According to Claudia Roden in her masterwork The Book of Jewish Food: An Odyssey from Samarkand to New York cheese cake was one of the first foods that Jews assimilated from their central European neighbors. And if we stop to consider the way in which we think of cheesecake in America (leaving the eponymous factory out of it) then we see those Jewish roots. New York cheesecake is almost the textbook definition of what a cheesecake is expected to be. Dense, rich, with a hint of citrus or vanilla and able to support a topping of fresh fruit with aplomb. The Jewish origins of the “New York” cheesecake are outlined by Joan Nathan in Jewish Cooking in America there she posits that the best known of the original deli cheesecakes was made by Lindy’s on Broadway. Later the recipe was included by Kraft (another Jewish business) in a promotion for their Philadelphia brand cream cheese. Of course it goes without saying that up to perhaps 20 years ago the best known cheesecake in the country was made by Sara Lee- originally named for the daughter of its baker, Charley Lubin.
My own pivotal cheesecake experience came not in New York, but rather within the confines of my humble little apartment on Milwaukee’s fashionable east side (as we said to ourselves). My parents honored the occasion of the anniversary of my birth with about half a cheesecake from Regina’s. Now you might say to yourself “what, only half!” but it was a fair judgment given the weight and girth of the thing. The cheesecake stood roughly 4-5 in tall, was topped with apricot jam and then covered in a rich dark chocolate shell. Even with the aid of my roommate (a man who regularly ate two meals in a sitting) it took us the better part of a month to polish it off. Thank god for the freezer.
Since then I have been on a quest to create a rich, dense cheesecake without all the frou-frou and additions that pass for sophistication at the shopping center. I tried a number of recipes including the rather interesting process that Alton Brown uses in I’m Just Here for More Food. I had a number of nice cheesecakes but not the white whale I sought. Then I found a new recipe in of course Cook’s Illustrated and tried that.
Recipe after the break