117 Is The Magic Number

St. Paul cheesecake baker Muddy Paws aims for world supremacy, one flavor at a time

Muddy Paws Cheesecake
740 Snelling Ave. N, St. Paul
651.458.1625
www.muddypawscheesecake.com

Do you have 117 of anything? I mean, besides books, or skin cells, or deeply held suspicions about the talent of Justin Timberlake?

I think you don't. If you had 117 pairs of shoes, say, surely I'd have heard about it by now, because I was stuck in the corner at that interminable party the other night, and with today's regrettable state of the world, when there are fewer and fewer things to feel really morally superior about, and the things I heard about what you sent to the dry cleaner, it would have come up. And if you had 117 of something else, wives or cookie jars or poems about the deep and abiding love of a child for his red, red wagon, you'd have been on the cover of the Strib's Variety section by now, now wouldn't you?

So admit it already, instead of working yourself into a tizzy about how you have 117 Cheerios, or e-mails, or grievances against your sister's sense of entitlement, because I will immediately disqualify all of those examples, because you didn't spend weeks experimenting with five different sorts of caramel to come up with the right dulce de leche cheesecake recipe, now did you?

No, you didn't. Tami Cabrera Weinmann did, and that's why she gets the prize of my deep and abiding amazement, for here we have a woman who suspects she has more cheesecake flavors than any other bakery in the whole wide world, and I believe her. No, I hear you saying, she doesn't have blueberry pistachio cranberry vegan lactose-free cheesecake?! And I am here to tell you: Yes, yes she does. She also has her signature all-bells, all-whistles Mud Paw--which has two layers of cheesecake, namely coffee chocolate and caramel swirl, topped with pecans and fudge, all of it within a chocolate pecan crust.

If you do not believe me, you can go marvel yourself, in the cute-as-a-button teensy tiny storefront on Snelling Avenue near Hamline University where you can sit in a wicker settee and drink free coffee, and let your jaw hang open as you read through the possibilities on offer. Like marbled grasshopper, cranberry white chocolate, sunshine orange, pink lemonade, chocolate Frangelico, Kahlua and chocolate mudslide, bananas Foster, coconut mango, cheesecake sundae (with banana, strawberry, and chocolate layers), black raspberry Chambord, and so many, many, many more. So many more, in fact, that by the time you start to figure that most can be made lactose-free or vegan, using a tofu substitute, or sugar-free, for diabetics, or low-carb, for Atkins dieters--well, once you start figuring in that, you really will need a calculator to understand what the world hath received once ambition and cream cheese met.

Eh? I mean, it turns out that Cabrera Weinmann, a self-confessed "dairy girl--I think a square meal is ice cream, Alfredo sauce, and cheesecake," is one of those dynamos of Midwestern womanhood who just relentlessly and cheerfully move mountains. Get this: Do you know why there are no other cheesecake-only bakeries in town? Because a cheesecake-only bakery uses so much dairy that it isn't governed by the Minnesota Department of Health, but by the state Department of Agriculture, which makes it adhere to vastly more rigorous standards, the sort of standards that would apply to a business working with raw milk.

All Cabrera Weinmann's cakes are based on her New York cheesecake, which is made with only cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, sugar, and real vanilla. (Nowadays, she goes through 250 pounds of cream cheese a week.) She has been pursuing this dream for years, ever since she started testing her cheesecake flavors on colleagues at the architecture firm where she worked. Soon, she was making them to order, even driving a single cheesecake out to Waconia, so excited was she that someone wanted to buy one.

She then spent several years renting a commercial kitchen and working with the good people at the St. Paul-based nonprofit Neighborhood Development Center, the organization responsible for Mercado Central, and hence for many of the best food developments in the Twin Cities over the last several years, like the fantastic tamales from La Loma and those addictive sandwiches from Manny's Tortas. NDC rented Cabrera Weinmann a commercial kitchen for $5 an hour, and last fall she opened the Snelling storefront. And a few weeks ago she debuted the list of 117 flavors--whiz bang! In a few weeks she'll be selling slices of her dairy-pure cakes at the Basilica Block Party--she's making 700 cheesecakes. Seven hundred!

And everybody, please note that right now she's doing this with a husband who works full time, a three-year-old, a two-year-old, and a newborn infant girl who arrived at the end of April. "Well, I don't need a lot of sleep," she explains. "Midnight to five in the morning is very quiet at our house, so I can get a lot done then. Really! I really don't require very much sleep." I require a lot of sleep just reading that quote, though I think I understand more why Cabrera Weinmann hasn't seemed to mind too much when she's been stranded on various St. Croix charter boats while setting up a wedding cake.

In fact, most of Muddy Paws' business is wedding business. The Snelling storefront is more a place to come in and sample cake, drink free coffee, and think about the cakes of your dreams, while looking at photo albums of the cakes of others' dreams, than it is a traditional bakery. Actually, don't bring the family when you visit: If six people walked into the teensy shop, it would be like a subway car in Tokyo. (Prices: $3.75 a slice, or from $25 for a plain nine-inch cheesecake; it costs more for fresh fruit toppings or for one of those multi-layer extravaganzas.) The family will be just as happy with takeout, because, as Cabrera Weinmann points out, one of the many attractions of cheesecake is its sturdiness--that's why it's so popular on boat weddings.

I tried about eight of Muddy Paws' cheesecakes, and can faithfully report that they are just as cheesecakes should be: moist, plump, weighty, salty, rich, and, of course, crack-free, crust-perfect, pretty as discs of marble. To me, cheesecakes either taste like cheesecake, or they taste wrong, like chemicals, or chemical air, or lead, or parchment. These taste just right. The raspberry swirl, the most popular flavor after New York plain, is enchantingly subtle, with the palest clouds of pink run through, a bit of raspberry seed crunch on the tongue to let you know it's real, and a taste that's just exactly, exactly like a June wedding. Even the craziest cheesecake I tried, Jamaican Banana Rum, was as subtle as a breeze. If there was a platonic ideal of the cuisine of the postwar American Kitchen, these Muddy Paws cheesecakes would be it. Nothing too fancy, nothing too snooty, something just very plain, in 117 shades of comfort.

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