And for Dessert…

Aileen Marshall

New York cheesecake, by sabotrax via Wikicommons

A plain New York-style cheesecake, by Dllu via Wikicommons

When you think of an iconic New York City dessert, most people think of cheesecake. Some form of cheesecake has been around for thousands of years, with many countries having their own style or flair. Not everyone agrees on how the New York City style originated, evolving to have a cream cheese base and a graham cracker crust, which makes it rich, smooth, and creamy.

The earliest cheesecake, known as “libum,” was created in Greece on the island of Samos. Archeologists have dated cheesecake pans from Greece to around 2000 B.C. It is said that cheesecake was fed to the first Olympians in 776 B.C. to give them strength. The first recorded recipe appears in De Agricultura around 234 B.C., written by historian and senator Marcus Porcius Cato. The recipe calls for pounding cheese until it is smooth, adding honey and wheat flour, and then baking it. When Rome conquered Greece in the second century B.C., they discovered this cheesecake and spread it throughout the rest of the Roman Empire.

Over the centuries, many countries developed their own type of cheesecake. Regional versions vary based on ingredients, textures, and setting by refrigeration or baking. Italian cheesecake is made with ricotta cheese. French cheesecake is known for its very light consistency, using Neufchâtel cheese and gelatin.  In the British Isles, crushed biscuits make up the base, and the cheesecake is topped with a variety of fruit compotes. Grecians today use Mizithra, cheese made from sheep’s milk and whey, or feta. German cheesecake has a pastry dough base and uses quark, a fresh cheese made from curdled sour milk, similar to cottage cheese. Japanese cheesecake uses cornstarch and eggs and has a more cake-like texture. Indian cheesecake is known as chhena poda and is made from cottage cheese, sugar, and nuts.

The type of cheesecakes we are familiar with in the United States are technically custards, not cakes. The New York style of cheesecake is based on cream cheese, has a crushed graham cracker base, and is served pure, without any flavorings or toppings. It is known for being very creamy but not too heavy.  In Chicago you will find a sour cream based cheesecake that is soft on the inside, with a shortbread crust. Saint Louis’s cheesecake is made from butter with a layer of cake on top. California style cheesecake has a light texture with lemon flavoring, a cookie crumb crust, and sour cream topping.

Cheesecake was brought to this country by European immigrants starting in the eighteenth century. At that point, Europeans had started adding eggs instead of yeast to their recipes, giving cheesecake the consistency we know today. In 1872, William Lawrence, a dairy farmer from Chester, New York, tried to make the French-style Neufchâtel cheese. While trying to copy this milk-based cheese, William Lawrence added cream instead of milk, and came up with a denser and creamier form, which he dubbed cream cheese. A grocery distributor sold it for Lawrence in foil wrappers. It was eventually bought by the Kraft Company and has been sold as Philadelphia Cream Cheese since 1928.

It was the invention of cream cheese that allowed the New York style cheesecake to originate. While sources say that it is based on the Eastern European style, another claim to the origin is from our old friend Arnold Reuben, of the reuben sandwich fame. He claimed that he had a cheese pie at a friend’s house one day and was so enamored with it he that took his hostess’ recipe and worked with his chef to develop what we know as the New York style cheesecake. It was sold at his Turf Restaurant on 49th Street and Broadway in the 1930s. This type of cheesecake then appeared at the famous Lindy’s Broadway restaurant in the 1940s. Tales say that Lindy got it from a chef he hired from Reuben’s.

Yet another claim to the origin of New York style cheesecake is from the famous Junior’s restaurant. The original owner, Harry Rosen, had a restaurant called Enduro Cafe at the flagship site on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn since 1929. In 1950, he changed the name to Junior’s in honor of his two sons. One son, Marvin, said that his father would ship home cheesecakes he had tasted from everywhere he went. Rosen worked with his baker, Eigel Petersen, to develop the cheesecake that is still sold in his restaurants today. In the Village Voice in 1973, journalist Ron Rosenblum declared, “There will never be a better cheesecake than the cheesecake they serve at Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue…it’s the best cheesecake in New York.” That same year it won a contest for best cheesecake run by New York Magazine.

Although numerous city establishments serve or sell New York style cheesecake, it is possible to make one at home. Here is a recipe from Molly O’Neil’s New York Cookbook:

 

Recipe of a Lifetime: Junior’s Cheesecake

1/4 cup graham cracker crumbs

3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

3 tablespoons sifted cornstarch

30 ounces (3 3/4 large packages) cream cheese, softened

1 large egg

1/2 cup heavy (whipping) cream

3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract.

