In 1998, baking guru Dorie Greenspan was working with famed French pastry chef Pierre Hermé on his first cookbook to be published in English, Desserts by Pierre Hermé. Among the oh-so-French lemony crepes and pear-chocolate tarts, Hermé penned a recipe for a chewy, streusel-topped almond cake with cherries and mousse featuring a tangy, decidedly American ingredient: cream cheese. He called it “Philadelphia almond cake,” because—for most French people to this day—cream cheese is synonymous with the well-known Kraft brand name.
“He knew about American cream cheese having traveled here, so he wanted to make something with it for the book,” Greenspan recalls to me in a recent interview.
But when it came time to test the recipe, the Paris-based Hermé couldn’t get his hands on a single block of the creamy spread, so Greenspan packed several pounds of Philadelphia into her carry-on luggage and flew it to France.
“And so began the cream cheese couriering," she says.
She didn’t just run the coveted stuff for Hermé—for whom she also occasionally couriered whole pastrami from Upper East Side kosher deli, Pastrami Queen, and, just once, a frozen Butterball turkey. When Greenspan and husband, Michael, began living in Paris for parts of the year, around that same time, she quickly discovered she could only go so long without baking a cheesecake. She then began hauling 10 pounds of the stuff at a time, keeping four pounds to bake with and dispersing the rest among friends who asked for it.
Greenspan’s lifelong love of cream cheese began like that of many Americans: as part of the Sunday morning breakfast ritual. Each week, her family would gather around the dining room table of their Brooklyn, New York home and load up bagels with schmear and assorted cured fish while they traded sections of The New York Times.
Later, the versatile spread would star in some of her earliest baking victories.
“When I started learning to bake, I learned how to make rugelach, which is based on a cream cheese dough,” she explains. “So cream cheese has always been my friend in the kitchen. The surprise was seeing that the French wanted it.”
Cheese is something of a way of life in France. The International Dairy Federation estimates that the average French person eats 57 pounds of cheese per year—from fresh to spreadable; hard and blue alike; made from cow’s, goat’s or sheep’s milk; eaten alone, on bread or with dried fruit after a meal.
“There are French desserts made with cheese, too” Greenspan remarks, referring to the burnished, modestly flat Alsatian-style confection made with fromage blanc and Tourteau Fromagé. It’s a spongy, not-too-sweet yellow goat cheese cake that gets its dry and crumbly texture, plus its charcoal-black crust, from baking at a very high temperature. “But rich, creamy, New York-style cheesecake is uniquely American.”
Back then, the closest French proxies to American cream cheese were the higher-moisture, cow's milk–based neufchâtel (with 23 percent milkfat to cream cheese’s 33 percent), and St. Môret, a milk-white, spreadable fresh cheese that, “for all the years I’ve been in France, I never tasted!” Greenspan owns with a laugh. Instead, she’d reach for her fridge or freezer cream-cheese stash, then set out to make her Tall and Creamy Cheesecake—blending cream cheese, sugar, eggs, and sour cream heaped onto a graham-cracker crust. (The same recipe would later appear in her 2006 cookbook, Baking: From My Home to Yours.)
Living part-time in a city with a different set of pantry staples, Greenspan inevitably adapted her cheesecake recipe—aside from the cream cheese, of course. In a pinch, she’d improvise sour cream by whisking together heavy cream and Greek yogurt.
Other times, she forgot to pack graham crackers with her cream cheese haul. “That’s when I Paris-ized my cake, using crushed spice cookies and almond flour for the crust, then tossing more cookie crumbs into the cake and serving it with a pitcher of salted caramel sauce,” she wrote about what would become the Le Cheesecake Round Trip, a recipe from her 2014 cookbook, Baking Chez Moi. “It was a hit in Paris and just as big a hit back in New York, where it became known as the 'Paris Cheesecake.' ”
Meanwhile, cream cheese’s cult status in France swelled among those who visited the States, or neighboring European countries like Spain and Belgium, where Philadelphia was already available and used in sweet and savory applications alike. French pâtisseries even started peddling less-rich iterations of the New York-style confection (relying more on fromage blanc than cream cheese), which they dubbed “Le Cheesecake.”
Greenspan’s days of cream cheese ferrying ended sometime in 2011, when Mondelez International debuted the spread in France. Its signature silver-white tubs call out “PHILADELPHIA” in blue all-caps lettering; you have to search on the package for the words “formaggio fresco” in the fine print, if they appear at all.
Yet despite its name recognition, the product wasn’t an overnight success.
“Coming onto the cream cheese market with an American product, in a country where the cheese is something really important, was challenging,” says Elise Honore, category manager of meals for Philadelphia France. “We had a big launch and after that had to reduce ambitions, but over the past five or six years, our cream cheese sales have been growing even faster than the market.”
That’s thanks to the growing popularity of New York-style cheesecake, as well as a second, also-recent import onto French supermarket shelves: bagels.
“The French, in general, are not big home bakers, so I could see them using cream cheese more as a spread,” Greenspan says. “But some ambitious bakers are still out there, and I think the numbers are growing.”
Per Mondelez, 70 percent of French customers still use its cream cheese as a spread rather than in desserts, but that’s shifting. Philadelphia even features its own take on a Parisian cheesecake recipe on its "XXL"-size tub, which clocks in at a petite 500 grams, or 17 ounces.
“I don’t know that the XXL is enough for me to even make one cheesecake,” recalls Greenspan. (Le Cheesecake Round Trip calls for a hefty 900 grams.)
Luckily, out of habit, she still always has a few extra tubs on hand.