Cheesecake is the stereotypical bad boy of the dessert world: gorgeous without trying too hard, and addictive with an uncertain past as alluring as its taste. Typically made as a luscious cheese-based filling with a cookie crust, and sometimes swirled or topped with chocolate or berries, it’s one of the most recognizable desserts in the country. While many people believe that this decadent treat originated in New York City—and understandably so, as it is the Big Apple’s signature dessert—accounts of cakes made of cheese date back to ancient Greece.
One of the first recorded recipes, dated in the first century and called “libum,” is a far cry from the creamy cake we know today. Calling for two pounds of “well crushed” cheese mixed with flour and a single egg, this version was formed into a loaf and baked in a hot fire under a brick. A similar incarnation featured honey and was served to the first Olympic athletes as a source of energy before the games. When Greece was conquered by Rome, the recipe for libum was among the spoils of war. The Romans referred to their take on cheesecake, somewhat unappetizingly, as “placenta.” These ancient cakes were considered delicacies and, as such, were often given as tribute to the gods and served by brides to grooms at weddings as a token of love.
As Roman influence spread, so did the prevalence of recipes referring to cakes made of cheese. Through the centuries, cheesecake has surfaced in many forms. Some savory versions featured yeast rather than eggs, while some sweet varieties literally dripped in honey. The cheesecake we know today began to take shape after the development of creamy Neufchâtel cheese in France. Colonists brought cheesecake to the New World, and in 1872, a New York dairy farmer’s attempt to recreate this soft French cheese went awry, resulting in the creation of what Americans know as cream cheese—and the cheesecake game was changed forever.
In present times, cheesecake still exists in multiple forms. German cheesecake is made with quark, a sour cream-like dairy product. Italian cheesecake depends on ricotta for its creamy base. Philadelphia’s is known for being lighter and creamier than other variations, while Chicago’s adds sour cream to enhance the texture. Some versions use water baths while others don’t involve baking at all, thanks to the use of gelatin to set the top layer. However, the most widely familiar—and most vehemently supported—version of cheesecake in America is the iconic New York cheesecake.
Arnold Reuben, owner of Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen and The Turf Restaurant, is credited with creating the New York cheesecake in the 1920s. His cheesecake recipe, also known as Jewish cheesecake thanks to his heritage and the recipe’s kosher ingredients, was allegedly a favorite of actors and actresses seeking late night indulgence after shows. In 1950, Junior’s opened in Brooklyn and has been a king among New York cheesecake makers ever since. “My grandfather said, ‘If you’re going to open a restaurant in New York, you’ve got to have great cheesecake,’” says Alan Rosen, third-generation owner at Junior’s.
Over the years, scores of restaurants and bakeries would follow this thought and tout their cheesecake as New York cheesecake. But what does that mean? That depends on whom you ask.
“New York cheesecake is pure, undiluted cheesecake,” says Eileen Avezzano, founder and owner of famed Eileen’s Special Cheesecake in Lower Manhattan, where New Yorkers have gotten their decadent fix for more than 35 years. “The ingredients are traditionally cream cheese, sour cream or heavy cream, fresh eggs, lemon, vanilla, a little sugar, and a graham cracker crust.” Some New York cheesecake spots, like Junior’s, forbid using sour cream. Allison Robicelli, co-owner of Robicelli’s Bakery, emphasizes preparation over ingredients. “It needs to be prepared in a hot water bath. That’s non-negotiable,” she insists. “Without the water bath it will overcook.” Allison also asserts that a cheesecake should sit a minimum of two days, but preferably four, giving it “time to age, which gives the cake the distinctive flavor and texture associated with New York style.” Another requirement? No toppings, swirls, or extra fuss allowed, thank you very much.
Perhaps more interesting than the numerous variations is the cheesecake’s infusion into pop culture. It’s made appearances in beloved syndicated television sitcoms like Friends and Golden Girls, with frequent cameo appearances in the latter during deep, late-night chats between the main characters. Like Blanche, Sophia, Dorothy, and Rose, many German housewives adopted cheesecake as the dessert of choice for their weekly Kaffeeklatsch (coffee gossip) or Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake). It has even been incorporated by many Jews into the observation of Shavuot, the commemoration of the giving of the Torah. Others say references to the “Land of Milk and Honey” in the Torah made consumption of dairy products permissible, therefore many eat dairy—especially cheesecake—to celebrate it now. We may never know the exact story, but one thing is for certain: cheesecake is a dessert belonging to all cultures.
Get our recipe for classic New York Style Cheesecake here!