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
from Cook’s Illustrated The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition
5 tb butter
8 whole graham crackers
1 tb sugar
9 inch spring-form pan
2.5 lbs cream cheese (room temp)
1/8 tsp salt
1.5 cups sugar
1/3 cup sour cream
2 tsp lemon juice
2 tsp vanilla
2 egg yolks + 6 eggs (all at room temp)
Crust: Preheat oven to 325. Pound or process crackers to a fine crumb. Combine with melted butter (reserving some to grease the spring-form pan) and sugar. Press into the pan using a small ramekin to make an even surface. Place in oven for 12-15 min until brown at the edges. Remove to cool and turn oven up to 500.
Filling: Chunk cream cheese and place in a stand mixer. Beat cream cheese until smooth scraping as needed on low. Add the salt and half the sugar beating until well blended at low-medium. Add the rest of the sugar scraping as you need to. Then add the lemon, vanilla and sour cream, continue to mix. When these have been incorporated add the eggs, starting with the yolks and working in two at a time until the final product is smooth and even in color.
Baking: Pour filling into pan, place on a rimmed sheet pan to catch any leaks and place in oven. Bake at 500 for 10 minutes. Turn heat down to 200 (without opening the door) and cook another hour to 90 minutes until the cake is 150 measured at the center.
Allow to cool 3 hours on a counter, another 3 hours in the fridge. Serve with fruit or a small drizzle of liquor.