Feeding the French: the great cheesecake challenge.

After so many years here in France, I am proud to have got the hang of most things French. I have learned to accept the sight of my husband drowning his fresh baguette, butter and jam in his coffee every morning, leaving oily pools on the surface and stranded pieces of fruit at the bottom of his coffee bowl. I have learned the great dance I have baptised “the pavement poop trot” to avoid literally putting my foot in it as I walk through the village, and have even successfully learned the basics of French sign language (which uses not only hands, but also eyebrows, eyeballs, head and sometimes arms and fluttering lip movements). I have learned that a car can throw itself out of a tiny street on your right as you drive down a main road because, bizarrely,  he has priority over you (I think this rule was invented to keep insurance companies busy). I eat snails. I know how to revive the remainder of yesterday’s baguette when there’s nothing left for breakfast. Yep, I reckon I’ve done well.

However, I still haven’t managed to successfully master the one cultural bucking bronco I abhor: making dinner for the French. Every time we have guests for dinner, I break out in a cold sweat. So when P.F beamed across the petits fours and Pastis glasses at the huge table of pals a few weeks ago and said “next time, it’s at our place”, my voice dried up and my stomach knotted up as I imagined serving up my burnt culinary offerings to a tableful of people whose gastronomic genes were so much more accomplished than mine.

Their reaction was the classic one I have become accustomed to since I first came to France: “Oh, are you going to boil us some meat and serve it with mint sauce?”, followed by laughter. I have learned not to take this personally: somehow, the old reputation of English food being inedible has stuck to the Brits like spotted dick and custard to last night’s unwashed bowls, and we’ll never shake it off.

P.F laughed, put his glass down and leapt to my defence. My knight in shining armour retorted that English food was brilliant, and that once they had tasted my fabulous cheesecake they would eat their words along with it.

Thanks to PF’s luminous suggestion, I was up at 7.30 on D-Day, ferreting through drawers to find the recipe, and trawling the net to find the French equivalent of cream cheese on Google. One 40km round-trip later I had bought myself a few packets of digestive biscuits at the “exotic foods” shelf of a hypermarket. The juxtaposition of the humble Digestive biscuit with the word “exotic” had me flummoxed; Digestives remind me of my mother, sitting on the carpet with a cup of PG Tips, a biccy and the Sunday TImes whilst the Cornish rain runs down the window pane. Comforting, yes. Homely, yes. But – with all due respect to my mum – hardly exotic.

But I digress. I suspiciously eyed the “Philadelphia” cream cheese package:  it was the closest to real English cream cheese from the cheese counter in Waitrose that I was going to get. I crossed my fingers and launched myself into the recipe, the one supplied by my mum, the one had helped me to conquer the heart of P.F back in my student days…..

Here’s the result (or what’s left of it). It was demolished by my guests, which was the compliment of the century. The rest of the meal went fine too; the words “mountain” and “molehill” came to mind as I saw everyone happily chomping away.

My mum’s lemon cheesecake.

I have included the recipe, just incase anyone got here after desperately typing “equivalent cream cheese in France” like I did. This is the uncooked variety, and not what I believe is the U.S baked version.

Lemon cheesecake.

For one 8″ (20cm)  round tin.


For the base:

200g crushed plain Digestive biscuits (McVities sablés anglais, original)

110 g butter, melted.

For the cheesy bit:

300 g of Philadelphia cream cheese

115g caster sugar (sucre semoule)

2 eggs, separated.

2 lemons (plus two more if you want to decorate with lemon zest).

300 ml of double cream (crème fluide, I bought’ Elle et Vire” brand, but they’re much of a muchness).

6g gelatine powder (Vahiné brand, you’ll need two sachets of the stuff).


Crush the biscuits, mix with butter. Refrain from eating, press into the base of a loose-bottomed tin. Put in fridge. (If, like me, your kitchen is not equipped like Nigella Lawson’s, you can use any dish, just line it with baking sheet first so that you can remove the cheesecake afterwards).

Grate the zest from the lemons and squeeze their juice.

Beat the cream cheese and sugar together until it goes soft and is easy to beat.

Add the two egg yolks, beat again.

Softly whip the cream, then fold gently into the cholesterol cream cheese mix.

Add the lemon zest and mix gently.

Put the two sachets of gelatine powder in a small bowl and add 4 tablespoons of lemon juice. Stir and leave it alone. Heat the remaining juice in a small saucepan until hot but not boiling, remove from heat. Add the gelatine mixture to this and stir until it has dissolved. Whilst it’s cooling, whisk the egg whites as firmly as you can.

After a few minutes of cooling, add the gelatine mixture to the cream cheese mixture and stir well. Fold in the egg whites.

Spoon heavenly mixture on to the biscuit base, and place in fridge.

Lick out the bowl, feel all that fat, lemon and sugar hitting your happy hormones and wonder why people look for happiness in all the wrong places when it’s right under your nose at the bottom of the bowl.

I left my cheesecake 24 hours to get its act together, then decorated it with lemon zest. Otherwise, clever people can put a blackcurrant coulis on the top, or whatever floats your boat….
Bon appetit!