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Cheesecake: A History

May 9, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Surprising facts about this popular Jewish dish, as well as recipes from around the world, including Lindy's famous cheesecake.

Cheesecake has a long history, with origins in ancient times.Here are three little-known facts about cheesecake, as well as some ly Jewish cheesecake recipes.

Origins in Ancient Greece

The first cooks to bake cheesecake seem to have been the ancient Greeks, who considered cakes made with cheese to be a potent source of strength. Greek athletes were fed cheesecake to aid their performance, and cheesecake was served at the first Olympic Games in 776 BCE.Cheesecake also became the wedding cake of choice amongst ancient Greek couples tying the knot. Ancient molds for some of these early cheesecakes have been discovered on the Greek island of Samos, which claims ownership of the dish.

When the Romans conquered Greek territories, it seems they adopted the Greek love for cheesecake. Cato the Elder was a famous Roman statesman, soldier, historian and farmer who wrote a guide to running a farm in about 160 BCE. This work, Di Agricultura, contains no fewer than eight recipes for cheesecake!

Cato also provided a recipe for a modern seeming cheesecake called placinta, incorporating a crust with a soft, sweet cheese filling.The name placintahas been linked to stuffed pastries in other cuisines such as Armenian plagindi, Hungarian palacsintaand Austrian palatschinken.

Medieval Jewish Cheesecakes

Cookbook author Joan Nathan posits that cheesecake originated in the Middle East and was brought to Europe by Crusaders in the Middle Ages. Cheesecake “probably originated” in Middle Eastern kitchens as cooks “learned to place soured cream in a bag, hang it up, and allow it to drain. To the curd that formed, they added honey, lemon peel, and egg yolks, as well as some more soured cream they then baked the cakes, which were probably rather lumpy.” (Quoted in Joan Nathan’s Jewish Holiday Cookbook, Schocken Books: 2004).

Whatever the method of cheesecake’s spread, it’s clear that cakes and pies made with a sweet cheese filling were popular throughout Europe in the Middle Ages and that in some areas, cheesecake was considered a Jewish delicacy.

In Germany, cheesecake seems to have originated as a Jewish food.Food historian Gil Marks notes that a cheese-filled pastry called fludenwas popular with Jewish living in Germanic lands in the early Middle Ages.Fludenspread from Jewish chefs to non-Jewish bakers throughout Germany and then to Eastern Europe.

Italian Jews also had their own version of cheesecake: casciola, from the Italian word for cheese. Made of soft ricotta cheese mixed with eggs, sugar and flavorings then baked, casciolaseems closely related to ancient Roman cheeses. Italian Jewish food writer Alessandra Rovati notes that casciolabecame popular with non-Jewish Italians in the 1600s.While this luscious cheesecake is a popular dish for Italian Jews living in Rome to serve on the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, non-Jewish Italians consider it an unofficial national holiday dish and like to serve it at Christmas.

Bringing Cheesecake to America

Cheesecakes were popular in England, where they were often flavored with alcohol and herbs. These versions spread to Colonial America – but it was German Jewish immigrants who popularized the sweet type of cheesecake that is popular in the United States today.

In 1923, Fannie Ferberg Fox published a popular cookbook. A Jewish writer living in Boston, Fannie was the elder sister of Edna Ferber, the famous author who wrote Showboat. Fannie Fox’s Cook Bookcontained many German-Jewish recipes from the family’s past, and introduced the concept of making cheesecake using cottage cheese to American kitchen. Edna wrote an introduction to the cookbook and noted “Some of the recipe herein are called from the finest of the Jewish cookery, which for delicacy and flavor, cannot be excelled. The crumbling and toothsome torte made from the humble cottage one of these.”

Arnold Reuben

Soon, another Jewish chef in America would transform cheesecake into a distinctly American dish. Arnold Reuben was a German Jew who moved to New York and opened the famous Reuben’s Restaurant there in 1908. He’s credited with inventing the Reuben Sandwich, as well as other iconic dishes – including American cheesecake, made with cream cheese instead of cottage cheese, ricotta or yogurt.

“We were the first ones to have the original cream cheesecake at Reuben’s Restaurant,” his son, Arnold Reuben, Jr., reminisced. “We made it with Breakstone’s cream cheese with whole eggs and cream. Everybody else was making cheesecake with cottage cheese in those days. In 1929 we won the Gold Medal in the World’s Fair for our cake.” (Quoted in Jewish Cooking in Americaby Joan Nathan, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.: 1994).

Reuben accused Leo Linderman, another German-born Jewish restaurateur, of copying his cream-cheese based recipe and making it his own. Lindeman owned Lindy’s, a storied Jewish delicatessen on Broadway in New York which marketed its cheesecake – made with only Philadelphia brand cream cheese – as its iconic dish. Sometimes topped with strawberry, Lindy’s cheesecake became the gold-standard of “New York Style” cheesecakes, and was synonymous with Jewish cooking.

New York style Jewish cheesecake went national in the 1950s, when Charles W. Lubin, a Jewish baker in Chicago, left his job to start his own baking company; he named it after his daughter, Sara Lee. The very first item Sara Lee produced was New York Jewish-style cheesecake, thick and rich, and made with cream cheese instead of older cheesecake recipes. Originally sold fresh to local grocery stores, in 1954 Lubin joined the new wave of frozen food producers in the United States, and started selling frozen cheesecakes across the country, bringing Jewish-style pastries to towns and villages across the nation.

