Nothing says ‘thank you’ like cheesecake. Chocolate and flowers are nice and easy, but impersonal. I had a brief stint as a hostess at the Cheesecake Factory in downtown Chicago my sophomore year of college, and that job made me despise the dessert. The truth is, though, I wanted to make a better version to show up my past. And that version would be New York style.
When I came back to Paris for work in August, I spent my first two weeks with a family very close to me that helped me through all the faux-pas and idiotic blunders that culture shock entails. I thought I’d never be able to pay them back.
Authentic American cheesecake is hard to find in France, even in Paris. To get the real thing, you need to shell out some hefty euros, and you have to know where to go. The French version of cheesecake is a lukewarm joke. My friend from Boston (cream pie) recommended a recipe to me, and I hesitated. Would the Frenchies like this indulgent Yankee treat ?
One Sunday, I mustered up my motivation and bought all the cream cheese off the shelf of my local grocery store. The Philadelphia cream cheese containers come in 150 g portions, and I snagged 5 of them along with 2 containers of a French brand called Elle & Vire. I figured that would be enough. Graham cracker pie crust is really obscure here, like Coachella or North Coast (not). Instead, I got some digestive biscuits to crush up for the crust, knowing there would be baking essentials at the house. I also grabbed a small container of vanilla extract, heavy whipping cream, and sour cream and headed out of that Franprix holding more dairy in my arms than I have ever carried in my lactose-sensitive life.
I took to the streets with a spring in my step, because to me, this cheesecake was more than just a gastronomic pleasure. It was a cultural exchange that represented my country. I could not fuck this up.
I got to the house and immediately began crushing up 200 grams of Petit Lait digestive biscuits for the crust, mixing the crumbs with President brand butter (the best kind) and cane sugar. Since I’m incapable of following a recipe, I added some nutmeg and cinnamon for good measure, pressing my aspiration in with the crust so that it molded to the glass cake pan, forming the hopeful foundations of my culinary experiment. I put the mold in the fridge and got to work on the filling, which simultaneously made me salivate and gag. That much cream cheese in one bowl is a rare sight.
Thanks to Google conversions, I realized I still did not have 1 kilo (1000 grams) of cream cheese and made a run to the nearest grocery store. I finally found one that wasn’t closed and bought all of their Philadelphia cream cheese, plus some salty cheese spread for the last 100 grams. Walking home, I realized that cheesecake is more than just cheese. It’s layers upon layers of fat.
I made a melange out of the cream cheese, sugar, flour, eggs, heavy whipping cream, vanilla, lemon syrup, and a ton of cinnamon, which took some serious upper body strength. I took 3 breaks while making the filling and reflected on the evolution of my housewife skills. This cake didn’t just represent my country, it was a symbol of my self-imposed domestication.
I licked the spoon because I was too curious not to. It was intense. I baked the filling in the crust at 180 Celsius and took it out, spreading the topping over it like in the old days at Coldstone Creamery when I used to decorate ice-cream cakes. Turns out that job wasn’t so useless after all. The pan now weighed roughly the amount of a gargantuan newborn child. I put it back in the oven and passed out on the couch for an hour and a half, dreaming of camembert cake with bleu cheese frosting.
At around 4:30, the cake was ready to leave the comfortable heat of the oven. The most important step was to run the spatula along the edges of the crust to prevent cracking. I was surprised– the cake surface was as smooth as a baby’s bottom. My kitchen child chilled in the fridge for 4 hours before we sampled it at 8:30 after a dinner of hachis parmentier and tomato mozzarella salad. It was so decadent and rich that half of us couldn’t finish an entire piece. “Zis eez rheal Amerrhicon cheezKEK!” they said eagerly through cushions of yellow creaminess. They adored it, but “in small doses”. It’s good to indulge–sometimes. God, the French are so right.
I took two pieces to the office and was met with the same reaction. That kitchen adventure took so much out of me that every time somebody took a bite, it was a bonding experience for us. I liked seeing people’s faces light up and knowing I could please their tastebuds, even if it was only for a few seconds. I keep wondering if I’ll ever make it again, and I honestly don’t know. But the important thing is that I can. That I’ve grown, that I can do things in the kitchen without lighting it on fire. And that I showed people I care about that I can supply them with cheese and whine.