Cheesecake is among my favorite desserts, and I find it hard to resist, with its fresh, creamy yet cake-y body, and its tasty cookie crumb crust. But when you try to make American-style cheesecake in France, you quickly run into a procurement hurdle: neither cream cheese* nor graham crackers are easily available. You can find them — at least if you’re in Paris — but this requires time and effort and the planning of a trip to one of the few stores that carry those items. I prefer my baking to be a bit more spontaneous.
This allows us to transition, as smoothly as a cheesecake, to the French semi-equivalent: le Gâteau au Fromage Blanc. Fromage blanc (literally “white cheese”, and the “c” is mute) is a type of fresh cheese, most commonly made with cow’s milk, that has the consistency of thick and velvety yogurt but is typically tarter than yogurt. It is a very common and popular product here, there are many kinds (fermier, battu, en faisselle…) and you can find it in different fat percentages, from maigre (0% fat) to entier (40% fat).
Gâteau au fromage blanc differs from cheesecake in that the crust is usually a thin pastry crust with a rim, and it incorporates beaten egg whites into the batter: this gives the cake a very airy and light texture, almost mousse-like, and makes it higher than most cheesecakes I’ve been served — usually around three inches. My habitual (and, need I say, beloved) cheese store sells their own, a huge and tempting affair beneath a cloche à fromage (a glass cheese cover, literally “cheese bell”) on the counter, to be sliced and sold by the weight like any other cheese.
I love Gâteau au fromage blanc, but have two objections to making it myself in the traditional way. One, nothing, and I mean nothing, beats a cookie crumb crust: the patting or the eating, it’s hard to tell which part I enjoy the most. And two, I don’t love recipes that call for “beating egg whites till stiff” because it often sounds like too much trouble.
In any case, when the desire and occasion for a cheesecake arise — and arise both did last weekend to end a dinner party with a flourish — I go for my own easy version, which enrolls fromage blanc and Northern European cookies (the spice-rich and toasty and delicious Speculoos, or Bastogne) in a sort of mid-Atlantic rendition of the cheesecake. Only this time, as promised a couple of weeks ago, I used the remainder of my gingersnaps for the crust, making this a 100% homemade cheesecake, which we all delighted upon with forceful cries of felicity.
* 2014 Update: I can now find Philadelphia cream cheese in most supermarkets around me.
- 260 grams (9 ounces) spice cookies, such as speculoos, gingersnaps, or bastognes
- 15 grams (1 tablespoon) unsalted butter (optional, see instructions below)
- 1 kilogram (4 cups) fromage blanc (I use 20% fat; see note)
- 200 grams (1 cup) unrefined blond cane sugar
- 2 large eggs
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Grease a 25-cm (10-inch) cake pan with a removable bottom.
- Put the cookies in the bowl of a food processor, and pulse to reduce cookies to crumbs. (Alternatively, place cookies in a freezer bag, close it, and run over it with a rolling pin.) Try pressing a handful of crumbs in your hand. If the crumbs clump together and stay roughly clumped, no need to add butter. Otherwise, mix in some butter until it tests positive in the clump test.
- Pour the crumbs into the bottom of the pan, and pat with the palms of your hands to form an even crust all over the surface. Reserve in the refrigerator.
- In a medium mixing bowl, stir together the fromage blanc and sugar. Crack in the eggs one by one, stirring until thoroughly combined. Take care not to incorporate air into the mixture.
- Pour into the pan and bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until set and slightly golden on the outer rim. Unclasp the sides of the pan and transfer to a rack to cool completely, then chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
The handy Cook's Thesaurus suggests the following substitutions for fromage blanc: "quark (very similar) OR yogurt cheese OR buttermilk cheese OR blend equal parts cottage cheese and yogurt until smooth OR cream cheese whipped with cream".