Creamy, sweet and dense, cheesecake has long had the last word on decadence.
Modern cheesecake is a sweetheart of American cuisine (today, July 30 is their commerce-friendly National Cheesecake Day), but cheesecakes go back to Antiquity.
Athletes at the Ancient Greek Olympics were given cheesecake – a baked concoction of soft white goats or sheep cheese, honey and flour.
Within American cuisine cheesecake has strong associations with New York and Jewish food.
According to Claudia Roden’s The Book of Jewish Food, Jewish people adopted cheesecakes in central and eastern Europe. Many Jews ran small rural dairies, which produced butter, buttermilk, cream cheese and sour cream.
There was a wave of German Jewish emigration to America in the nineteenth century, followed by 2.3 million Russian Jews who emigrated between 1880 and 1920, with a majority setting up in New York.
Life was difficult for the first generation: there was an urban tenement culture with serious overcrowding and exploitative working conditions.
Overcrowding meant leisure time was spent in the streets. Soon hundreds of delis sprouted up serving kosher foods to those with limited kitchen facilities – a deli being both a store that sold cooked foods or a restaurant. Such a prominent feature of street life, delis quickly came to be for all New Yorkers.
“The adoption of bagels as a national bread…. and of cheesecake as the all-American cake symbolises the integration of Jews in American life, and their part in shaping the ethos and character of the country and its largest city,” says Roden.
“Like Italian Americans, Jewish Americans wanted everything to be bigger, richer, and especially sweeter than it was in Europe,” says Joan Nathan, author/presenter of book/TV series Jewish Cooking in America.
Cheesecake was the perfect platform.
Jewish delis like Lindy’s, which opened in 1921 on Broadway, became especially famous for their cheesecake, which even got a reference in the show Guys and Dolls.
Modern cheesecake wouldn’t have become a byword for pure decadence without the smoothness of modern cream cheese. This was invented in New York state in 1872. Eventually, in 1928 and then known as ‘Philadelphia,’ it was bought out by Kraft, who applied their newly patented pasteurisation methods to extend its shelf-life.
In 1947 Kraft issued a recipe for ‘Supreme Cheese Cake,’ which spread around women’s magazines and kicked off cheesecake making at home.
At the same time Daniel Lubin was creating the frozen Sara Lee dessert that pushed cheesecake onto the conveyor belt of the processed food revolution. Second-rate cheesecake has been a stalwart of the world’s supermarket freezers ever since.
Failing to fall out of fashion over the last 100 years, cheesecake has simply evolved into ever more elaborate creations. Even when decadence verges towards trashy (see major American chain The Cheesecake Factory’s layer cakes loaded with trademarked, branded candy here), cheesecake isn’t any less appealing.
How to make good cheesecake
I used Nigella Lawson’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Cheesecake recipe. “I feel a bit apologetic for the overindulgent vulgarity that is this cheesecake here. But, really, why should I be sorry?” asks Nigella. Quite right, the cream cheese peanut butter filling works harmoniously – everyone should try this at least once.
Where to eat good cheesecake
I haven’t got recommendations for Auckland yet, but would welcome non-chainstore suggestions.
If you’re visiting New York, above-mentioned Lindy’s is a mediocre tourist trap now, but Brooklyn’s 1950s Jewish diner Junior’s has an historic reputation for fine cheesecake and great old-school ambiance (it’s also touristy, but it’s not a trap).