Chef and cookbook author Kelly Fields thought she didn’t like cheesecake. Then, one day, shortly after she’d graduated from culinary school and found a job in New Orleans, a coworker bought a cheesecake at the farmers market stall run by Mauthe’s Progress Milk Barn, a local dairy located about two hours outside the city. At the behest of her colleague, Fields scooped some of that cheesecake onto a strawberry and popped it into her mouth. “It changed everything I thought about cheesecake,” Fields explained to me recently on the phone. And it affected the way she approached cheesecake, both from a personal and professional standpoint, from that moment on.
The thing that made Mauthe’s (that's Moe-Tay's) Milklady Cheesecake so distinct—light enough to be scooped with a strawberry, no fork required, and boasting a tart savoriness that other cheesecakes lack—is that it was made with Creole cream cheese.
Unfortunately, Creole cream cheese isn’t the kind of thing you can go out and buy at every grocery store these days. (Don’t worry, we have solutions for you below.) It’s not currently available online either. And that’s no surprise to Poppy Tooker, host of the long-running radio show and podcast Louisiana Eats! Tooker says that it’s not only the world outside of Louisiana that’s missing out on this New Orleans original. “Even just outside New Orleans, people don’t know what Creole cream cheese is,” she says.
Tooker has been working since about 1999 to get the product back on the radar. She says “New Orleanians of a certain age” will remember regular Creole cream cheese deliveries courtesy of the milkman. But sometime in the 1980s and ‘90s, “conglomerate dairies started to overtake local farms.” Sightings of Creole cream cheese became rare. “When Borden consolidated to Jackson, Mississippi,” she says “the first thing off of their list was Creole cream cheese, because they didn't understand what that was.”
Derived from the Spanish criollo (or Portuguese crioulo), the word Creole has taken on a number of connotations throughout American and Caribbean history. It’s been used as a descriptor for persons of mixed race, and at times the word has been commandeered by aggressors as a racial slur. In the early days of New Orleans, however, Creole referred to anyone born on Louisiana soil to parents who arrived from someplace else (as well as that generation’s descendants). A person could identify as Creole and be wholly of French descent, Spanish, German, Caribbean, or African; or have mixed ancestry. It meant, plainly, a native New Orleanian.
The cheese that bears these people’s name was developed by early-19th century Creoles. “When their milk would sour in the hot climate, they would tie it in cheesecloth and hang it in the shade of the oak trees to drip,” says Tooker. She describes Creole cream cheese as a “single curd, soft cheese, traditionally eaten two ways: The French Creole had it with sugar and toast for breakfast; the Germans, who were the dairy backbone of the early city, preferred it savory, and would have it sprinkled with salt and pepper.”
In August 1999, Tooker was teaching a class at the Crescent City Farmers Market on how to make Creole cream cheese at home. Henry Mauthe Jr., whose name you might recognize from the dairy mentioned above, happened to catch her act. Facing the prospect of selling his family farm, Tooker says, Mauthe had a revelation. Creole cream cheese, which had once been a staple product of his family’s business, just might be the way to bring it back from the brink.
Tooker worked with the Mauthes to perfect their own Creole cream cheese recipe, and when the much-hyped product eventually made it to the Mauthe’s market stall, the line to buy snaked through the open-air mall, some 200 people deep.Kelly Fields
The texture and flavor of Creole cream cheese make it distinct, but the process for making it at home is rather simple: combine barely warmed milk and buttermilk with rennet (Fields prefers vegetable rennet) and let it sit at room temperature for 18 to 48 hours—the longer it sits, the more tart the flavor. When Tooker makes Creole cream cheese, she lets it ferment for no longer than 24 hours and then transfers the coagulated mass to a cheesecloth, letting it drain for no more than 8 hours in the refrigerator. At that point, she says, the texture is “something like flan, but with a sour taste, and very creamy.”
Fields lets her Creole cream cheese sit on the counter for the full 48 hours, then drains it for another 24. This longer draining period produces a drier cheese with the consistency of ricotta. Instead of the sweet, milky flavor generally associated with ricotta, though, Creole cream cheese has a tart flavor more reminiscent of sour cream. The liquid that comes out during the process is whey, which is usually tossed, but has a host of other uses: try it as the base for soup, cut by half with water to cook oatmeal, in place of buttermilk in a cornbread recipe, or to water your outdoor plants.
As for the cheese itself, Fields likes to use it wherever you might find ricotta, sour cream, or mascarpone in a recipe, such as in pancakes or tiramisu. In fact, if you’re not inclined to make Creole cream cheese yourself (and you’re not someplace where you can easily buy some), Fields says you can approximate the effect it has on her cheesecake recipe with a mixture of sour cream and buttermilk.
Tooker notes that with the exception of a late-1800s recipe for Creole cream cheese pie by Madame Begue—often cited as the first celebrity chef of New Orleans—she’s found no historical records of the stuff being used in desserts (or as an ingredient in any recipe, for that matter). But soon after the Mauthes started selling Creole cream cheesecakes at their market stall, chef Tory McPhail of the legendary Commander's Palace added his own version to the roster there—the first time Tooker recalls seeing it listed on a restaurant menu.
At Fields’s restaurant, Willa Jean, the kitchen team makes Creole cream cheese daily. It’s whipped into ice cream, added to frostings, stirred into custards, baked into their famous banana bread (which is available to purchase online). And, of course, it’s the signature item in her recipe for Creole Cream Cheesecake. She presents it in her cookbook, The Good Book of Southern Baking, with a topping of “Roasted Strawberries in Their Own Sauce”—excellent fodder for spring and summer. For fall though, Fields like to top the dessert with a dollop of pumpkin butter or saucy apples. Any way you choose to partake, it’s a slice of history worth digging into—with a fork.Kelly Fields
Originally Appeared on Epicurious