By Gil Marks
The history of cheesecake and a traditional recipe for New York Cheesecake
from food historian Gil Marks on The History Kitchen
“I’m quite partial to Mindy’s Cheesecake.”
—Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls (1950)
Cheesecakes are baked custards -— a relatively simple balance of soft cheese, eggs, sugar, and a few flavorings –- typically atop a cookie or pastry base. There are four basic types of cheesecake, the variety and even brand of cheese affecting the texture and taste: Curd, such as farmer, pot, or cottage cheese; ricotta (Italian cheesecake); quark (German cheesecake); and cream cheese (New York cheesecake). In addition, there is an unbaked chiffon-like version (French cheesecake).
The ancient Greeks, by the fifth century BC, made the earliest known rudimentary cheesecakes (plakous meaning “flat mass”), consisting of patties of fresh cheese pounded smooth with flour and honey and cooked on an earthenware griddle. In late medieval Europe, cheesecake remerged in tart form with a pastry base. The first English cookbook, The Forme of Cury (c. 1390), consisting of a collection of medieval English recipes compiled by the cooks of King Richard II, included two cheese tarts: “Sambocade,” containing curd cheese, egg whites, rosewater, and elder flowers, and “Tart de Bry” (the word bry was derived from Old Norman for “pounded,” referring to the method of preparing the cheese) made with ruayn (a semi-soft autumn cows’ cheese), egg yolks, and ground ginger. For the ensuing five centuries, almost every subsequent English cookbook contained at least one cheesecake recipe.
Considering the enduring English love of cheesecake, it is hardly surprising to find them in the American colonies. By the 1730s, Philadelphia boasted the “Cheesecake House” tavern. Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats (c. 1625, given to her upon her wedding to her first husband, Daniel Custis, in 1749) offered three cheesecakes and a baked “Curd Pudding,” the latter being a cheesecake without a crust -— all flavored with rosewater, spices, and currants and baked in pastry crusts. Eliza Leslie in Seventy-Five Receipts for Pastry, Cakes, and Sweetmeats (Boston, 1828) provided “A Cheesecake” also accented with rosewater, spices, and currants. In the 19th century, subtler lemon and/or vanilla replaced rosewater and spices as the predominant cheesecake flavoring. The basis of many American cheesecakes dramatically changed in the 1930s from curd cheese -— producing a light, fluffier, slightly coarse texture and somewhat bland flavor -— to a much creamier and richer treat — due to cream cheese.
Cream cheese is a soft unaged cheese with a mild flavor and slight tang. Any citation of “cream cheese” before 1875 (such as Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery) referred to “slip-coat cheese,” rich milk and heavy cream mixed with a little rennet, coagulated, drained, then left to ripen in muslin or cabbage leaves for several days until the exterior dried to form a loose rind encasing a creamy interior. In 1872, William A. Lawrence, a dairyman in Chester, New York (Orange County), imitated a neighbor’s Neufchatel, a soft, crumbly, unripened cow’s milk cheese. Three years later, a New York grocery firm approached Lawrence about making a richer version, inducing him to add a large amount of heavy cream to create a lusher, silkier, and more spreadable cheese, dubbing it “cream cheese.”
An early use of cream cheese in cakes was included in the August-September 1909 issue of The Boston Cooking-School Magazine as small “Cheese Cakes,” instructing “Press enough Neufchatel or cream cheese through a ricer…” “Cream Cheese Pie (Kaeskuchen)” and “Cream Cheese Cake” appeared in The Twentieth Century Book for the Progressive Baker, Confectioner, Ornamenter, and Ice Cream Maker By Fritz Gienandt (Boston, 1912). Nevertheless, most Americans continued to prefer their cheesecakes with curd cheese until, in the early 1930s, cream cheese-based versions became the rage of New York City. Essential to spurring the use of cream cheese in cakes was the addition by producers in the late 1920s of stabilizers -— without them the cheese tends to break up during baking, resulting in a grainy texture.
