Cheesecake as we know it

What is cheesecake?

In the fourth century BCE, Greeks prepared griddle cakes with curd cheese, flour and honey. The Romans also made cheesecakes on a griddle, although some were baked in a crust.
In late medieval Italy, cakes were made from curd cheese, milk, eggs, sugar, butter and ginger that were similar to a cheese tart, with a crust and a soft custard filling. By around 1000CE fluden, a cheese filled pastry, was popular among Franco-German Jews. As it spread in Germany and eastern Europe, the filling became deeper and top crust was omitted.

As they say in Yiddish:

Mit shney ken men nit makhn gomolkes.

From snow you can’t make cheesecake.

In the mid-19th century, immigrants brought the German kaesekuchen (cheese cake) to America. These were generally made with cottage cheese or curd cheese, producing a heavier, coarser texture. Cheesecake in America relates the to the development, production and distribution of sour cream. In 1872 William Lawrence (Chester, NY) added too much heavy cream to a batch of Neufchatel cheese and created a richer, silkier cheese, which he called “cream cheese.” Previous references to cream cheese would have been a heavy cream strained through a muslin cloth and then left to dry for several days.

In 1880 C. D. Reynolds purchased Empire Cheese Company in South Edmeston, NY (near Chester) and launched the production of Philadelphia brand cream cheese and packaged it in tin foil wrappers. In 1907 the Breakstone Brothers (Isaac and Joseph Bregstein of Panemune, Lithuania) were manufacturing cream cheese in a small plant in Brooklyn. In 1920 they opened a larger factory in Downsville, NY and began mass marketing it.

Often a simple crust from crushed zwieback was popular, and supplanted in the late 1903’s by the American innovation of the graham cracker. In the 1930’s Jews in New York City substituted cream cheese and sour cream for the curd cheese, creating the New York or Jewish cheesecake.

Among those who claim credit for the creation of the cheesecake is Arnold Reuben (1883-1970), credited with creating the Reuben sandwich. A German Jewish immigrant, he owded a succession of Manhattan restaurants. His cheesecakes where served at Turf restaurant in the 1940’s to hig-profile clientele and often copied by other restaurants. Outside of New York, in 1949, Charles W. Lubin (1903-1988), a Jewish baker in Chicago founded a baking company named after his daughter, Sara Lee. His first product was a Jewish-style cheesecake, sold fresh to local supermarkets. Five years later he began to quick-freeze his product and the company went national.

Chag sameach!

(Information above sourced from: Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks)

Are you wondering why cheesecake for Shavout? 

It is traditional to eat dairy products on Shavuot. Why? Here are a few ideas:

  • Young animals are in abundance, and the milk is flowing;
  • As the Jews received the Torah and laws of kashrut on Shavout, they could no longer eat the meat foods they had prepared before or use any of their cooking utensils, since they were now unkosher, so they had to eat dairy;
  • When the Jews returned to their camp after receiving Torah, they found their milk had turned to cheese in their absence.