In high school, there was little that I loved more than a night on the town. Whether the occasion was a friend’s Sweet 16 or a celebratory dinner after a dance recital, a night out promised the rare opportunity to flee the confines of my sleepy Chicago suburb for the big city, or at very least a different suburb. It also typically meant an evening of decadent, “Yes I will have mozzarella sticks” type of eating that only a teenager’s stomach can handle adequately. And of all the typical, semi-upscale chain restaurants we frequented, my favorite was the Cheesecake Factory.
What decadence could be found tucked inside a Cheesecake Factory booth! Most nights, the food menu went completely ignored, as my friends and I ordered slices of Cheesecake Factory’s teeth-achingly sweet cheesecake stuffed with chopped Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, then doused in caramel sauce and dressed up in a fairytale gown of whipped cream. Two bites was all it took to send the table into peals of sugar-induced hilarity. What more could a teenager with a lively sweet tooth want?
It was only when I moved to New York City after college that I discovered how limited my experience had been. A few months after arriving, a friend took me to Junior’s, a 61-year-old diner in downtown Brooklyn known for its cheesecake. When I walked in, the place felt like a slightly faded Catskills photo album — still glimmering, but missing a bulb or two. But the cheesecake was a different story. It was creamy and light, with a spongy, almost nonexistent crust and a tangy bite to round out the sweetness. Next to the Cheesecake Factory’s flashy sugar blitz, it felt elegant and authentic. Cheesecake, categorically defined.
Cheesecake is an unusual Jewish food in that it has distinctly American roots — or at least its fundamental ingredient, cream cheese, does (more on that in a minute). Cakes made from soft cheese have history that, according to Gil Marks’s “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food” (Wiley, 2010), stretches back to the fourth century, when “Greeks [prepared] several types of griddle cakes incorporating curd cheese, flour and sometimes honey.”
The dessert we recognize as cheesecake today likely stems from the 11th century, when Franco-German Jews ate cheese fluden, filled pastries, that over time, grew denser with filling, lost their top crust and became a widespread Ashkenazi favorite. As Claudia Roden wrote in “The Book of Jewish Food” (Knopf, 1996), “In the old days in Eastern Europe, housewives made their soft cheese at home” — a technique that helped to extend milk’s shelf life. This made curd cheese cakes the perfect dessert for Shavuot, a holiday that features dairy dishes and arrives in the spring, as people’s cows and other livestock are giving birth and producing an excess of milk.
In the mid-1800s, German immigrants brought Kaesekuchen, typically made with quark (fresh curd cheese), to America. Once there, the quark was replaced with cottage or farmer cheese, resulting in dense, textured cakes. Then came the innovation that changed everything. In 1872, a dairyman named William Lawrence, from Chester, N.Y., accidentally invented cream cheese while attempting to make a batch of French Neufchâtel. Legend has it that he erroneously doubled the amount of cream in the recipe and was delighted by the results of his mistake. Cream cheese production quickly took off at nearby dairies, and eight years later, Marks writes, “a company called C.D. Reynolds purchased the Empire Cheese Company [in a village] near Chester, and launched production of cream cheese under the brand name Philadelphia.” It was named after Philadelphia because the city had a reputation at the time for producing high-quality foods.
By the 1930s, New York City’s Jews started substituting the readily available cream cheese for the traditional curd cheese, creating the ultra-rich New York-style cheesecake. The original New York cheesecake came the way I experienced it at Junior’s — perched atop a thin, sponge cake crust, though over time, graham cracker-based crusts became increasingly common. The city’s nonkosher delicatessens (which could include meat and dairy dishes on the same menu), like Lindy’s and Reuben’s, helped to vault cheesecake into the mainstream so that by the 1940s and ’50s it had become, along with egg creams, dill pickles and pastrami sandwiches, synonymous with New York culture and cuisine.
New York of the 21st century is hardly the cheesecake mecca it was in the 20th. Meanwhile, like the bagel, cheesecake has been so thoroughly adopted and adapted by larger American tastes (think the Cheesecake Factory’s piña colada and Oreo cheesecakes, or the blueberry and jalapeno-cheddar bagels you find today at bagel shops) that it has lost much of its Jewish identity. Interestingly, these two foods are bound together by cream cheese, which gets smeared onto one and stirred into the other. It is easy to imagine how, as cream cheese itself grew increasingly ubiquitous (Philadelphia brand cream cheese is now owned by food-giant Kraft, for example), it may have helped vault its counterparts even further into the mainstream. On Shavuot, though, cheesecake returns to its Jewish element, the celebratory centerpiece of a late, dairy-filled night. Like my revelatory evening at Junior’s, each bite of cheesecake is a part of something bigger — a sweet and tangy link in a long-standing chain.
Leah Koenig writes a monthly column for the Forward on food and culinary trends. Contact her at email@example.com
Recipe slightly adapted from “Quick & Kosher: Recipes From the Bride Who Knew Nothing” by Jamie Geller.
2 (8-ounce) packages cream cheese, softened
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup light-brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips (optional)
1 plain graham cracker crust, 9 inches
1) Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using an electric mixer at medium speed, mix cream cheese and sugars together until smooth. Add eggs, one at a time, mixing into batter. When fully blended, mix in vanilla. Using a silicone spatula, fold in chocolate chips, if using.**
2) Pour into graham cracker crust. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes or until just slightly jiggly in the center. The cake will finish cooking from the retained heat after you take it out of the oven. Cover, and chill in refrigerator at least 4 hours before serving.**
This no-bake riff on the original layers all of cheesecake’s tastiest components into small glass jars for a beautiful and unusual presentation. From “The Hadassah Everyday Cookbook: Daily Meals for the Contemporary Jewish Kitchen” by Leah Koenig.
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs (about 9 graham cracker sheets)
¼ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
1 teaspoon ginger powder (optional)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, slightly softened
1 ½ cups ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon lemon zest
½ cup heavy cream
1 jar raspberry preserves
¼ cup fresh raspberries (optional)
1) In a medium bowl, combine the graham cracker crumbs; 1 tablespoon sugar; ginger, if desired, and butter, Stir well to combine, and set aside.
2) In a large bowl, beat the cream cheese and 1/4 cup sugar together until creamy — either by hand with a wooden spoon or in a standing mixer on low speed. Fold in the ricotta and lemon zest until well combined. Set aside.
3) Using an immersion blender or beaters, whip the heavy cream and 1 tablespoon sugar until peaks form.
4) Assemble the cheesecakes: Divide the graham cracker “crust” into 6 small Mason jars or glass cups, gently pressing the mixture into the bottom with a spoon or your fingers. Top with cheese mixture (it’s a very rich mixture, so less is more), followed by a dollop of raspberry jam and whipped cream. Sprinkle a few fresh raspberries on top as garnish, if desired.
5) Serve immediately, or chill cheesecake in fridge for up to 12 hours; let soften slightly, and top with whipped cream and berries just before serving.