It was only a matter of time before cheesecake became something of a sensation in Paris.
After all, it was Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the 18th-century French gastronome, who famously remarked, “A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye.”
And what better way of marrying the two courses than a pillowy slice of baked, lightly sweetened cream cheese atop a biscuit crust?
These days cheesecake in Paris is omnipresent – available at lunchtime chains like Sushi Stop and Ekki, and luxury hotels alike. It’s a fixture on menus at “Anglo-Saxon”-style restaurants and is increasingly offered at French cafés and teahouses like A Priori Thè, Villa Lys.
Be careful tarte tatin, le cheesecake is throwing un coup de dessert. It’s now reached a level of popularity in Paris on par with macarons in North American cities such as New York and Toronto.
It’s that association with New York that accounts, in part, for cheesecake’s appeal, much the same way “le hamburgaire” is now ubiquitous, even at corner bistros. Parisian cheesecake satisfies a craving for something exotic while offering a spin on the more familiar gâteau fromage blanc, a torte made with a light fresh cheese. At the fine-dining level, chefs see it as a perfect blank canvas, elevating a Sara Lee standard with ginger confit and shiso (Japanese mint) or roasted spiced figs.
Here, authenticity means Philadelphia cream cheese (which is also widely available in grocery stores). Some makers incorporate locally sourced crème fraîche or sweet cream for additional mouthfeel and flavour. Since Graham crackers are impossible to find, most crusts are made with Speculoos, a Belgian brown sugar cookie.
Cheesecake, of course, is not new to Paris; it has been on the menu at Joe Allen, the all-American restaurant, since its namesake expanded across the pond from New York in 1972.
But Rachel Moeller and her two partners, Maria Methodieva and Birke Moeller, have built a budding business out of meeting the demand for cheesecake and other American insulin bombs. Born in Columbus, Ohio, she settled in Paris eight years ago and began testing her idea in 2008 after observing that many restaurants outsource their desserts. Today, Rachel’s Cakes supplies more than 100 locations around the city.
She estimates she goes through 1,500 kilograms of brand-label Philadelphia cream cheese every month.
While some restaurants, such as the cool-kitschy H.A.N.D. – for Have A Nice Day – are happy to give her credit when people ask, others claim the dessert as their own. “There’s such a big craze for it here,” she says.
“For most French people, if you say American desserts, they just think junky sugar,” she continues.
Master pastry and chocolate maker Sadaharu Aoki, winner of International Excellence Award at the Salon du Chocolat in October, first introduced his cheesecake citronné upon opening his Left Bank boutique in 2011. He says his interpretation draws from the Japanese style, although its compact size and decorative details are unmistakably French. “It’s an easy eating and easy selling cake,” he writes in an e-mail.
Easier, it seems, than cupcakes, which have also arrived in Paris but have not been met with the same enthusiasm. One possible explanation: frosting is more foreign – and saccharine – to the palate.
For Lucien Gautier, the pastry chef at the Four Seasons Hotel George V, cheesecake is a crowd-pleaser that is equal parts comfort food and novelty, depending on who’s doing the eating. “It is a benchmark for U.S. customers and yet it is also very fashionable,” he says of his passion fruit Philadelphia cheesecake.
The pretty puck-sized cheesecake at Bread & Roses is dotted with a judicious sprinkling of pistachio and red currants. Visually, it is not traditional, but it may just be the most pleasing in Paris. The flavour is delicate – barely sweet, gently tangy; its consistency floats instead of sinks.
At Finkelsztajn, arguably the longest-running cheesecake purveyor in Paris (since 1946), regular patron Fred Lavolet insists all other versions do not come close. “They are trying to copy New York-style cheesecake but this is the original,” he says of the Yiddish specialty (raisins included). “Philadelphia is still new in France so I bought it and Speculoos to make myself but never did. I’m too lazy. I just come here.”
Ms. Moeller shrugs off the suggestion that she is partly responsible for cheesecake’s success; most important, she says, is that restaurants stop serving frozen desserts. This is a creeping problem in Paris; local investigative news shows reveal industrial packaging for crème brulée and molten chocolate cake in the garbage bins of dining establishments.
It’s a complaint shared by Paris-based blogger and cookbook author David Lebovitz an expert on all things sweet in the City of Lights. He recommends always asking if the dessert is made “à la maison” before ordering. Beyond that, he cautions that traditionalists will find Parisian cheesecake much lighter. “With true New York cheesecake, you should barely be able to get your teeth through it and it should stick to fork.”
This is certainly not the case with the Mazaltov cheesecake from chocolatier Jean-Paul Hévin, a spongy zero-per-cent fat dessert more akin to Angel Food cake (perhaps that’s why it appears on the menu at Colette, where a fashion crowd congregates daily in its lower level canteen).
But Leonora Frantz, the proprietor of shop called Oh Mon Cake, believes lighter is not always better. Every three months, she switches up her in-house cheesecakes, from mango coconut to Oreo. Her recipe contains no eggs or flour, but fat, she says, is essential. “This is still very light,” Ms. Frantz says of her creations. “But no fat, no taste.”