Eric Akis: Cream cheese stars in holiday spreads

Eric Akis

When I was a kid, my mother always kept a brick or two of firm cream cheese in the refrigerator during the Christmas holiday season. She had it nearby just in case she needed to whip up some simple, tasty snacks, such as stuffed celery or crackers topped with cream cheese, kolbasa and olives.

She obviously influenced me because, as an adult, I always seem to have cream cheese on hand at this time of year. I use it in the same ways she did but, unlike her, I also like to blend it with other ingredients to create a tasty spread, or to make a festive-looking cheese ball or log, as I did in today’s recipes.

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One of today’s recipes is called all-dressed smoked salmon spread, because the cream cheese is mixed with things you might put on a bagel, such as smoked salmon, capers, red onion and dill. The mixture also tastes great spread on pumpernickel bread.

My second recipe yields two cheese logs flavoured and coated with pistachios, cranberries, pecans and orange. With hints of green and red, the logs are seasonal looking and could be served with fancy crackers.

My last recipe yields two almond-coated cheese balls that are flavoured Mediterranean-style, with sun-dried tomatoes, olives and pesto among other things. They, too, could be served with fancy crackers, or with sliced and toasted baguette slices or small wedges of pita bread.

The spread, logs and balls can all be made at least one day before serving. Keep them refrigerated until ready to serve at home or bring to a gathering. All recipes could also be halved if you’re feeding a smaller group.

All-dressed Smoked Salmon Spread

This flavourful spread containing items you might top a bagel with, such as cream cheese, smoked salmon, capers, dill and red onion. This spread will also tastes great on small slices of pumpernickel bread or fancy crackers.

Preparation time: 15 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: two and half cups; about eight servings

2 (250 gram) bricks firm cream cheese, at room temperature

3 oz. (85 grams) sliced cold-smoked (lox) salmon, chopped into small pieces

3 Tbsp very finely chopped red onion

2 Tbsp capers, drained well and coarsely chopped

2 tsp horseradish, or to taste

1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

• freshly and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup chopped fresh dill (divided)

Place cream cheese in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

Beat one to two minutes, until lightened a bit and smooth. Now mix in the salmon, onion, capers, horseradish, zest, pepper and 3 Tbsp of the dill.

Spoon and pack the smoked salmon spread into two, one-cup serving bowls, or one, two-cup serving bowl. Sprinkle top of the spread with remaining chopped dill. Tent and cover the spread with plastic wrap and then refrigerate until ready to serve (it can be made a day before needed).

Holiday Cheese Logs with Nuts, Cranberry and Orange

These cheese logs are rich with nuts, dried cranberries and the taste of orange. Spread it on fancy crackers.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: two logs, about 12 servings

2/3 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios, coarsely chopped (see Note)

2/3 cup dried cranberries, coarsely chopped

2/3 cup pecan pieces

2 (250 gram) bricks firm cream cheese, at room temperature

1 Tbsp orange liqueur, such as Triple Sec or Grand Marnier (see Eric’s options)

1 tsp finely grated orange zest

• freshly and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste

Combine pistachios, cranberries and pecans on a pie plate or other shallow sided dish.

Place cream cheese in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment.

Beat one to two minutes, until lightened a bit and smooth.

Add one cup of the pistachio/cranberry/pecan mixture to the cream cheese, along with the orange liqueur, zest and pepper, and then beat to combine.

Tear two, foot-long pieces of plastic wrap and set flat on a work surface. Dampen your hands very lightly with cold water and loosely shape half the cream cheese mixture into a log, about seven inches long and two inches wide.

Set the log on the pistachio/cranberry/pecan mixture on the pie plate. Roll and coat the log all over with the pistachio/cranberry/pecan mixture, gently pressing it on to help it adhere. Wrap the log in one of these pieces of plastic wrap.

Shape and form the remaining cream cheese mixture into a log, coat it with the remaining pistachio/cranberry/pecan mixture, and then wrap that log in plastic wrap. Refrigerate the logs at least two hours to firm up. They can be made up to two days before serving.

Note: Shelled pistachios are sold in the bulk-foods section of some supermarkets and at bulk food stores. Before heading out to buy them, it’s best to call where you shop to make sure they have them.

Eric’s options: If you don’t wish to use orange liqueur, replace it with 1 Tbsp orange juice.

Mediterranean-style Cheese Balls

Cream cheese and goat cheese, blended with such things as chopped sun-dried tomatoes, olives and pesto, are formed into two balls and coated with crushed almonds. Serve the balls with sliced and toasted baguette, fancy crackers or small wedges of pita bread.

Preparation time: 30 minutes

Cooking time: None

Makes: two cheese balls, about 12 servings

1 (250 gram) brick firm cream cheese, at room temperature

1 (113 gram) log of soft goat cheese, at room temperature

8 oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes, drained well, dried on paper towel and finely chopped

1/4 cup pitted black olives, drained well and finely chopped

1/4 cup pitted green olives, drained well and finely chopped

2 Tbsp store-bought or homemade pesto

1 tsp finely grated lemon zest

• pinch or 2 red pepper flakes

• freshly and coarsely ground black pepper, to taste

1 cup whole, skin-on almonds (about 100 grams), crushed (see Note)

Place cream cheese and goat cheese in the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with paddle attachment. Beat one to two minutes, until lightened a bit and smooth. Mix in the tomatoes, olives, pesto, zest, pepper flakes and black pepper.

Tear two, one-foot-long pieces of plastic wrap and set flat on a work surface. Spread half the almonds on a pie plate or other shallow-sided dish. Mound half the cream cheese mixture in the centre of the almonds.

Coat the cream cheese mixture in the almonds, forming it into a ball as you do. Wrap the cheese ball in one of the pieces of plastic wrap.

Spread remaining almonds on the pie plate. Mound the remaining cream cheese mixture in the centre of those almonds. Coat the cream cheese mixture in the almonds, forming it into a ball as you do. Wrap the second cheese ball in the other piece of plastic wrap.

Refrigerate the balls at least two hours to firm up. They can be made up to two days before serving.

Note: To crush the almonds, place in a thick plastic bag and set on a work surface. Use a kitchen hammer to pound and crush them, ensuring small pieces of almond are still visible. You could also use a heavy rolling pin to crush the almonds, or pulse them a few seconds in a food processor.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks, including seven in his Everyone Can Cook series. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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