Today, I precede myself. Today the regular Pepper physique of lean muscle and trim sinew has gone all soft and bulgy, and forsooth: I am a lipid. I squish to conquer. Today, call me Rumblebelly (apologies to R.A. Salvatore). Today, when I sit around the house … you know the drill.
I was late to Chez Callalillie for the Cheesecake Challenge yesterday afternoon, a function of that hot shiny confusing thing in the sky – the “bun”? is that what they were calling it? something like that – and of the theoretical Union Street bus, which may look like a bus and sound like a bus, but doesn’t actually run along Union Street. Devil’s in the details. By the time I worked out and applied an alternate route and huffed my way into Park Slope, Chez C. was awash with svelte bloggers and their elastic belts: in attendance and comparing wee digital cameras were Tien, Doug, Dahlia, José, Chris, Joe, and Sam, as well as several blogless folk who somehow make it through their days as private citizens. Hmm. ‘Tis a consummation devoutly to be wish’d, perhaps.
It started simply enough a few weeks back, when Tien took issue with a cheesecake roundup in the New York Times. One thing led to another, and finally, as the bun shone gently down outside, we the few and the proud attacked a full table of cheesecakes of many sizes, shapes, and colors.
I brought two small dollops from Sweet Melissa’s on Court Street, an icing-squiggled strawberry cheesecake that was good-not-great and a wee cappuccino-flavored beast that was outstanding (Sweet Melissa’s tied for fourth in the eventual voting). The only outright disappointment in the bunch was the dry plug from Junior’s; how the mighty have fallen! When I was a callow high school brat, Junior’s was the sine qua non of New York cheesecake. Today we don’t even really expect it to place, it’s only there as the doddering elder statesman who was relevant once, a long time ago.
Third place in our profoundly unscientific polling (“Wait, wait – which is this sticky yellow one?” “I don’t know. What part of the table was it on?”) went to the rich entry from Park Slope’s Delices de Paris, a/k/a Paris Bakery. There’s a claim that the chef there was the personal pastry chef to Jackie O. True? Who knows? The cake was on the thicker and smoother side, full of flavor and assertive without being too sweet. The number two nod went to an original entry from Michael, whose “Famous Homemade Ginger Lemon Cheesecake” was, well, gingery and lemony, firm and reserved with the grainy creaminess that tastes like Old Days.
The house favorite? Pictured at work on the top of the page is Fort Green’s Cake Man Raven, whose sticky cheesecake is wonderfully light and zesty, with a round fleeting taste that dances on the tongue. It’s the airiest of the lot, frozen in the delicate transition from cooking bowl to carry-out box, combining the best elements of the larval batter phase and butterfly on-the-plate maturity. Cake Man Raven’s roster of celebrity cake clients over the years includes Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Stevie Wonder, Nancy Wilson, Robert DeNiro, Spike Lee, and a couple of mayors. And now me.
After an hour and change of the slings and arrows of outrageous cheesecake, we’re done, each beached in our spot or corner and gurgling in bloated content. The table is a sticky mass of slices, mangled bits, clots of crumbly crust and streaks of fruit topping. The cake knives are swollen with cheesecake guts, handles sticky. I have a perverse urge to take everything left on my plate, mash it up into a single slice, and see if it combines the best of the rest into a sublime übercake. This would take too much effort, though, so instead of actually doing it I just tell people about it and move on.
Outside the evening is creeping in, and the warmth is for basking. I stagger to my feet, and thunder out into the waning rays of the sinking bun.