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NEW YORK CHEESECAKE by John Mariani
NEW YORK CORNER: Felidia by John Mariani
NEW YORK CHEESECAKE—LIKE, THERE’S SOME OTHER KIND?
by John Mariani
I’m trying to think of something better.
Roast beef with mashed potatoes? Turkey with stuffing? Lobster with clarified butter? Pork BBQ with cole slaw? All wonderful examples of American food at its very best. But I’m having a hard time topping the idea that a slice of New York cheesecake and a cup of strong coffee is the best combo in the world.
And it’s at its very best as a solitary pleasure, eaten when you’re alone, not watching TV or pondering the universe, but alone with the slice of cheesecake on a nice plate with a mug of freshly brewed—preferably percolated--java sweetened with sugar and cream.
Since the cheesecake has only the faintest aroma of vanilla and lemon, the steaming coffee must take up the slack, sparking a rush of warm familiarity in the nose, preparing the palate for the first morsel of the cake, which is enjoyed as slowly and with as much sheer pleasure as a Tsar would savor his beluga caviar from a silver spoon. No one eats cheesecake fast, no one gulps it down. It’s too rich, and its glory is in the way it changes texture from cool and thick to creamy, smooth and warm on the tongue. Another sip of coffee, another little morsel of the cake, and you can spend ten minutes of bliss thinking of nothing but what you’re enjoying.
Hardly surprising, then, that long-legged pin-ups like Betty Grable (above) have been called “cheesecake” since the 1930s. Of course, when I say “New York cheesecake,” it immediately begs the question, “Well, do you mean one made with cream cheese or ricotta? Jewish, Italian, French or German? With a pastry crust or a Graham Cracker crust? To which my answer is, yes, all of them." For cheesecakes as we know them are as American as French fries, pastrami, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken, but distinctively New York, even though there may be some antecedents in the Old World. Like pizza, Americans didn’t invent cheesecake, but we sure as hell popularized it throughout the world.
Cheesecake as we know it is more or less an invention of New York restaurants. On the one hand, Italian-American restaurants introduced a version of ricotta cheesecake based on the Southern Italian models back in the 1930s. Jewish-style cheesecakes, first made with cottage cheese but later with cream cheese, predominated in New York delis and later at steakhouses. But one thing at a time.
There are a few—very few—references to some sort of cheese-based cake or tart dating back to the ancient Romans in the second century B.C., though no actual recipe for a cheesecake has been found before the Fourteenth Century A.D. In the Middle Ages cheese was baked into savory tarts by wealthy families that could afford the outrageously expensive spices like cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg mixed into such festive confections. Sugar, also very expensive, was introduced by Arab traders to Sicily and Southern Italy, where pastry making became an art form and the first Italian pastry cooks’ guild was founded in 1492).
When sugar became cheaper and more available, sweetened cheese confections became part of the tradition of the Easter feast, and it was in Naples that the forerunner of all Italian cheesecakes began with an Easter torta called pastiera, made with a wheatberry crust, ricotta, and colorful candied fruit. The idea soon flourished throughout Europe and the Mediterranean, so that Greeks, Germans, and French adapted their own versions. Russians eat a Easter dessert called sirnya pascha, made with farmer’s cheese in a decorative mold (below), that is a dead ringer for pastiera but without a crust; instead they spoon it onto a sweet bread kulich, itself a close cousin to the Italian Easter bread called panettone. Neapolitan and Sicilian immigrants—by the millions--brought the idea of the Easter ricotta cheesecake to New York, but it became so popular that pastry shops and restaurants made it into a year-round staple, which it still is today.
The best Italian-style cheesecake I’ve found in New York is at Patsy’s Restaurant in the Theater District, which has been around for six decades and was Frank Sinatra’s favorite restaurant. “We used to make our own cheesecake,” says owner Joe Scognamillo, “but we just couldn’t find the quality of ricotta we used to get—not too thick, not too moist. But we did find one Italian baker in New Jersey who makes fabulous ricotta, so now he makes our cheesecakes just the way they were since we opened in 1945.” Patsy’s is indeed the paragon of Italian-style cheesecakes, well scented with vanilla and lemon rind, with a luscious, never viscous texture. It goes very well with a cup of perfectly rendered espresso at Patsy’s.
Meanwhile the development of Jewish-style cheesecake had to wait for the availability of cream cheese and, to a certain extent Graham Cracker cookies. Fresh, that is, unaged, cheese spoiled quickly and was not easily shipped outside of a region until refrigerated railway cars came along. Isaac and Joseph Breakstone began producing a packaged fresh cheese they called “Breakstone’s Downsville Cream Cheese” (named after the New York community where it was produced) in 1920, quickly becoming a favorite with New York Jews, who used it as a spread for bagels.
