I may be a Midwestern girl at heart, but New York has been my home for a few years now. And though I haven’t achieved native New Yorker status (I think figuring out the subway system is a prerequisite; still working on that), I think I’ve earned the right to weigh in on this city’s favorite dessert: cheesecake. While this rich, velvety dessert wasn’t invented in the Big Apple, it was certainly perfected here. And you can add cheesecake to your list of iconic New York dishes to try, along with pizza, bagels, and pastrami on rye. Here’s how cheesecake earned its crown as the King of New York desserts.
As I mentioned in my recent cookbook (which I’m sure you’ve all read multiple times), cheesecake was invented around 4,000 years ago in ancient Greece. More specifically, the cheesecake originated on the Greek island of Samos (which was also home to that famous pleasure-seeker, Epicurus. Coincidence? If he ever had a bite of cheesecake, I think not).
The original cheesecake didn’t look exactly like what you’ll find in diners all over New York, but it was similar enough. Flour, wheat, honey, and cheese were formed into patties and baked on an earthenware griddle. Known for its nutrients, cheesecake was believed to have been served to athletes during the ancient Olympic games. If this tradition were around today, I think we’d have a lot more people signing up for sports!
New York Cheesecake
While cheesecake continued to evolve over the centuries, it became the iconic treat that New Yorkers know and love in the late 1920s. That’s when German immigrant and New York restaurant owner Arnold Rueben developed what became known as the “New York Cheesecake.” Until then, cheesecake (or “cheese pie,” as it was often called) was made with a combination of heavy cream and sour cream, for a thin, silky filling. Reuben’s, on the other hand, was made with cream cheese, giving the dessert its rich, dense (but not too heavy) filling. Like so many other innovations, this style of cheesecake spread outward from the Big Apple, becoming the nation’s preferred cheesecake.
The Crust Question
As with pizza, there is some debate as to what a classic New York cheesecake crust should look and taste like. As you all know, I’m always up for a friendly culinary debate. Many New Yorkers swear by a sturdy graham cracker crust. For the record, this happens to be my crust of choice when I’m chowing down on a vegan cheesecake. That said, I also know a lot of New Yorkers who prefer a softer sponge cake crust. Junior’s – a beloved diner with a few locations across greater New York – can legitimately claim to serve one of the city’s most popular cheesecakes, and they have been using their famous sponge cake crust for decades. To continue this “crusty” old debate, I would love to know which foundation you prefer for your New York cheesecake.
Cheesecake Gone Global
While New York might be the cheesecake capital of the world, there are plenty of other styles to choose from. Close to home, Chicago has its own style of cheesecake (just like with pizza: will the rivalry never end?), which uses less cream cheese and more sour cream for a softer, fluffier texture. Japanese cheesecake, on the other hand, is a crustless variety that uses egg whites for a souffle-like texture and appearance. Meanwhile, in Germany, they use quark – a yogurty cheese similar to our cottage cheese – for their kanekuchen (literally, cheesecake).
There are many other cheesecake varieties in the world, but the classic New York style (with a few vegan tweaks) will always be my favorite. Fewer comfort foods evoke the city I have come to know and love like a velvety slice of cheesecake. I could go on, but I’m afraid I would just sound, well, cheesy (thanks, I’ll be here all week).
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