May 28

Cheesecakes then and now

Who doesn’t love cheesecake? This delectable dessert has been served up as part of Georgette Heyer’s fictional Regency dinner menu, and even Jane Austen—who in her novels was not given to describing the dishes served at table—wrote of the popularity of cheesecakes in a letter to her sister Cassandra that has been preserved for posterity:

“At Devizes we had comfortable rooms and a good dinner, to which we sat down about five; amongst other things we had asparagus and a lobster, which made me wish for you, and some cheesecakes, on which the children made so delightful a supper as to endear the town of Devizes to them for a long time.”

But as much as Devorah Asher, the Jewish heroine of Me & Georgette, loves Jane Austen, she isn’t thinking about Regency cheesecakes just now. Safely back in Boro Park, she is contemplating her culinary contribution to the festive meals her family will serve during the next holiday on the Jewish calendar.

That holiday is Shavuot, which is observed seven weeks after Passover (June 4 and 5 this year) and commemorates the giving of the Torah—Jewish law—at Mount Sinai. Traditionally, a dairy meal is eaten on Shavuot, and cheesecake often figures prominently on the menu.

The cheesecake Devorah has in mind is nothing like the cheesecakes served in Jane Austen’s time. Devorah’s cheesecake is à la Sara Lee’s, rich with cheese and cream on a crumbled-cookie crust, whereas Regency-era cheesecakes appear to resemble the modern Danish: a puff-pastry wrapping filled with a custard that didn’t contain any cheese whatsoever. Indeed, the only similarity between cheesecake as we know it today and that of the Regency era appears to be the inclusion of eggs in the recipe.

Below I present my own family’s amazing cheesecake recipe, which I have made for Shavuot for many years. Let it be known that this recipe has long been the source of disagreement within the family. My sister claims that it was my Grandma Bea’s original recipe, but my father’s first cousin always claimed that the recipe

Regency cheesecakes

was her mother’s. Great-aunt Lil and Grandma Bea were not only sisters, but sisters-in-law as well, having married brothers; the culinary competition must have been fierce.

I thought that the cheesecake recipe was a family legacy, brought over on the boat to America from the Old Country. But only a few years ago I discovered a similar recipe in The Settlement Cook Book, a wonderful cookbook classic first published in 1903, put together by immigrant cooking students at the Milwaukee (Wisconsin) Settlement House. To make the original, cholesterol-filled version, use the creamed cottage cheese and cream cheese. For a version that is gentler on the arteries, skip the cream cheese and use 1 kg. of lower-fat cottage and/or white cheese.

Aunt Lil and Grandma Bea’s Cheesecake


1 box zweiback or crisp, dry sugar cookies
1/4 pound melted butter, or 1/2 cup olive oil
1 cup granulated sugar (scant)
1 tsp. cinnamon


36 oz. (3 small cartons) creamed cottage cheese, plus
3 oz. (1 small) package cream cheese
1 kg. 5 percent cottage cheese (or half cottage cheese and half white cheese), and NO cream cheese
5 eggs|
1/2 pint heavy cream (for low-cholesterol version, use lower-fat cooking cream)
2 tbsp. flour (full)
1 cup sugar
1 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. lemon juice
Pinch of salt

Crush zweiback or cookies in blender or in plastic bag with rolling pin. Combine with sugar and cinnamon. Add butter or oil, and mix well. Line sides and bottom of spring form angel food cake pan with mixture, saving some to sprinkle on top.

Drain cottage cheese and cream cheese in colander. (If you are using lower-fat cottage cheese, skip this step.) In large bowl, using wire whisk, beat eggs and gradually add sugar, lemon juice, vanilla and salt. Add cottage cheese and cream cheese to mixture.

Pour entire mixture into lined cake pan. Scrape excess lining over top of cake. Bake at 400° F (200° C) for 15 minutes, then reduce heat to 375° F (190° C) for 1 hour longer. Or bake 1 hour, 15 minutes to 1-1/2 hours at 350° F (180° C) for the entire time. Place water-filled aluminum pie plate on rack underneath cake to catch drippings while baking, or place cake pan on cookie sheet.

When cake is done (knife will come out clean), turn oven off and leave cake in open oven until fairly cool. (This will take several hours). Refrigerate cake until firm enough to remove from pan. To remove, loosen sides and center with knife. Lift out inner form. Loosen bottom of cake from tube portion with spatula or knife. Optionally cut cake in half and lift out each half carefully with two pancake turners. Put halves back together on cake plate. Or, if you are daring, ask someone to help you lift the entire cake out at once using with three pancake turners.

Optionally top with cherry or blueberry pie filling prior to serving.

Judith Montefiore’s Regency Cheesecakes

If you’d rather try your hand at genuine Regency cheesecakes, this recipe is from Lady Judith Cohen Montefiore’s The Jewish Manual / Practical Information in Jewish and Modern Cookery with a Collection / of Valuable Recipes & Hints Relating to the Toilette (1846).

CHEESECAKES. Warm four ounces of butter, mix it with the same quantity of loaf-sugar sifted, grate in the rind of three lemons, squeeze in the juice of one, add three well-beaten eggs, a little nutmeg, and a spoonful of brandy; put this mixture into small tins lined with a light puff paste, and bake. Cheesecakes can be varied by putting almonds beaten instead of the lemon, or by substituting Seville oranges, and adding a few slices of candied orange and lemon peel.

PLAIN PUFF PASTE. Mix a pound of flour into a stiff paste with a little water, first having rubbed into it about two ounces of butter, then roll it out; add by degrees the remainder of the butter (there should be altogether half a pound of butter), fold the paste and roll about two or three times.