Is there such a thing as being too rich?
After covering wealth for more 14 years, the question has often come to mind. But it took on special meaning when I took my first bite of the world's most expensive cheesecake – at $5,000 per cake.
After sinking my teeth into the sweet, creamy filling loaded with rare cognac, white truffles, fresh vanilla and crunchy Italian biscotti, I had my answer. With cheesecake — if not with life — richer is better. Much better.
The $5,000 cheesecake is officially the most expensive in the world and is the creation of Chef Raffaele Ronca, owner of the Rafele Ristorante in Manhattan's Greenwich Village. Ronca gave "Secret Lives of the Super Rich" an exclusive look and taste of his creation recently as he made one for a client and whipped up a little extra for us to sample.
First, I will state the obvious: $5,000 is an obscene price for a cheesecake. That's more than the cost of my first car and more than most Manhattanites spend on rent each month.
What makes Ronca's cheesecake so expensive, and so addictive, is the ingredients.
This isn't one of those price-gimmick desserts where an ice cream shop sells a $10,000 sundae by putting a diamond on top or including a first-class trip to Iceland. Ronca's cheesecake is expensive because of the cost and quality of what goes inside.
It starts with the cheese. Forget your grandmother's silver packets of Philadelphia cream cheese. Ronca starts his masterpiece with a fresh formaggio from water buffalo in southern Italy. It's flown in fresh the previous day.
"These water buffalo are very happy, they have good lives," he tells me. "And you can taste it in their milk and cheese."
Next, he adds the most shocking ingredient: 200-year-old cognac that costs $2,500 a bottle. Cognac snobs, and even nonsnobs, will no doubt curse the insanity of using some of the most expensive cognac in the world to pour into a cheesecake. And the chef agrees.
"I know, people will call me a criminal for this," he says, as he poured in three shots, worth around $300, of Hennessy Paradis.
Is there such a thing as being too rich?
But the toasty aroma, with hints of rose, pepper and honey, quickly infuse the cheese. Next up, he squeezes in some fresh vanilla from beans imported from Madagascar. And then he adds the real jaw-dropper: white truffles from Alba, a town in Italy's Piedmont region.
Truffles are typically more at home on pasta than cheesecakes. And Alba truffles, sniffed out of the Italian countryside by specially trained dogs, are the diamonds of the truffle world. They typically sell for more than $4,000 a pound, but because of bad weather they're especially expensive this year. A trio of Albas weighing less than 2 pounds sold for $85,000 this month to a Hong Kong buyer.
As he slices into the Alba truffle, I ask the chef if he realizes people will think he's crazy.
"Of course, white truffle in a cheesecake? I think I'm crazy," he said.
Ronca then adds a few more flavorings, like citrus, and of course a sprinkling of gold flakes, and sets it aside. The crust forgoes the usual graham crackers in favor of a layer made from homemade Italian biscotti. The chef uses his grandmother's biscotti recipe to create a much better crust for such a complex filling. He then spreads on a layer of freshly ground hazelnuts and rich melted chocolate, making a kind of millionaire's Nutella.
On top of the biscotti and hazelnut-chocolate mixture, Ronca pours the cheese mixture. He then bakes it for an hour. After it cools down, he adds a block of fresh honeycomb on the top that serves as a platform for a giant chocolate "RR" logo (for Rafele Ristorante) covered in gold leaf that Ronca adds the top. For the finale, he tops it with lighted sparklers.
The cake officially made the Guinness Book of World Records for the most expensive cheesecake ever made. It takes five days to prepare, since the ingredients need to be flown in fresh from Europe and Africa.
Rafele Ristorante is already famous for its regular cheesecake, which sells for $9 per slice. But the chef decided to take it to another level after sitting down with one of his clients who wanted to do something super special for his mother. Hence, the world's most expensive cheesecake was born.
"It's the most expensive, and the best," he said.
Of course, what matters is taste right?
After lopping off a piece, I took my first forkful of a cake that cost $450 per slice, or around $90 per bite.
I wish I could say it was a waste of money. I wish I could say that all that truffle and cognac and vanilla and gold made for a level of epicurean opulence impossible to actually stomach.
I wish I could say I'd take a $6 slice of Junior's Classic Cheesecake any day of the week over Ronca's. But I can't. Because the world's most expensive cheesecake is also the best. Or at least the best I've had.
The cheese is light and fresh, without being cloying or needing much sugar. The cognac gives it some seasoned brightness and smoke, while the truffles add a layer of earthiness and depth. It all works together in perfect balance, riding on the melted chocolate and hazelnut paste. The biscotti adds crunch both inside the filling and on the crust.
I planned to eat just a bite or two. But within seconds, the whole slice was gone. And I wanted more.
Is it worth $5,000? It depends on how wealthy you are and what you have to burn. But for those who can afford it, Ronca's record-setting cheesecake is proof that being rich does have its rewards.
Watch an all new episode of "Secret Lives of the Super Rich" Thursday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on CNBC.