Cheesecake: A Dairy Tale
by Eileen LavineWhile cheesecake has long been popular among Jews with a sweet tooth, the creamy, rich indulgence is now as American as apple pie, a symbol of how thoroughly Jews have integrated into American life. As cookbook author Joan Nathan says, “Jews like cheesecake because they like to eat good rich dishes, even if they shouldn’t”—but then again, who doesn’t?
What’s Jewish about the storied cake? “Cheesecake became a tradition for Jews because of the cycle of the year, when Shavuot welcomes the plentiful milk of springtime with dairy dishes,” says Nathan. Explanations abound for serving cheesecake—and other dairy dishes—at Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Among them are that Abraham served cottage cheese and milk to the angels at the first meal in Genesis, and that King Solomon’s Song of Songs compares the Torah to milk and honey.
The tradition of cakes sweetened with cheese didn’t start with the Jews, but with another group famous for their monumental contributions, from philosophy to dessert: the ancient Greeks. Athletes at the first Olympic games in 776 BCE were fed cheesecake made with curd cheese to boost their energy, says Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. (This was pre-steroids.) Jews likely picked up the recipe from the Greeks who occupied Palestine in the third century BCE, or from the Romans, who offered up a baked cheesecake called libum to their household gods.
The Romans brought cheesecake to Europe, where every country would invent its own flourish. Central and Eastern Europeans added a new kind of cheese: quark, a form of farmer’s or pot cheese, with large curds and a tangy flavor. European immigrants to the United States brought with them a treat similar to the German kaesekuchen, made with quark, which had a coarse, heavy texture.
That texture became smoother with the discovery of cream cheese, the ingredient responsible for the distinctive consistency and flavor of American cheesecake. For this, cheesecake lovers can thank William A. Lawrence, an upstate New York dairyman, who used twice the cream required to make the popular French Neufchâtel cheese. The 1872 culinary game-changer resulted in a richer and silkier cheese, which eventually became the popular Philadelphia cream cheese. In 1907, Isaac and Joseph Bregstein, who changed their name to Breakstone, began making cream cheese in Brooklyn, selling it primarily to Jews.
Cream cheese played a starring role in the advent of New York-style cheesecake, popularized by two German-Jewish restaurateurs. Arnold Reuben opened Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen on East 58th Street in 1928, and another restaurant, called the Turf, 14 years later. In a bit of legend perpetuated by Reuben himself, he altered the recipe for a cheese pie he tasted at a dinner party, replacing the cottage cheese with cream cheese, creating the classic New York cheesecake. Meanwhile, Leo “Lindy” Lindemann, a Jewish immigrant from Berlin, ran Lindy’s Restaurant in midtown Manhattan—a mere block away from the Turf—where cheesecake was a best-seller. Some say that Lindy’s stole Reuben’s cook and cheesecake recipe, although purists maintain the two cakes were not identical.
It wasn’t just cream cheese that made New York cheesecake special. At first the cake was made with a pastry crust, then crushed zwieback—the crisp, sweet biscuits perfect for teething children. The crust is another ever-changing element in the cheesecake formula; in more recent years, home bakers have favored graham cracker crumbs, like the kind used in frozen Sara Lee cheesecakes, created in 1954 by Jewish baker Charles Lubin (and named after his daughter). Junior’s Cheesecakes, whipped up by Harry Rosen in 1950 for his Brooklyn diner (and now sold at Junior’s restaurants and online), are made with a sponge cake bottom. Eli’s Cheesecake in Chicago uses a shortbread cookie crust.
The ineffability of the cheesecake transcends mere ingredients and extends to broader questions. Is it a cake, a torte, a custard? It is all those things and more. Some bakers put their cake pan in a pot with boiling water; others prefer the texture achieved by baking the pan on a cookie sheet. Marc Schulman, the owner of Eli’s Cheesecake and son of founder Eli, says that his company’s cake is “almost like a soufflé, richer and creamier.”
As any contemporary dessert connoisseur knows, variations abound: The modern cheesecake can be made with anything from sour cream to heavy cream and come loaded with chocolate, cherries, caramel, nuts or any number of combinations thereof. DGS Delicatessen in Washington, DC, sells what it calls a DC-style cheesecake, with orange marmalade. Pati Jinich, Jewish author of Pati’s Mexican Table, has created a Latino-flavored guava cheesecake. The kind of cheese used varies depending on local specialties: Greek cheesecakes boast feta cheese, Italian bakers use ricotta. Global cross-pollination has had its consequences, too; in Brussels, Joan Nathan recently sampled a cake made with Philadelphia cream cheese and a base of ground speculoos, a spiced cookie that tastes like a mixture of graham crackers and gingersnaps. “There are always new ways to eat old things,” says Nathan. “I’m not sure some of the new ideas are really so new. It’s the old with embellishments, and that doesn’t always make it better.”
Cheesecake is also popular in Israel, although it has little in common with its American cousin. “Quark is predominant in Israel, so they have developed a different culinary culture that is the basis of Israeli cheesecake,” explains Marks. “They use gevina levana l’bisul, a coagulated buttermilk cheese like drained yogurt.” Israelis disdain New York-style cheesecake, says Paula Shoyer, author of The Kosher Baker. “They prefer a cheesecake without a crust, almost like a pudding that you eat with a spoon. And they serve it at breakfast.”
Not everyone approves of this Mediterranean iteration. “It is too insubstantial,” complains Marks. “I’m a fan of New York cheesecake, which should be creamy and dense, not custardy.” Nor does he appreciate the jazzed-up versions topped with syrup and sweets, which he describes as “sacrilegious and paganistic.” Simplicity is key to letting the texture and flavor shine through. After all, Marks says, “Cheesecake should be sensual.”—Eileen Lavine
Adapted from Eli’s Original Plain Cheesecake
4 packages cream cheese (8 ounces each), softened • 1 cup sugar • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour • 2 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk • 6 tablespoons sour cream • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla • Cookie or graham cracker crust
Crumb Crust: 1 1/2 cups ground vanilla wafers • 1/2 cup powdered sugar • 3/4 cup melted butter
Graham Crust: 1 1/2 cups ground graham crackers • 1/2 cup brown sugar • 3/4 cup melted butter • 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Beat cream cheese, sugar and flour in electric mixer until light and creamy. Add eggs and yolk, one at a time, scraping down sides of bowl until completely incorporated. Add sour cream and vanilla. Beat mixture, scraping down sides of bowl, until smooth.
For crust: mix all ingredients in medium bowl using your fingertips until mixture is well moistened. Press into the bottom and one inch up the sides of an ungreased 9-inch spring-form pan. Pour filling into prepared crust in pan. Place on cookie sheet. Bake until cake is firm around edge and center barely jiggles when tapped, about 45 minutes. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours or overnight to completely set before serving.