Monday, November 2, 2009

I Want a New Kids Kind of Cheesecake, But All I Can Get is N'Sync. And that N'Sucks.

Dear Tricia, I live in France. But even in a country where gastronomy is a national pastime, I get a hankering every now and then for some good ol' fashion American food, namely cheesecake. The main ingredient, as any self-respecting American knows, is Philidelphia cream cheese. So I'm thinking, "what better place to find cream cheese than France?!!". You'd think in a country that has over 300 sorts of cheeses you'd be able to find whichever one you wanted. That's simply not the case. I have no idea about a substitute for cream cheese. I've tried everything and nothing has worked! The closest I've come to anything edible has been a mixture of Mascarpone and Ricotta. Can you provide any suggestions, or am I condemned to give up on the whole cheesecake idea?

You've actually done me proud with the mascarpone and ricotta substitutes. When I think back to all of the cheesecakes I've made in restaurants, most of them contained ricotta or mascarpone with the cream cheese, and some I've made with only ricotta or mascarpone to get rid of extra product that was about to expire. By the way, that's pretty much where restaurant specials come from: "Hmmm, we've got a bunch of ricotta that's about to go bad. How can we get rid of it?" I know. It makes you think twice about ordering that seafood special at Sunday brunch, doesn't it?
While France may be the home of 300+ different cheeses, Philledelphia cream cheese is a very American product, created by New York dairyman in the late 1800's. The type you see in grocery stores usually contains thickening agents and gums that aren't used in traditional cheese making: probably the reason why you can't find it in France. This isn't surprising... France is as snobby with their cheese standards as they are with their wine. And I can't really fault them for that. After all, they're the only country who will publicly declare Scientology a fraud.
Cream cheese is classified as a "fresh cheese," meaning its uncooked and unripened to give it a very mellow, lightly tart flavor. Two other cheeses in the same category are... you guessed it, ricotta and mascarpone, which is why they're such great substitutes in cheesecake. If cream cheese is New Kids on the Block, then mascarpone is N'Sync and ricotta is The Backstreet Boys.
Ricotta is lower in fat than cream cheese and comes from sheep's milk, while mascarpone is from cows' milk and much higher in fat. In fact, mascarpone is over 70% fat, which is almost as high as cheese can be without being classified as butter. That's why its my favorite of the two. (Just like how I prefer N'Sync over the Backstreet Boys.) Mascarpone will give you a smoother, softer cheesecake than ricotta. Why? Because fat is awesome. And so is Justin Timberlake.
The other substitute you may want to check out is a cheese called petit suisse, or "little swiss." Its a cows' milk cheese that is softer and more jiggly than cream cheese, but it's still in the fresh cheese category with a really mellow flavor and commonly used in desserts.
If you're feeling daring and have a liking for goat cheese, try using half mascarpone and half goat cheese in a cheesecake recipe. When its cooled, you can drizzle honey over it and serve it with fresh fruit for a less-sweet dessert.
I also have to bring up a cheese called Neufchatel, which is a product in American grocery stores sold next to the cream cheese. All it is is a reduced-fat cream cheese with a really fancy name. Why its not just called "reduced fat cream cheese" is beyond me. But its vastly different than the real neufchatel, which is a stronger- tasting, ripened cheese that you can actually find in France. Don't let a midwestern tourist visiting gay Paris tell you any different. Just wanted to clear that up.
I'm sorry you can't find the cream cheese in the snobby country that you live in. But while you're craving that American taste of cream cheese cheesecake, know that the cheesecakes you're already making are super duper gourmet. And that's something that you can brag about in a French accent and get away with.

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