Think Cheesecake, and you automatically think of the creamy, textural New York version of this rich dessert. Because let’s accept it, there’s New York Cheesecake and then there are the rest. In the New York version of the dessert too, there are two variants – NY creamy cheesecake and NY baked. My preferences tilt slightly in favour of the latter. But that’s not to say I don’t gorge on the creamy variety every opportunity I get. Every mouthful of this layered dessert gets me wondering – ‘how does this taste so bloody good?’
So, I decided to delve deeper into the origin and process that lends this iconic dessert quite an unmatchable mix of flavours. Here’s what I learnt:
They say that the first-ever cheesecake (which was quite nothing like the ones we are used to eating today) was created on island of Samos in Greece back in 2,000 BC. The first recorded recipe of the ancient Greek version of the cheesecake dates back to 230 AD, almost 2,000 years after the Greeks started indulging in this dessert.
The Romans conquered Greece and their empire expanded, and with that, the recipes travelled far and wide, and ultimately reaching across Europe, including Great Britain. With European immigration to America, these recipes landed up in the newfound land of Columbus. You know the typical Greece-Britain-America back story attributed to most popular recipes of modern times.
Since cheesecakes from all these centuries ago were a far cry from the finesse and technique involved in creating one today, we can move on with due credit to the Greeks for thinking of mixing pounded cheese with honey and flour in those ancient times.
New York Cheesecake Takes Form
Even though the concept of using cream cheese in cakes was introduced in 1909 in The Boston Cooking-School Magazine, Americans preferred to makes their cheesecakes with curd cheese instead until the early 1930s. The person widely credited with making the very first version of the modern-day New York Cheesecake was Arnold Reuben, an immigrant of German-Jewish origins who ran several restaurants in Manhattan.
He substituted curds in cheese pie recipes with cream cheese and tinkered about with the ingredients resulting in the creation of the first even New York cheesecake, which enjoyed great following among some renowned patrons and was extensively imitated by Reuben’s business rivals.
If Reuben is credited with giving New York and the world a cheesecake made with cream cheese, Lindy’s Restaurant on Broadway near 50th Street is known for bringing it in the limelight it deserved. The restaurant featured a cheesecake with a creamy texture and finished with a topping of strawberries in a gel.
America’s first food journalist Clementine Paddleford shared what was believed to be Lindy’s recipe in an edition of the Los Angeles Times, and headlined it ‘Here’s the Recipe for a Broadway Favorite, held Secret Till Now’. The recipe that talks about a mix of cream cheese and heavy cream set on a ‘cookie dough’ crust that remains one of the first closest descriptions of modern-day New York Cheesecake put out in public.
Over the years, bakers continued to experiment with this classic recipe, where the original pastry crust was first replaced by a layer finely crushed zwieback and then graham cracker crumbs. Many even experimented with sour cream instead of heavy cream, as it enhanced the tanginess as well as the creamy texture of the dessert. The addition of sour cream to cheesecakes almost overlapped with the advent of refrigerated grocery cases and small containers for packaging.
These factors worked well together to propel this dessert’s popularity in America during the 1950s, and eventually, across the world. The US loves its New York cheesecake so much that July 30 has been recognised as the National Cheesecake Day in the country!
The flavour of a classic New York cheesecake can be best described as a very light and creamy cake on top of a thin and crisp crust. The texture of this cheesecake is sensually creamy with very apparent tangy overtones derived from sour cream, cream cheese and lemon juice. Aficionados prefer their cheesecake unadulterated, while a large segment of fans like it with flavourings such as chocolate, white chocolate, blueberry, cookie, and strawberry.
The New York cheesecake prepared for the calorie-conscious often uses labneh or Yogurt cheese instead of low-fat cream cheese, as the latter gives an overtly firm texture and sense of heaviness to dessert. Eggs (egg yolks, primarily) pay a key role in bringing structure, moistness and creaminess to this cheesecake. However, the addition of too many yolks can quickly transform a cheesecake into a custard-like pudding.
The best way to whip up a delectable creamy New York-style cheesecake is to let the mix of cream cheese, sour cream and eggs sit at room temperature for at least thirty minutes before setting it in the refrigerator. In the New York baked version, this mixture in baked in the oven for approximately an hour and then left to set before being chilled. A lot of professionals recommend baking it in a water bath as opposed to tossing it in the oven directly for the creamiest texture possible.
Oh boy, I wish I had a slice of cheesecake by my side as I sat down to write this. Overcome with major cravings right now. How about you?