I may not be the world’s biggest cream cheese fan, but I know a top-quality product when I see one, and Philadelphia cream cheese is it (no, they’re not paying me to say that). Its composition is similar to several of the “natural” cream cheese products on the market except for a few very important additions: xanthan and/or guar and/or carob gum. These harmless additives help make cream cheese what it is, and by extension, cheesecake what it is. All three are natural compounds, though truth be told, while guar and carob gums are naturally-occurring (found inside the seed coats of beans), xanthan gum is fermented from corn starch (don’t tell Michael Pollan, OK?).
So what do they do? Mostly they’re there to keep the cream cheese thick, but also to keep it from separating…to keep the fat from congealing into large masses (the job of an emulsifier) and to keep the solids in the cheese from sinking or floating to the top (the job of a stabilizer). Both functions are important in the ingredient as well as in the finished product, helping to keep the texture smooth and creamy.
The good news for the European home baking underground, and other Joe Pastry readers around the world, is that Philadelphia Cream Cheese (a Kraft product) can be found pretty much everywhere on Earth.