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Generously butter the bottom and sides of an 8-inch springform pan. Lightly coat the bottom of the pan with the graham cracker crumbs and refrigerate the pan.
  2. In a large bowl, combine the sugar and the cornstarch. Beat in the cream cheese. Beat in the egg. Slowly drizzle in the heavy cream, beating constantly. Add the vanilla and stir well.
  3. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan. Bake until the top is golden, 40 to 45 minutes. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 3 hours.

Yield: 8 to 10 servings.

Smorgasburg

Evan Davis

Smorgasburg is an outdoor food market that originated in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2011 and now takes place every Saturday and Sunday, in Williamsburg and Prospect Park, respectively. Originally an offshoot of the Brooklyn Flea, the founders created a food centric market due to limited space. Today over 100 vendors flock to Brooklyn every weekend to serve innovative foods to tourists from all over the world.

The Rueben Sandwich

Aileen Marshall

Reuben on rye at Katz’s Deli, Ernesto Andrade via Wiki Commons

What do you get when you order a Reuben? It is a large, hunger-killing sandwich consisting of corned beef, sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and melted Swiss cheese, all grilled on buttered rye bread. While it can be considered an iconic New York City food, its origin is unclear. There are several different claims as to the inventor of this sandwich, none of which have ever really been proven. There are stories about it starting here in this city, while there are conflicting assertions that it was invented, surprisingly, in Omaha, Nebraska.

Most of the claims to a New York City origin are attributed to Arnold Reuben, a German immigrant who owned Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, known for large sandwiches named after celebrities. In 1914, it was located on Broadway and 82nd Street. In Craig Claiborne’s New York Times column in 1976, Reuben’s daughter, Patricia Taylor, said that one night in 1914, an actress named Annette Selos, girlfriend of Charlie Chaplin, came in to her father’s place and said that she was famished. Reuben made her a sandwich of ham, turkey, coleslaw, cheese and dressing on rye. She said it was the best sandwich she’d ever had. He named it the Reuben’s special. However, this combination is not what is considered a Reuben sandwich.

Another story comes from a 1968 book, Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices, by George Hertner. He wrote that the Reuben was invented by William Hammerly, a New York City accountant and amateur cook. Hammerly named it after Arnold Reuben because of his well-known charity works.

One more claim to the inventor of the sandwich comes from Reuben’s son, Arnold Reuben Jr. In an interview with the St. Petersburg Times in 1993, he gives credit to a chef at the restaurant during the 1930s, Alfred Scheuing. Reuben said that he would work in his father’s restaurant many late nights and would grab a burger to eat. One day Scheuing said he was sick of seeing the boy eat so many burgers. He said he had “some nice fresh corned beef.” He put some on rye bread, added fresh sauerkraut, Russian dressing, and Swiss cheese, and grilled it for him. Other than these interviews, the only other substantiation to these claims is the fact that Reuben’s menus from these times list both a Reuben’s Special, the ham and turkey version, and a Reuben sandwich, the traditional corned beef version.

The other claim to the invention of the Reuben comes, unexpectedly, from Omaha, Nebraska. In the 1920s there were a group of men who would meet for a weekly poker game in a room at the Blackstone Hotel. The lore goes that they liked to make their own sandwiches during the game. One of the men was grocer Reuben Kulakofsky. His family has claimed over the years that he made up this sandwich from a platter sent up to the room by the hotel. There is a competing story about the hotel chef, Charles Schimmel. His granddaughter, Elizabeth Weil, wrote to the New York Times that Schimmel invented the sandwich specifically for Kulakofsky. That’s why he named it after him. Schimmel subsequently put it on the hotel menu. A 1934 menu from the Blackstone does list the Reuben sandwich. Note that a Reuben sandwich is grilled. It’s not clear if there was a grill in the hotel room where the men played poker.

Another Omaha tie comes from 1956. Fern Snyder was a chef at the Rose Bowl Hotel in Omaha. The National Restaurant Association had a contest that year for the best hotel and restaurant sandwich. Snyder’s entry of a recipe for a Reuben sandwich won the contest.

Wherever it comes from, this meal-sized sandwich is relatively easy to make at home. Just butter one side of a slice of rye bread, then put it in a hot pan or grill. On top of the bread place several slices of corned beef. On top of the beef put some drained sauerkraut. Over the sauerkraut, pour some Russian dressing. Top it all off with a slice of Swiss cheese. Butter one side of another slice of rye bread, place it on top of the sandwich, butter side facing out. Press the sandwich together, and continue to grill and press, flipping occasionally, until the cheese had melted and the bread is golden and crispy on the outside.

There are many restaurants in this city that offer a Reuben sandwich. One place close to our university is Ess-a-bagel on Third Avenue near 51st Street. The Brooklyn Diner on 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue also offers a Reuben. And there is the famous Katz’s Deli, on Houston Street near First Street. Of course, many diners have Reubens on their menu. While not the healthiest choice for a meal, it is savory, satisfying, and delicious.