Credited with introducing the new “New York cheesecake” was Arnold Reuben, a German-Jewish immigrant who owned a succession of Manhattan restaurants. Reuben also claimed to have created in 1914 the famous Reuben sandwich, consisting of rye bread spread with Russian dressing and topped with sauerkraut and slices of corned beef and Swiss cheese, then grilled on both sides. Reuben recounted how, after sampling a cheese pie in 1929 at a dinner party, he acquired the recipe from the hostess, then tinkered with the ingredients, substituting cream cheese for curds. When Reuben’s innovative cheesecake was served to high profile clientele at his restaurants in the 1930s, it garnered extensive renown and imitation by rival delis.
If Reuben introduced cream cheese cheesecake to New York, Lindy’s Restaurant put it in the limelight. In August 1921, Leo “Lindy” Lindemann and his wife Clara, eight years after he arrived in Manhattan from Berlin, Germany, opened a deli on Broadway near 50th Street in Manhattan, the heart of the Theater District. Lindy’s featured a creamy cheesecake topped with strawberries in a gel. Rumor asserted that Lindy hired Reuben’s baker to procure the top secret recipe, although the two cakes were not identical. Clementine Paddleford, America’s first food journalist, in the October 3, 1948 edition of the Los Angeles Times in an article “Here’s the Recipe for a Broadway Favorite, held Secret Till Now”, claimed to offer Lindy’s recipe from his chef Paul Landry. Paddleford’s version -— containing cream cheese and heavy cream and baked in a “cookie dough” crust — remains the most reliable of any “Lindy’s Cheesecake” recipe. Author Damon Runyon frequented Lindy’s and incorporated it into some of his stories as “Mindys.” In 1950, when Frank Loesser, Abe Burrows, and Jo Swerling transformed Runyon’s “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown” into the musical “Guys and Dolls,” Lindy’s cheesecake was immortalized as Nathan Detroit attempted to entice Sky Masterson to wager on whether Mindy’s sold more cheesecake or apple strudel.
Bakers in New York City continued to experiment with their cheesecakes. A crust of finely crushed zwieback frequently replaced the pastry, which in turn was widely supplanted by another American innovation, graham cracker crumbs. Many found cream cheese in conjunction with the eastern European sour cream produced the creamiest texture and interesting tang, and froze better. Too much sour cream overwhelms the cream cheese’s flavor. An early recipe for cheesecake made with sour cream was “Katish’s Cheese Cake” in Katish, Our Russian Cook by Wanda Frolov (New York, 1947), explaining: “The crumb crust will be thin and crisp and the cake very light and creamy.” The use of sour cream in cheesecakes corresponds to its spread in America thanks to the emergence of refrigerated grocery cases and packaging in small plastic containers.
In 1949, Charles W. Lubin left a small baking business and founded his own company in Chicago, named after his then eight-year-old daughter, Sara Lee. His first product was a New York-style cheesecake, sold fresh to local supermarkets. Five years later, after discovering a way to quick-freeze his product, the company went nationwide as did the presence of cream cheese cheesecake. New York cheesecake emerged as one of America’s favorite treats, found on the menu of many eateries and in grocery store freezers and on bakery shelves. Some couples even opt for it as their wedding cake. Cheesecake appeared more than 100 times during the seven-year run of the popular tv sitcom Golden Girls. July 30 became National Cheesecake Day and April 23 National Cherry Cheesecake Day.
A genuine New York cheesecake is sensually creamy, yet dense (detractors say heavy) with a slightly tangy flavor derived from cream cheese, lemon juice, sour cream, and vanilla. Many aficionados insist on unadulterated cheesecake, while others enjoy various flavorings (notably chocolate, white chocolate, amaretto, banana, cookie, dulce de leche, key lime, pumpkin, strawberry, and turtle). Low-fat cream cheese produces an overly firm texture as well as leaves a heavy feeling in the mouth. Yogurt cheese (labaneh), made by straining plain yogurt, provides an acceptable lower-fat substitute. Eggs add to the cake’s creaminess, moistness, and structure; too many yolks produce a custard-like texture. Some add a little flour or cornstarch to the filling for structure and stability, but it detracts from the creaminess. Let the cream cheese, sour cream, and eggs stand at room temperature for at least thirty minutes before using. After adding the eggs, do not over beat or the air will cause a crack in the center. Baking at too high of a temperature or overbaking also contributes to cracking. Baking in a water bath produces the creamiest texture.
