Recently, the staff at an acquaintance's office got in a discussion over whether cheesecake is indeed a cake (just look at the name!), or a pie (it's got a crust!). The discussion became a heated debate, such to the point that they phoned a major cheesecake company's headquarters to find the answer (cake).
Mystery having been solved, we set out to find more about this silky, indulgent treat; who better to turn to than The Confectional, the Pike Place Market purveyor of creatively flavored full-size and mini cheesecakes, as well as adorable chocolate-covered cheesecake truffles? In a recent interview with owner Paul Verano, we learned about what makes a cheesecake great, regional cheesecake preferences, and even got a cheesecake confession:
Cakespy: So. You are part Colombian, living in Seattle, with a cheesecake shop that was realized in Wellington, New Zealand. This all sounds very cosmopolitan! Can you fill in the blanks on how you got started?
Paul Verano: I was born in the US, but lived in Colombia as a child. I've been a baker since I was four years old, well actually my first 'baking' was a no-bake cookie, but that seriously set the ball in motion and I was immediately into the oven with the next thing. In college I would bake massive rich chocolaty cakes that my friends fawned over. I tried out cheesecakes and came up with my Cookies and Mint Chocolate cheesecake straight away. This is on my menu today and remains my all time personal favorite flavor.
For the next several years I would take my cheesecakes to parties and they proved to be extremely popular. Several friends started ordering them for their own parties and for weddings. Eventually, when my partner and I were living in New Zealand our friends there pretty much pushed/encouraged me further than anyone had before into opening a business.
So my first store was in Wellington, New Zealand. We opened in May of 2004. It was delivery only back then. Here in Seattle we opened our first storefront in December of 2006. We are about to celebrate our one-year anniversary in the Pike Place Market.
CS: What made you decide to locate in the Pike Place Market?
PV: When we moved back to Seattle a friend who knows Kurt Dammeier of Beechers, Bennett's Restaurant, etc. suggested we sit down with him and discuss the possibilities of opening a store in Seattle. He immediately loved my product and after our first meeting said we had to look into the Pike Place Market as it would be the perfect venue for my cheesecakes. My partner and I left that meeting and walked across the street to the Pike Place Market offices. On the rental board was a space available which is now our 490 square-foot store. It was very karmic and I'm very happy with how it all transpired.
CS: Do you ever barter lunch for cheesecake with your neighbor vendors?
PV: Absolutely! One of the great things about working in the market is that most vendors will trade or at least have a 'market discount', as we do. The community in the Pike Place Market is fantastic. There is a bit of competitiveness for some vendors, but for the most part everyone is excited to help everyone else out. We are asked constantly where the best of this is, or best of that is. "Where's the first Starbucks?" is the most asked question.
CS: You're called "the Confectional", a clever take on "The Confessional". Do you have any cheesecake confessions to share with us?
PV: Hmmm. A cheesecake confession of my own...well...yes. I actually like the batter of my cheesecakes more than the baked product. But isn't that true for cookie and cake batter, too? You just can't sit down and serve a batch of batter for dessert, now can you? But oh, don't tempt me. I've been known to blow people away with unexpected desserts. Oh, and I can't suggest enough, if you're up to it, warming up my cheesecakes (oven or microwave) and serving them with your favorite ice cream. Oh my word.
CS: We imagine that you get quite a few out of town visitors. Have you noticed any trends in cheesecake preference for people from different parts of the world?
PV: The biggest trend was fully expected after having such a great 'test market' in New Zealand. It's that our most popular flavor is the Raspberry White Chocolate. It's the most popular by DOUBLE the next flavor! For some reason the Kahlua White Chocolate seems to be very popular with the Asian community. And southern Americans often ask where the Amaretto Cheesecake is, (and clearly it's pronounced Ameretta in the south...I love it!). Really, all our cheesecakes seem to sell equally. The only other thing I'll say is that most people that approach our display case are enamored with our 12 main flavors, plus seasonal flavors, and can have a difficult time choosing which one to get. It's amazing how often someone will get an extra cheesecake flavor to try later... a good problem to have!
CS: Where do you get your recipes?
