin.  Pour or, using a perforated shallow ladle, spoon the mixture into a lined strainer.  Fold the excess cloth over the curds and set the colander in a large bowl.  Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate to drain 8 hours or overnight.
  4. Transfer the drained cheese to a clean bowl, season to taste with salt, and stir well.  The cheese is ready to be used in flavored cheese spreads or for cooking.
Store the cheese in an airtight container and refrigerate up to two weeks.

Instead of filling a colander, Jessica had us spoon the curd into squares of cheese cloth and instructed us to hang them over a sink to drain overnight. To achieve this, I created a contraption involving a hanger and a bottle of rum. That little cheese ball stank! I anxiously awaited the morning, wondering how something that smelled so bad could ever taste good.

The next day, still holding my nose, I took the drippy cloth to the kitchen and dropped the cheese into a bowl. Adding some salt, I sniffed and sniffed. Then the the toaster popped and I began to smear the new creation over my oh-so-toasted bagel. 
I discovered, to my delight, that this cream cheese tasted INCREDIBLE. The flavor was so much more cheesy, sweet and fatty than the Philadelphia version I thought I adored. To anyone who claims to love cream cheese, you MUST try the at home version. It's well worth the work and wait!

Now go out and eat some homemade cream cheese.