Cream cheese is not sophisticated. It lacks the sexiness of an oozing Camembert or soft ricotta, and it’s certainly no match for an aged cheddar — but that’s part of its charm. Cream cheese is plain and it knows it. Instead of shining in a cheese plate, it usually finds a spot on top of a bagel or slice of plain bread.

Though we love that classic combination, it’s time to take advantage of the cheese’s versatility: Cream cheese is extremely mild, which makes it perfect for cooking and baking. It adds creaminess to savory dishes, melts well, and rarely dominates over other flavors. In sweets, the cheese contributes a subtle tang and lightens up baked goods.

Here are 5 ways to take your schmear beyond the bagel:

Photo courtesy of Food52 

1. Give it some funk.

Lox and cream cheese are best friends for a reason: The mild cheese cuts through the smoky fish, creating a combination that is just intense enough. But this effect works well with any strong flavored fish, including smoked trout and sardines. Mix together the fish, cream cheese, chopped shallots, herbs, and lemon juice to form a spread, then slather it on crackers or crudite — or, go big and turn the entire combination into a strata for brunch.

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2. Scramble it up.

No one likes dry scrambled eggs. Cream cheese solves that problem by keeping your eggs moist and melty. Mix together eggs and milk, add it to a hot skillet, then fold in chunks of cheese. The cheese should dissolve into the eggs, creating a creamy and fluffy mixture.

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3. Stuff ‘em.

Jalapeño poppers are great at bars, but much less fun to make at home. Save yourself the trouble of breading and deep frying by making roasted poppers instead. Mash together cream cheese, cheddar, onions, and spices, then spread it onto halved and seeded peppers. Bake them at 425ºF for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbling and browned.

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4. Bake a cake.

Even though a pound cake is simple, it’s hard to get just right. It often comes out of the oven dry and dense — more like a bread than an indulgent cake. Cream cheese eliminates this risk by keeping your cake moist and light. It also adds a pleasant sourness to the cake, giving it a flavor boost.

Photo courtesy of Food52

5. Churn it up.

You don’t need eggs to make great ice cream at home. This method, perfected by Jeni Bauer of Jeni’s Ice Cream, relies on cornstarch and cream cheese instead. It involves boiling a milk and cream cheese mixture long enough to reduce the liquid and concentrate the milk proteins. The cream cheese adds an extra bit of protein, while the cornstarch thickens the whole mixture. In the end, it mimics egg yolks, which bind water and fat together to make an emulsion. Without eggs, the ice cream is much lighter and softer — perfect for straight-out-of-the-freezer consumption.

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