PV: I have created all of my recipes, sometimes from suggestions of flavors and following a hunch and working it out. My cheesecake truffles were invented in my home kitchen just two weeks before opening the store and have proven to be extraordinarily popular, and are pretty much to-die-for. There's also my Colombian Hot Chocolate. A thick European-style drinking chocolate that is designed after my Grandmother's recipe. In Colombia the hot chocolate is about as thin as water, but in my store I get to decide how thick the chocolate is, and I just don't mess around. Not too overpowering, but enough to remind you that chocolate can be a serious happy-inducing pill. We start with melted dark chocolate, organic whole milk, and like my Grandmother's, I have a bit of Colombian coffee and just a hint of her signature spices.
CS: Have there been any great cheesecakes in your past that have inspired your baking efforts?
PV: While there are many incredible cheesecakes, cheesecake makers and cheesecake styles, I find that my personal favorites are the ones that are absolutely naked and most simple. That's why there are three ingredients in my base. As simple as it gets. Then adding the flavors to 'dress them up' is all about balance. It's chemistry at it's tastiest. I'm not sure I have an inspiration from somewhere else. So many recipes are just too sweet. We have a much lower amount of sugar in our recipes than most that I've seen/tasted.
CS: Would you say that your cheesecakes are "New York" style, or "Italian" style? Or something else?
PV: We are closest to a "New York-Style" cheesecake, but I go for a slightly denser, in-your-face version. In fact we call our New York-Style a "Seattle's New York-Style"...that is to say that we Seattleites often consider ourselves a bit 'heartier' than New Yorkers. More rugged in the Northwest, eh? And our crust is a bit of heaven. We use Maria Biscuits from Spain, which make a beautiful crust. Most graham crackers have partially hydrogenated oil, and again we try to keep it as pure a product as we can. Maria biscuits are very simple, elegant and make a great crunchy crust.
CS: What is the most important aspect in making a great cheesecake?
PV: Keep it simple. As pure as you can. Do not over or under mix. And love making it. If you love the making and the baking and pay special attention to detail, they'll taste it!
CS: What is your most popular flavor at the shop?
PV: Raspberry White Chocolate--although, our holiday flavors are definitely winning right now! Those are Pumpkin and the Cranberry White Chocolate...with a hint of Cardamom.
CS: What is your personal favorite flavor?
PV: Cookies and Mint Chocolate, but whenever I taste one of the others I get a little bit giddy because they are all so good! My other top favorites are actually our 'richest' cheesecakes, the Coconut Cherry Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Chocolate and the Quadruple Chocolate. See a trend there? Everyone has a different favorite. All our staff have their own faves and are asked often enough that we've listed their favorites on each sign in the display case.
CS: Some people are scared of cheesecake because it is "fattening". Any response to this?
PV: Indeed. For some people it's a viscosity issue and they will simply NEVER like cheesecake. We've actually converted some of these people and now have loyal fans that wouldn't dream of eating a cheesecake before. As for fattening: there's a lot of concern about carb counting vs. fat, etc. What I can tell you is we have a very reasonable sized individual serving that's completely satisfying. That alone is a saving grace, and without consuming a giant American-sized portion of a so-so product. On top of that our Raspberry White Chocolate cheesecake is about 320 calories, which is far less than most of our customers guess. Some flavors a good bit less, and others a bit more calories. I like to remind people that if they're that worried about 320 calories, then after you eat it, go for a brisk walk for 20 minutes, or enjoy the Pike Place Market for an hour, and it's pretty much null and void, no?
CS: In your opinion, what is the best beverage accompaniment for cheesecake?
PV: Coffee, espresso, Earl Grey tea, and if you're enjoying our Mochaccino cheesecake, a nice, full-bodied red is something else. Oh, or a fine chocolate port on the side or drizzled right on our Seattle's New York-Style cheesecake. Whew!
CS: What is next for The Confectional?
PV: Our next goal, after getting through our first full holiday season in the Pike Place Market, will be to work toward opening a commissary baking space, as well as a second location.
The Confectional is located at 1530 Pike Place, in the Pike Place Market (not far from that first Starbucks). For more information, visit theconfectional.com.