Of all the foods associated with New York — and there are many – perhaps none is more beloved than the classic cheesecake. And why not? New York cheesecake is a dessert that goes to extremes. With an ultra-creamy base of cream cheese, sugar, eggs, cream and just a speck of vanilla, a New York-style cheesecake is a solid, rich staple of the New York dessert scene since the 1920s. Characterized by its denseness and simplicity, it has spawned a thousand imitators; even the Cheesecake Factory’s “Original” is, in essence, a New York cheesecake.
The precise lineage of this popular dessert is murky, as many nations — from the ancient Romans to the medieval English — made some sort of cake, pie or tart with cheese. But the New York cheesecake is indisputably linked to its most important ingredient, cream cheese — that is, mass-market Philadelphia cream cheese, which has been around since the 1880s and today is sold under the brand name Kraft. It was cream cheese’s prominence that set the stage for the cheesecake, which appeared in some New York restaurants in the early 1900s and became most firmly established at Lindy’s on Broadway, which opened in 1921 and is generally credited with popularizing the dessert.
Properly made, New York cheesecakes are creamy and so thick that you can feel your fork resist as you cut in, with a crust (generally graham cracker) that doesn’t distract from the main attraction — a filling that’s a precise balance between sweet and tart. You want your cheesecake sweet enough to seem dessert-y, but not so sweet as to mask the creamy filling’s pleasant tang. Thick enough to seem decadent; yet not so heavy as to be leaden.
You’ll see plenty of New York cheesecakes flavored up — maybe with a raspberry or chocolate swirl through the base, maybe with a fresh fruit topping. All can be excellent, though you should always judge by the classic first before exploring more creative territory. (If a bakery can’t nail the basics, it’s hard to trust when they get more creative.) A plain New York cheesecake is an excellent metric for overall baking prowess.
Just because a cheesecake is sold in New York, however, doesn’t make it a New York-style cheesecake. Italians have a proud baking tradition in our city, and they have their own Italian-style cheesecake, too; it’s made with ricotta, for a lighter, if grainier, texture that’s quite distinct from the New York-style’s velvet-smooth interior. Some of the city’s most revered cheesecakes come from Italian bakeries, particularly in Brooklyn enclaves. Then there are the bakers who go in their own direction, deviating from New York and Italian tradition in the quest for the perfect cheesecake.
In New York, we’re lucky enough to have excellent examples of all three: the classic New York, the classic Italian and non-traditional. Here are 10 to know.
TRADITIONAL NEW YORK-STYLE
Eileen’s Special Cheesecake
The Story: Eileen Avezzano got her start in 1975, and ever since, has been selling delightfully homey cakes from her charming SoHo shop. The super-crumbly, super-buttery graham cracker crust is a highlight, so good you’re tempted to start eating back-end first. (We don’t judge; all’s fair in love and cheesecake.) 17 Cleveland Pl., 212-219-9558, eileenscheesecake.com
Delivery? Daily in New York, nationally overnight.
Two Little Red Hens
The Story: This Upper East Side bakery gets all the American classics just right — from cupcakes to chocolate chip cookies — so it’s no surprise its cheesecake is excellent, too, with a deeply browned graham cracker crust and a veritable tower of perfectly creamy filling. 1652 Second Ave., 212-452-0476, twolittleredhens.com
Delivery? Available at its Upper East Side storefront only; for a full cake, call ahead and give three days’ advance notice. Trust us, it’s worth it.
S & S Cheesecake
The Story: Winner of countless “Best Cheesecake” awards, S&S way up in the Bronx does the classic right: a densely creamy cheesecake with an equally appealing graham cracker crust. The shop itself isn’t much to look at — S&S opens weekdays at 6am, closes at 3pm, and after operating hours, appears all but abandoned. But look around in neighboring bodegas and you’ll find it sold. It may require a bit of a scavenger hunt, but what’s a little effort when cheesecake is your reward? 222 West 238th St., The Bronx, 718-549-3888, sscheesecake.com
Delivery? Ships nationally via two-day air.
The Story: Sometimes you’ve gotta journey a little for a killer cheesecake, as is proven by Cascon Cheesecakes — a gem of a bakery up in Whitestone, Queens, dating back to the 1970s. Cascon provides a number of New York-area restaurants with the cheesecake that they sell. It’s one of the smoothest out there, a crustless version that’s almost airy in texture and slices up elegantly. 704 149th St., 718-767-5700, casconcheesecakes.com
Delivery? Whole cakes available from their storefront only.
The Story: If you know one New York cheesecake, it’s probably Junior’s — sorry, let’s use the full name, “Junior’s Most Fabulous Cheesecakes and Desserts.” Super-dense, nicely sweet, classic cheesecakes have been coming out of its bakery in downtown Brooklyn for more than 60 years. They’re sold in iconic striped boxes both onsite and at satellites throughout the city. 386 Flatbush Ave., Brooklyn, 718-852-5257, juniorscheesecake.com
Delivery? In parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan, with 24 hours’ notice; nationally via overnight or two-day shipping.
F. Monteleone Bakery and Cafe
The Story: This family-owned, old-school Carroll Gardens bakery does the Italian cheesecake right. With three kinds of ricotta cheese in the filling, you’ll find it lighter and airier than many cheesecakes out there, but in the best of ways. 355 Court St., Brooklyn, 718-852-5600, fmonteleonebakery.com
Delivery? Whole cakes available from its storefront only.
The Story: This old-world, tin-ceilinged Italian bakery in the East Village has charm in spades, and cheesecake in spades, too: towering Sicilian-style cheesecakes, with a particularly rich filling made from ricotta cheese and whole eggs, as well as a classic NYC-style. 342 E. 11th St., 212-674-7070, venierospastry.com
Delivery? Ships nationally.
Mona Lisa Pastry Shoppe
The Story: The century-old Mona Lisa in Brooklyn‘s Bath Beach still uses a coal-fired oven, in which it bakes its delicious cheesecakes: both an Italian version, with a creamy ricotta filling and a bit of orange, and a velvety New York-style version laced with sour cream. 1476 86th St., Brooklyn, 718-837-9053, monalisabakery.com
Delivery? Ships nationally.
Lady M Cake Boutique
The Story: Lady M is a particularly refined sort of place, an Upper East Side “boutique” where if you’re drinking tea, you’re drinking it pinky-out. Its “Gateau Nuage” cheesecake is a beautiful creation — silky-smooth, whisper-light and topped with a delightfully tangy sour cream glaze — but be ready to pay the premium, as each cake will set you back $80. 41 E. 78th St., 212-452-2222; ladym.com
Delivery? Ships nationally via Saks Fifth Avenue’s website: saksfifthavenue.com/Lady-M/Home-and-Gourmet/shop/_/N-1z12v1pZ52flom.
Dessert Club ChikaLicious
The Story: This loosely Asian-influenced East Village bakery — not to be confused with ChikaLicious Dessert Bar, a sit-down spot from the same owners — does a particularly tasty cheesecake that’s actually inverted: a cream cheese filling with a loose graham cracker crumble and strawberries on top. All of ChikaLicious’s desserts are somewhat daintily portioned, but that’s fine with us; we’ll take a small portion of their ethereally creamy cheesecake any day. 204 E. 10th St., 212-475-0929; dessertclubchikalicious.com
Delivery? Local delivery in NYC, shipping not available.
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