While cheesecake has long been popular among Jews with a sweet tooth, the creamy, rich indulgence is now as American as apple pie, a symbol of how thoroughly Jews have integrated into American life. As cookbook author Joan Nathan says, "Jews like cheesecake because they like to eat good rich dishes, even if they shouldn't"--but then again, who doesn't?
What's Jewish about the storied cake? "Cheesecake became a tradition for Jews because of the cycle of the year, when Shavuot welcomes the plentiful milk of springtime with dairy dishes," says Nathan. Explanations abound for serving cheese-cake--and other dairy dishes--at Shavuot, the holiday commemorating the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Among them are that Abraham served cottage cheese and milk to the angels at the first meal in Genesis, and that King Solomon's Song of Songs compares the Torah to milk and honey.
The tradition of cakes sweetened with cheese didn't start with the Jews, but with another group famous for their monumental contributions, from philosophy to dessert: the ancient Greeks. Athletes at the first Olympic games in 776 BCE were fed cheesecake made with curd cheese to boost their energy, says Gil Marks, author of The Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. (This was pre-steroids.) Jews likely picked up the recipe from the Greeks who occupied Palestine in the third century BCE, or from the Romans, who offered up a baked cheesecake called libum to their household gods..
The Romans brought cheesecake to Europe, where every country would invent its own flourish. Central and Eastern Europeans added a new kind of cheese: quark, a form of farmer's or pot cheese, with large curds and a tangy flavor. European immigrants to the United States brought with them a treat similar to the German kaesekuchen, made with quark, which had a coarse, heavy texture.
That texture became smoother with the discovery of cream cheese, the ingredient responsible for the distinctive consistency and flavor of American cheesecake. For this, cheesecake lovers can thank William A. Lawrence, an upstate New York dairyman, who used twice the cream required to make the popular French Neufchatel cheese. The 1872 culinary game-changer resulted in a richer and silkier cheese, which eventually became the popular Philadelphia cream cheese. In 1907, Isaac and Joseph Breg-stein, who changed their name to Breakstone, began making cream cheese in Brooklyn, selling it primarily to Jews.
Cream cheese played a starring role in...