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- 1 1/2 cups ground graham cracker, biscotti, chocolate wafers, vanilla wafers, or zwieback (6 ounces/170 grams)
- 2 tbsp granulated sugar (1 ounce/25 grams)
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon (optional)
- 6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted (¾ stick/3 ounces/85 grams)
- 3 cups cream cheese, softened (24 ounces/680 grams)
- 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar (10.5 ounces/300 grams)
- 2-3 tbsp fresh lemon juice
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 4 large eggs (¾ cup/7 ounces/200 grams)
- 2 cups sour cream or plain Greek yogurt (16 fluid ounces/17 ounces/480 grams)
Cherry Topping Ingredients (Optional)
- 2 cups (bottled, canned, or frozen) pitted sour cherries, drained, reserving ½ cup liquid (14.5 ounces/415 grams)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- pinch salt
- 1 tbsp lemon juice or 1/4 tsp almond extract
- 3 drops red food coloring (optional)
Strawberry Topping Ingredients (Optional)
- 1 cup crushed strawberries (5.25 ounces/150 grams)
- 1 cup water (8.25 ounces/230 grams)
- 1/2 - 3/4 cup granulated sugar
- pinch salt
- 2 tbsp cornstarch dissolved in 1 tablespoon water
- 3 drops red food coloring (optional)
- 2 cups fresh strawberries, halved (optional)
Sour Cream Topping (optional)
- 1 1/2 cups sour cream (12 fluid ounces/12.75 ounces/360 grams)
- 1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, or 3 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 3/4 tsp vanilla extract
You will also need
- nonstick cooking spray, 9 inch springform pan, mixing bowl, hand mixer, large roasting pan (for water bath)
- To make the crust: Grease the sides of a 9-inch springform pan. Combine the crumbs, sugar, and, if using, cinnamon, then stir in the melted butter.
- Press into the bottom of the prepared pan and chill.
- Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350°F. If baking the cake in a water bath, double-wrap the outside of the pan with heavy-duty foil. Otherwise place a pan of water on the bottom shelf.
- To make the filling: In a medium bowl, beat the cream cheese until smooth, frequently scraping down the sides, about 5 minutes.
- Add the sugar and beat until light, about 3 minutes.
- Blend in the lemon juice, vanilla, and salt, occasionally scraping down the sides.
- Beat in the eggs, one at a time.
- Fold in the sour cream.
- Pour into the prepared pan. If using a water bath, place the springform pan in a larger pan (it should not touch the sides of the larger pan), place on the oven rack, and add cool water to the larger pan to reach halfway up the sides. Bake (do not open the oven) until firm and lightly browned around the edges and 150°F in the center (2 inches in the center will jiggle slightly but will firm during cooling), about 1¼ hours.
- Turn off the oven, open the door, and let the cake stand in the oven for 30 minutes.
- Place the pan on a wire rack, run a thin-bladed knife around the edge of the cake, and let cool completely, about 2 hours. Cover with plastic wrap or an inverted large bowl and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or up to 4 days or freeze for up to 2 months. Let stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving. If using, cover the top with a topping (recipes follow). Dental floss held taut cuts cheesecake smoother than a knife.
- To prepare cherry topping: In a medium saucepan, combine the sugar, cornstarch, and salt.
- Stir in the reserved liquid. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until bubbly, thickened, and translucent, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon juice, food coloring, and cherries. Let cool to room temperature.
- To prepare strawberry topping: In a medium saucepan, bring the crushed strawberries and water to a boil. Press through a sieve and return to the pan. Add the sugar and salt and return to a boil. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook, stirring constantly, until bubbly and thickened, about 5 minutes. If using, stir in the food coloring. Let cool to room temperature.
- To prepare sour cream topping: Combine the sour cream, sugar, and vanilla until smooth.