Then, in 1928 the Empire Cheese Company of South Edmeston, NY, contracted to produce a cheese made with cream and milk by a dairyman named Lawrence and called it “Philadelphia Brand” cream cheese (now a trademark of Kraft Foods). These two brands made cream cheese readily available, and soon Jewish bakers were switching from moist cottage cheese to cream cheese to make their cakes. And Breakstone’s was the basis for a cheesecake that became the template for all Jewish-style cheesecakes to follow when Reuben’s (left), a deli restaurant opened in 1908 on Park Avenue by a German immigrant and later moved to East 58 Street, where it became famous for its overstuffed sandwiches named after celebrity guests, and its exceptionally rich cheesecake made with Breakstone’s, whole eggs and cream on a cookie crust. Sadly, Reuben’s closed in 1966, but its cheesecake is still legendary. Don’t get a Jewish comedian started on Reuben’s. He’ll do ten minutes of schtick on it.
FREE BONUS JOKE: A guy goes to Reuben's for breakfast, calls over the waiter and says, "Gimme two boiled eggs -- one of them so undercooked it's runny, and the other so overcooked it's tough and hard to eat. Also, gimme some grilled bacon that's really cold and greasy, burnt toast, butter so hard it's impossible to spread, and a pot of very weak, cold coffee."
"That's a complicated order sir," said the bewildered waiter. "It might be quite difficult."
The guest replied, "Oh, really? I don't understand--that's what I got here yesterday!" Ba-da-boom!
Reuben’s claimed that a rival restaurant on Broadway, named Lindy’s (below)--which Damon Runyon immortalized in his stories as “Mindy’s”--stole their recipe and made it famous as “Lindy’s New York Cheesecake,” baked on a cookie crust and with a filling containing grated lemon and orange rind and vanilla. The original Lindy’s restaurants are gone, though the name was bought by the Riese restaurant company, which still runs three locations in New York and serves the original recipe—which, in any case, was long ago published.
Graham Crackers came out in 1882, the outgrowth of the very successful Graham flour developed by Rev. Sylvester Graham, a vehement temperance advocate who believed his flour cooled lustful passions. Nabisco Honey Grahams became the base for Florida’s Key lime pies and also an alternative to the cookie crust of Jewish-style cheesecakes, which were already being popularized by New York steakhouses, where ending a meal with a slice is still as much a part of the New York steakhouse experience as gorging on a tomato salad, grilled sirloin or porterhouse, creamed spinach, and cottage fried potatoes.
One of the most famous of the New York steakhouses was, and still is, the Palm (now with 28 U.S. locations), which opened as a speakeasy on Second Avenue in 1926, immediately drawing a raffish clientele of guys on both sides of the law, with a significant wedge of newspapermen in the middle—many of whose caricatures are painted on the Palm’s walls. The cheesecake served at the Palm has been on the menu since 1965, but you won’t find the recipe in The Palm Restaurant Cookbook; indeed the owners refuse to divulge where their famous cheesecake comes from, even though it’s the worst kept secret in the world: Everybody knows The Palm gets its cheesecake from S&S, a bakery in the Bronx, and it’s become so much a part of New York food culture that just about every other steakhouse in New York—and nationwide chains like Morton’s, Don Shula’s, and Ruth’s Chris—serve the same S&S cake.
German cheesecake, when you can find it in New York, is closer to the Jewish original made with cottage cheese, which is similar to the German cheese named quark (in Austria, topfen), pronounced “qvahrk,” a tangy curd cheese made from skimmed milk. If cream is mixed in—essential for a cheesecake—it is called Rahmfrischekäse, which in fact means “fresh cream cheese.” Once you could find a quark cake in the numerous bakeries of Yorkville on the upper east side of Manhattan, previously a heavily German neighborhood, but they are all gone. Today you can still find quark cheesecake at Yorkville’s Café Sabarsky (left) in the Nueue Gallerie, a small museum devoted to German and Austrian art.
As for French cheesecakes, they are a total misnomer. I asked one of New York’s finest pastry chefs, François Payard, of Payard Patisserie & Bistro, if he does a French-style cheesecake, and he shrugged and said, “No, because it really isn’t a French pastry.” The French of course do make savory quiches with cheese, but the occasional reference to “French cheesecake” is usually just a marketing term for a very creamy, light style with more of a chiffon pie texture and perhaps a sour cream frosting.
Frankly, I don’t want to think about the adulterations that cheesecakes have gone through, topped with cloyingly sweet fruits in syrup or with chocolate swirled into the mix. A few fresh, ripe strawberries or blueberries is all right with me, but I think of such additions the way I do of destroying the perfect marriage of ingredients on a basic pizza—nothing can improve the holy trinity of tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil on a thin, bubbly, charred crust.
The very simplicity of a good cheesecake is its greatness, along with the homey, happy look of it, with its light, golden-brown top sliced through to reveal an interior the color of fresh cream. The crust barely matters.
