I have always loved making (and eating) Cheesecake. Part of my recent research has been on Jewish holiday food and identity. Eventually I plan to make a series of hands-on cooking/history/dinner/discussion classes out of it. Quite aside from the textual stuff, I’ve been pretty surprised by the history of cheesecake, here is an excerpt….
New York Cheesecake, like many of New York’s Jews, is a European import with a new world twist. It is closely related to the German kaesekuchen but with a flamboyant American twist. The dessert had already been making the rounds in Ashkenazi circles dating back to about 1,000 CE, around the time that Cholent entered the scene as well. The dish even has its own Yiddish proverb, Gomolkes ken men nit makhn fun shney, meaning “you can’t make cheesecake from snow.” It is roughly the equivalent of “you can’t get blood from a stone.”
Why it became the paragon of Shavuot foods is a matter of some debate; however, it has a storied history within American gastronomy. It has a particular association with Judaism as it play out in popular culture. Since it has “cheese” right in the name, it is a natural move for Shavuot.
While Cheesecake has a history going back to ancient Greece, the popular “New York” version has a particularly Jewish providence. Like Cream Cheese, the New York Cheesecake is a product of the late 19th century and spread like wildfire through the United States, eventually being exported to the rest of the world. Legend has it that the Cream Cheese based Cheesecake was invented by Arnold Reuben (also the inventor of the Reuben Sandwich) for his Manhattan deli.
Due to its association with Jewish gastronomy, Cheesecake has become the food for Shavuot par excellance. While many Jewish holidays have emphasized meat consumption particularly, Shavuot has a custom of eating dairy dishes such barkas, blintzes, and especially Cheesecake. The laws of Kashrut do not permit the eating of milk and meat products in the same meal, and the custom of eating dairy for Shavuot therefore excludes meat products. The reason for this practice may (like Shavuot itself) be agriculturally based. Spring was the time when young animals were able to graze and so there was a large amount of available dairy around Shavuot time.
In the last century-and-a-half, New York Cheesecake has become a major Jewish contribution to the culinary landscape of the United States. While various other forms of Cheesecake were already in existence, a custard of Cream Cheese is a Jewish original. The dish has become so popular that it even birthed a chain of restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory, made famous by its varieties of the dish.
Jewish tradition assigns many legal and mystical reasons for the consumption of dairy products on Shavuot. This chapter will explore the particular mixture of halachic, cultural, and historical reasons that New York Cheesecake has become a cornerstone of this Spring celebration.
Jason’s Cheesecake recipe:
2 packages (8 oz) Cream Cheese
3/4 cup sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsp grated lemon peel
1 cup sour cream
2 tbs brown sugar
2 tbs vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups graham cracker
3 tbs sugar
1/3 cup melted butter
- Place graham crackers into a ziplock bag and crush.
- Add remaining crust ingredients and mix well
- Pour into 9” pie pan, smooth, and bake 10 minutes at 350 degrees
- In a large bowl beat cream cheese lightly
- Mix in eggs, sugar, vanilla extract, and lemon peel
- Spread evenly inside cooled pie crust
- Bake 25 minutes or until firm
- Cool in refrigerator for at least 4 hours
- Spread topping and add fruit if desired, and serve