Here are some delectable Jewish cheesecake recipes from around the world.

Rome – Cassola

Jews in Rome have been known for baking the mouthwatering cheesecake called Cassolaever since the Middle Ages.

  • 1 lb. ricotta cheese (made from whole milk, without emulsifiers)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 to 1 ½ cup sugar (depending on desired sweetness)
  • Pinch of salt
  • Zest of one large oganiclemon (optional)
  • ½ t cinnamon or vanilla (optional)
  • 1 or 2 mild extra-virgin olive oil, or butter
  1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. With a whisk or a hand mixer, beat the eggs with the sugar until creamy. Add the ricotta, salt, lemon zest and cinnamon (or vanilla).
  2. Grease a 9-10 inch springform pan with butter or olive oil, dust with flour, pour the mixture in, and transfer to the pre-heated oven. Bake at 400 degrees F for the first 10 minutes, then lower the temperature to 350 degrees F and bake for another 25 minutes.
  3. Turn off the oven and allow the cassolato set inside, with the door open, for another 10 or 15 minutes. It should be firmer and golden brown on the outside and very soft and moist inside, like a pudding. Serve warm.

You can also cook it in a greed non-stick or cast iron pan like a frittata, on the stovetop, flipping it once (this was probably the original version), or cook the bottom on the stovetop and the top in the oven under the broiler.

Recipe courtesy of Alessandra Rovati.

Jerusalem – Kodafa

Photo: Angela Baker

In Israel and throughout the Middle East, Kodafais a popular creamy, rich, and very sweet cheesecake. This version adapts this complicated dish to make it suitable for home cooks.

  • 1 – ½ cups couscous
  • 2 ¼ cups boiling water
  • Scant 1 cup butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 egg, lightly beaten
  • Pinch of salt
  • 1 ¾ cups ricotta cheese
  • 6-7 oz cheese, such as mozzarella, Taleggio or Monterey Jack, grated or finely chopped
  • 1 ½ cups clear honey
  • 2-3 pinches of saffron threads or ground cinnamon
  • ½ cup water
  • 1 t flower water or lemon juice
  • 6 T roughly chopped shelled pistachio nuts
  1. Put the couscous in a large bowl and pour over the boiling water. Stir together with a fork, then leave to soak for about 30 minutes until the water has been completely absorbed.
  2. When the couscous is cool enough to handle, break up all the lumps with your fingers.
  3. Stir the butter into the couscous, then stir in the beaten egg and salt.
  4. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Spread half the couscous into a 10-12 inch round pan.
  5. In a bowl, combine the cheeses and 2 T of the honey. Spread on top of the couscous, then top with the remaining couscous. Press down gently and bake for 10-15 minutes.
  6. Meanwhile, put the remaining honey, saffron threads or cinnamon, and the water in a pan. Bring to the boil, then boil for 5-7 minutes, or until the liquid forms a syrup. Remove from the heat and stir in the orange flower water or lemon juice.
  7. When the kodafa is cooked, place under the broiler and cook until it is lightly browned on top and a golden crust is formed.
  8. Sprinkle the pistachio nuts on top of the kodafa. Serve warm, cut into wedges, with the syrup.

(From Jewish Food for Festivals and Special Occasionsby Marlena Spieler. Anness Publishing Ltd.: 2003.)

New York – Lindy’s Famous Cheesecake

In 1977, the food writer Craig Claiborne lamented in The New York Timesthat the recipe for Lindy’s famous cheesecake had “disappeared off the face of the earth”. However, in recent years some modern cookbook writers have tracked down the original Lindy’s recipe, with help from Leo Linderman’s descendants. Here’s the original version that helped make New York Cheesecake an American icon in the 1930s.

Cookie Crust:

  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • ¼ cup sugar
  • 1 t grated lemon rind
  • ½ t vanilla extract
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, chilled and cut into ¼ inch bits

Cheese Filling:

  • 1 ¼ lbs. softened cream cheese
  • ¾ cup sugar
  • 1 ½ T flour
  • 1 ½ t grated lemon rind
  • 1 t grated orange rind
  • ½ t vanilla extract
  • 3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk
  • 2 T heavy cream
  1. To make the crust, place the flour, sugar, grated lemon rind, vanilla extract, egg yolk, and butter in a large mixing bowl. With your fingertips, rub the ingredients together until they are well mixed and can be gathered into a ball. You can also whirl the ingredients in a food processor. Dust with a little flour, wrap in waxed paper, and refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
  2. Place the chilled dough in an ungreased 9 inch springform pan. With your hands, pat and spread the dough evenly over the bottom and about 2 inches up the side of the pan. Bake in the center of a preheated 450 degree F oven for 10 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool to room temperature.
  3. Lower the oven temperature to 300 degrees. To make the filling, place the cream cheese in a large mixing bowl and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until it is creamy and smooth. Beat in the sugar, a few tablespoons at a time, and when it is well incorporated, beat in the flour, lemon and orange rinds, vanilla extract, eggs and egg yolk, and heavy cream.
  4. Pour the filling into the cooked cookie crust and bake in the center of the oven for 1 hour or until a toothpick comes out clean when put in the center. Then remove from the oven and set aside to cool in the pan. Then demold.
  5. Refrigerate the cheesecake for at least 3 hours before serving.

(From Jewish Cooking in Americaby Joan Nathan, Alfred A. Knopf: 1998.)

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