If you dig back far enough in culinary history, you could say the Greeks invented cheesecake. Historian Thucydides recounts how 2,400 years ago he and his pals were in the habit of kneading honey into fresh feta and baking it over hot coals in an outdoor brazier. Vegetarian BBQ! Three hundred years later the Romans adopted it, but they made a few improvements. For one thing, they incorporated spelt flour, which turned it into something we could call a cake. In a fancier version served principally at weddings, the Romans gave cheesecake a wraparound crust, then filled it with ricotta flavored with bay leaf and sweetened with an ungodly amount of honey. (One typical recipe calls for 14 pounds of cheese and 4 pounds of honey.)
Somewhat unbelievably, this second Roman cheesecake was called "placenta," for its resemblance, in shape at least, to a placenta. It was dispersed all over Europe by the Roman Empire, along with the first cheesecake, which was known as libum. These recipes were picked up and modified by nearly every tribe that tried them. So common was cheesecake in Rome that Horace noted exasperatedly in the Odes, "I have libum coming out of my ears. Like a priest's runaway slave, I'd rather have bread than placenta."
Cheesecake wandered around Europe for centuries, readily picking up and discarding ingredients and preparation techniques. At one point it was savory rather than sweet and used yeast for leavening; later eggs were substituted for the yeast, making the cake fundamentally even denser, while the sugar content was ramped up, once sugar became available. King Henry VIII of England became a fan, but his cheesecake had big clumps of cheese in it. Sometime in the 19th century it was brought to America by Germans. Perhaps they were Jewish, because it is with that immigrant group that cheesecake principally became associated — in New York City, at least. In parallel, Italian immigrants developed their own form, closer by accident or by design to the original Roman placenta.
But before cheesecake could take the form we love today, a new ingredient had to be incorporated — cream cheese. That mysterious white substance was invented by accident in 1872 by a farmer in Chester, New York, who sought to recreate French Neufchatel, and ended up with something that was not really cheese, and had the texture of polyethylene plastic. James Kraft, founder of Kraft Foods, picked up the product in 1912, reformulated it, and wrapped it in metal foil, and this dubious ingredient became the basis of modern cheesecake (along with copious amounts of full-fat cream or sour cream). While cream cheese is emphatically not aged, the cheesecake made from it often is, like a good piece of steak, resulting in a funky almost rotten flavor that the originators of cream cheese never imagined. Proving how something evil can be turned to good uses.
And today, cheesecake remains New York's richest dessert, surviving the low-fat, low-carb, and no sugar crazes, served in over 2000 of the city's restaurants. Here are seven favorite versions: and no, we haven't tried all the city's cheesecakes. Note these are classic plain cheesecakes — no marbleizing, chocolate chips, or canned cherry toppings allowed. And remember, cheesecake, like revenge, is a dish best served cold.
Junior's: Since 1950, Junior's in Downtown Brooklyn has been dispensing the city's best cheesecake. Dense, near-runny, and almost decaying: the product reportedly sits for 48 hours before being sold to encourage the pungent flavor. The original Junior's will be closing soon as a condo tower goes up on the site, and though owner Al Rosen claims it will re-open, you should enjoy a slice right now just in case. 386 Flatbush Avenue, Brooklyn, 718-852-5257.
Peter Luger Steakhouse: The rich, dense, and gently aged cheesecake at Peter Luger might be mistaken for that served at Junior's, though perhaps a bit less odiferous and slightly thicker in texture. Just the thing to eat after a full meal of bacon, steak, creamed spinach, and potatoes. Really, who in their right mind would order this thing after eating a giant steak? Served with whipped cream for extra calories, this cheesecake one of the city's very best. BTW, it's not made by Lugers, but by famed S & S Cheesecake of the Bronx. 178 Broadway, Bronx, 718-387-7400.
Eileen's Special Cheesecake: Chomp into Eileen's cheesecake and find there really is something special about it. The taste is creamy and light but also a little coarse, the bottom and the side lightly crumbed with graham crackers. This small storefront café is about to enter its fifth decade at Cleveland Place, where eateries come and go overnight. The clue to the cheesecake's specialness lies in Eileen's last name: Avezzano. The product is an Italian-German hybrid, and we suspect it contains ricotta in addition to cream cheese. 17 Cleveland Place, 212-219-9558.
Lady M Confections: With an austere setting that might be an effete Upper East Side plastic surgery clinic, Lady M makes some of the best pastries this side of Paris, and her cheesecake is no exception. But this is no ordinary cheesecake; in fact it barely qualifies in the traditional category. The product is clearly inspired by the famed Sarah Lee frozen cheesecake of the last millennium, with a thin but well-oiled graham-cracker crust, a surreally dense and cool interior, and a signature layer of tart sour cream on top for added funk. Eat it and swoon. 41 E 78th St, 212-452-2222.
Pasticceria Rocco: Can a cheesecake make it into the top seven with no crust? Well, the sainted D'Aiuto's achieved just that distinction with its "Baby Watson" cheesecakes in its heyday, and so does Rocco's. More to the point, can an Italian pastry shop succeed in making phenomenal German-Jewish cheesecake? Run by Brazilians, this ancient cannoli-and-cookie emporium can, making a product slightly lighter and fluffier, while being profoundly more stinky and flavorful than the usual product. If you're reading this in summer, try their Italian ices, too. 243 Bleecker St, 212-242-6031.
Two Little Red Hens: Dumb name aside, the TLRH's cheesecake is of the rustic sort, with a top well-browned to almost-crunchiness, a thick layer of graham cracker crumbs pleasantly sodden with butter, and creamy interior that turns out to be surprisingly mild. But there's a slight barnyard flavor to the coarse-textured filling, consistent with the name of the joint. 1652 2nd Ave, 212-452-0476
Lindy's: This downtrodden Broadway deli, once favored by the stars and with signed portraits to prove it, specializes in cheesecake, according to a sign over the door, and still does one of the city's best — even though the pastrami sandwiches have fallen so low that they're heated by microwave. The cheesecake slice is thick and large and pale, the flavor short of skanky but still assertive. The crust is sponge, which is just fine, creating a cushion when a heavy bite strikes your tongue. 825 7th Ave, 212-767-8344.