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The Cheese Factor

If you are anything like me, then come late springtime, when Shavuot rolls around, your mind turns to thoughts of cheesecake. (Of course, if you’re really like me, then you’re thinking about cheesecake, on and off, pretty much all year long.) This is an extremely pleasant line of thought, but it is hardly a novel one; indeed, Jews have been baking and consuming cheesecakes on Shavuot for just about as long as there has been cheesecake.

Originally a festival celebrating the beginning of the wheat harvest, Shavuot eventually came to assume another meaning — as the holiday that recalls the giving of the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. With that, it also came to be the holiday on which one serves dairy foods. There wouldn’t seem to be an obvious link between the two — Moses didn’t carb load with cheese blintzes and kreplach for his trek up the mountain, although that’s never a bad idea — but there are at least a couple of strong bases for the tradition. The first is symbolic, referring to the verse in Exodus that describes how the Torah was given to Moses in “a land flowing with milk and honey.” The second is agricultural: Late spring is when grazing animals — in the Middle East, they are primarily sheep — give birth, which means that milk was especially abundant during this time. And so, happily enough, was cheesecake.

British food writer Evelyn Rose has surmised in her 1992 “International Jewish Cookbook” that the Jews first learned about cheesecake during the Greek occupation of Palestine, beginning in the third century BCE — and this seems a reasonable supposition. The Greeks, by all accounts, were the inventors of cheesecake and produced it in many varieties, including one especially decadent rendition in which the cake was deep fried and then swathed in honey. The subsequent rulers of Palestine, the Romans, were hardly slouches when it came to gourmandizing, and they were no less devout than the Greeks in their love of cheesecake. There is a recipe for cheesecake in the Roman statesman Cato’s cookbook, “De Re Rustica,” circa the second century BCE; it is surely the only recipe that you will ever come across, for cheesecake or anything else, that requires 14 pounds of sheep’s milk cheese.

Whenever Jews first encountered cheesecake, by the time they had arrived in Eastern Europe it had become a favored delicacy on Shavuot or for any special dairy meals. In that region, of course, cows are the primary dairy-producing animals, which meant that now the cheesecakes would no longer contain sheep’s milk cheese; the cheesecakes were made instead from soft-curd cheeses, such as cottage cheese or farmer cheese, enriched with eggs and sugar. When the Eastern European Jews immigrated to the United States, they brought their recipes for cheesecake with them, thus setting the stage for what would become the next major innovation in cheesecake making.

That innovation — what the authors of “The Joy of Cheesecake” call “the technological breakthrough that ushered in the Modern Age of Cheesecakes” — took place entirely by accident. In upstate New York in 1872, dairymen were experimenting with a cheese that they hoped would duplicate the popular Neufchâtel cheese of France. The cheese that resulted turned out, unexpectedly, to be far creamier than Neufchâtel, and it was promptly dubbed “cream cheese.” However, cream cheese spoiled quickly, and, for all its obvious appeal, had limited use until James L. Kraft, founder of Kraft Foods, invented a method of pasteurizing cheese in 1912. Even then, cream cheese remained basically a specialty item until about 1920, when the Breakstone Company (formed in the 1880s by Joseph and Isaac Breakstone, né Breghstein, two Jewish immigrants from Lithuania) began mass marketing their Downsville Cream Cheese. Before the decade was out, cream cheese had become a staple of groceries throughout the country, and for the first time it was beginning to appear in the fillings of cheesecakes.

These cheesecakes — from what we might call the “early modern” period — were made from a combination of cream cheese and, after the Eastern European Jewish style, soft-curd cheeses. Curd cheeses, though, could not compete with the sheer richness of cream cheese, and by the 1930s they had fallen away and cream cheese reigned supreme, resulting in what came to be known, no matter where it was produced, as “New York” cheesecake, after the unfathomably rich cheesecakes made famous by such Runyon-era New York nightspots as Lindy’s and Reuben’s.

Since that time, innumerable desserts have come and gone (where are you now, Brown Betty?), but cheesecake never lost its appeal; indeed, ‘it seems to be more popular than ever, even in this cholesterol-conscious age. (A recent New York Times article noted that when representatives of the legendary Brooklyn cheesecake emporium Junior’s appeared on the QVC home shopping network, they sold 70,000 cakes in a single day.) Given such popularity, perhaps it was inevitable that cheesecake would be subjected to the modern American propensity for renovating simple baked goods into three-ring extravaganzas. These days, it seems, the sky’s the limit when it comes to cheesecake, as bakers, like Vegas architects, compete for attention through sheer extravagance. Cheesecake fillings are flavored with ginger and marzipan and coconut and peppermint and whiskey, marbled with chocolate and pumpkin and caramel, studded with raisins and pralines and toffee; toppings can include peanut brittle, candied cherries, chocolate chips, chopped-up Snickers® bars and anything else, it seems, that the baker happens to have stashed away on the back of the pantry shelf. (There’s even deep-fried cheesecake, which is one of the legacies of ancient Greece best left unclaimed.)

All this, it seems to me, is sheer lily gilding. As Shakespeare observed in “King Lear,” “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.” There is scarce improving upon a simple slice of well-made New York cheesecake, with its seductive richness and glamorous gloss: firm but soft, dense but creamy, luxuriously sweet with just a hint of bracing tartness. Perfection, after all, comes not from excess, but from harmony and balance: The Greeks taught us that long ago.

* * *|

This fabulous rendition of New York cheesecake comes from Marty and Irma Shore of (where else?) New York. My favorite serving method is to drizzle individual slices, depending on the season, with a compote made from chopped fresh strawberries or sour cherries (for which canned is fine). Just combine the fruit in a small saucepan with a bit of water and sugar to taste (if you like, add some fresh lemon juice or liqueur for additional flavor) and simmer for approximately 10 minutes, until the mixture thickens slightly.

New York Cheesecake

For crust:

1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs

6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) butter, melted and cooled

2 tablespoons sugar

For filling:

1 1/4 pounds (2 1/2 8-ounce packages) cream cheese

1 cup sugar

1/2 teaspoon salt

4 eggs

1 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) sour cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 teaspoons lemon juice

Strawberry or sour cherry compote for topping (optional)

1. Make the crust: Generously butter the bottom and sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Combine the graham cracker crumbs, sugar and butter in a medium bowl, and mix well. Press the mixture into the bottom, and slightly up the sides, of the prepared pan. Place the pan in the freezer until the crust is firm, five to ten minutes.
2. Make the filling: Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat together the cream cheese, sugar, and salt until smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, letting each become fully incorporated before adding the next. Beat in the sour cream, vanilla and lemon juice, and mix until very smooth, making sure to scrape down the sides of the bowl regularly.
3. Pour the filling into the crust. Place the springform pan inside a large baking pan to catch any drips. Bake for one hour, then turn off the heat and allow the cake to bake for an additional 30 minutes.
4. Open the oven door. Allow the cake to cool for 30 minutes in the oven with the door ajar. Then carefully run a thin knife around the edge of the cake to loosen, and place the springform pan on a wire cooling rack to cool completely. When the cake has cooled, cover it with plastic wrap or aluminum foil and refrigerate for at least six hours or overnight.
5. Remove the sides of the pan, and transfer the cake to a serving platter. If desired, drizzle slices with fruit compote.

Serves 10-12.

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