And that is why eating a slice of New York cheesecake and sipping a cup of hot coffee is always satisfying each and every time.
Junior's Brooklyn Cheesecake
Fortunately you can mail order some of the best New York cheesecakes, which usually come frozen—and which re-freeze very well indeed—by overnight delivery, which is a good thing, because once seized with a desire for a cheesecake, it’s not something you can put off for long. (See box below.)
Someone once defined eternity as “two people and a ham." But when I think about it, heaven might well be defined as a piece of cheesecake, coffee, and me.
MAIL ORDER CHEESECAKE
Junior’s—Junior’s has a bakery branch in Grand Central Terminal. To order a Jewish-style cheesecake, first check Junior’s web site: www.juniorscheesecake.com, which offers several kinds of flavored cheesecake in addition to the plain original. Call 718-852-5257.
A quarter century
in business is an extraordinary feat for any restaurant, but for
one to be at the top of its game, and constantly improving after all
that time, is true testament to the dedication of its owners and its
entire staff. When Lidia and Felice Bastianich opened Felidia 25
years ago, it was immediately one of the most beautiful Italian
restaurants in NYC, not another copy of some trattoria in Milan, with
the clichés of white walls, dark wainscoting, and bad artwork.
Felidia had old brickwork, archways, fine furniture, and good artwork,
along with a terrific bar (left)
up front, and a display of antipasti at the end of it.
location for the movie "It's All True" in Austin, Texas, Sandra
Bullock (who lives there), Gwyneth Paltrow, and
called to make a late dinner at the restaurant Mansion at Judge's Hill
but were told by an employee the kitchen would be closed, after which
employee was promptly fired by the owner.
WHY THERE'LL ALWAYS BE AN ENGLAND
"Before checking in at the King's Head, Great Bircham, I went looking for Holkham Beach. If that sounds like a figure of speech, let me disabuse you: I really had to go looking for Holkham Beach. The first bit--the drive into Wells, sharp left, straight to the beach car park--was fine. Then things got tricky. I sloshed through wet sand, tufty grass and puddles the colour of milky English tea. Through the descending mist, I made out a sign warning about not getting caught on the wrong side of the tide. This suggested there was a tide, and probably a beach, very nearby. But after a half a mile's walking, I began to think that someone had done a Macbeth and moved the woods. I asked a kindly couple of dogwalkers where the coast had gone to, and they pointed me back through the woods. I emerged 10 minutes later by some sand dunes. Then there was a beach--then, in the foggy distance, more dunes. I'd found the beach but now the authorities had shifted the North Sea. Then I remembered the sign and thought--what if the sea is sneaking up behind me? I dashed back to the woods, got lost twice more, and finally won through to the car." Mark Jones, "Weekend escape," Financial Times Weekend (April 16, 2005).
* From May 31-June 17 a Gastronomic Festival of Castilla y León celebrates the culinary traditions and cutting-edge cuisine of this region of Spain, to be held at the United Nations Delegates’ Dining Room, with visiting Óscar Manuel Alonso; Carlos Domínguez Cidón; Victor Gutiérrez; Antonio González de las Heras; Manuel Rey Pérez; Jesús Ramiro; and Julio Reoyo, who will prepare a daily buffet lunch for the UN community, open to the public. $25 pp. Call 212-963-7625/6.
* On June 7 a 6-Course Wine dinner will be held at
* On June 8 in
* In Laguna Beach, CA, Montage Resort & Spa is now offering “The Art of the Sommelier,” a day behind-the-scenes of the wine cellars, kitchens and restaurants, incl. a tour of the resort and meeting with wine Christopher Coon; meeting with an artisan wine supplier to taste and source new products; a food and wine pairing with Chef James Boyce at Studio and Pastry Chef Richard Ruskell; and a staff education meeting, to discuss topics incl. how restaurants and private collectors source rare wines; how to professionally taste and evaluate wine; how to organize and maintain a cellar; theory of food and wine pairing; proper service of wine; the language of wine. Available to individual guests or a group. $500 for the day pp. Call 949-715-6420 or visit www.montagelagunabeach.com
* From June 9-11 Left California’s Left Bank restaurants celebrate the cherry seasons with an à la carte dinner menu featuring the fruit, or as a prix fixe menu for $38. Branches are in Larkspur (415-927-3331),
* Beginning June 10 at Brennan's of Houston, executive Chef Randy Evans and "Wine Guy" Chris Shepherd are pleased to present “Friday Night Date Night,” a cooking class series for couples incl. dinner for two with wine pairings. $125 per couple. Call 713-522-9711 or visit www.brennanshouston.com.
* On June 12 The Trellis in
* On June 11 & 12, The Tropical Fruit Growers of South
* On June 12 The Club Culinaire of French Cuisine will hold its annual Picnic des Chefs on in
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Lucy Gordan, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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