Shavuot, the holiday of cheesecake…err, I mean, the holiday in which the Israelites receive the Torah, is here! No, but really, it’s all about the cheesecake.
Which makes this a great time to talk about Israeli and American cheesecakes. No, they are not the same. American cheesecake, typically a “New York Style” cheesecake, is based on American cream cheese, which is quite thick, similar to a 30% fat shemenet. New York Style cheesecake also calls for some flour, and is baked in a water bath to achieve the thick, custard-like texture. A New York Style cheesecake is dense and creamy, and a thin sliver is all you need ; )
Israeli cheesecake, on the other hand, tends to be lighter, more airy. This is primarily due to the difference cheeses used. Instead of American style cream cheese, the classic being Philadelphia cream cheese (which is not easy to find in Israel), a combination of lower fat white cheese (gevinah lavanah and shemenet) and sometimes sweetened heavy cream (shemenet metukah) are used.
I looked through a series of Israeli cheesecake recipes from HaShulchan and compared them to a New York Style Cheesecake recipe from my fav, Martha Stewart. The Israeli cheesecake recipes include a basic baked cheesecake, a “rich” cheesecake with vanilla whipped cream topping, a cheesecake with butterscotch topping, and a no-bake cheesecake. I’ve compared them all in Table 1.
In Table 1, I only compared the filling ingredients and a quick overview of the baking methods (not the toppings or crusts, see the individual recipes for more details). As you can see, in general, all recipes call for eggs, sugar, some combination of cheese, a thickener, and a flavoring agent. The number of eggs ranges anywhere from 4-7, and the sugar is in the form of either regular sugar, powdered sugar, or vanilla sugar. Additional sweetness comes from shemenet metukah in some recipes. The New York style cheesecake seems to call for the most sugar, not surprising for an American dessert ; ) The New York style cheesecake uses flour as a thickener, while the Israeli recipes call for instant pudding mix, corn flour/corn starch, and/or gelatin. The popular flavoring agents are vanilla and lemon.
The cheese choices are where it gets interesting. As I mentioned, New York style cheesecake uses a combination of American cream cheese, which is very thick, and sour cream. In a previous post I discussed different types of shemenet and decided that 15% fat shemenet is the most similar to American sour cream. 30% fat shemenet is the most similar to Philadelphia cream cheese. All the Israeli cheesecakes called for a combination of at least two cheeses: shemenet chamutzah (“sour cream”), yogurt, gevinah lavanah (white cheese) either 9% or 30% fat, and shemenet metukah (sweetened heavy cream) with 32% fat. In table 2 I normalize the recipes to one egg, and add up the total sugars, cheese, and calculate the average fat content. Viewing it this way, it is clear that what makes New York Style cheesecake so thick and rich is the very high average fat content.
The preparation and baking methods vary somewhat. Most recipes call for beating all the ingredients together, and cooking at a relatively low temperature, and then allowing the cake to cool very very very slowly. This is supposed to eliminate those cracks on the top of your cheesecake. Cooking in a water-bath, recommended in the New York style cheesecake, also should reduce cracks on top of the cheesecake. The idea is that cheesecake is basically baked custard, which needs to be cooked very low and slow to achieve the right consistency.
Now, doing this on-paper analysis was fun, but to really understand how these recipe proportions would affect the final cheesecake product, I had no choice but to make all of them! I made a miniature version of every cheesecake in Tables 1 and 2, in addition to a cheesecake similar to the New York Style cheesecake, except replacing Philadelphia cream cheese with 30% fat shemenet (Gad brand, looks and tastes very similar to Philadelphia) and sour cream with 15% fat shemenet. The finished products are shown below.
The New York Style cheesecake made from either Philadelphia cream cheese or 30% fat shemenet were very similar, both were extremely rich and dense. The butterscotch cheesecake, rich vanilla cheesecake, and the baked cheesecake (not pictured) were all lighter, more characteristic of Israeli cheesecakes. The No bake cheesecake had a unique texture, more like a flan, since the recipe utilized gelatin. After tasting all of them I was surprised to find that I actually preferred the lighter cheesecakes. Perhaps because you can eat more of them ; ) As far as taste goes, the butterscotch topped cheesecake was hands down the winner. The butterscotch was a nice touch, but really the amazing flavor came from the lemon zest. It almost isn’t fair to compare these cheesecakes since only one had the lemon zest addition. I learned from this that lemon zest should be added to any cheesecake recipe – it really takes it up a notch.
The rich vanilla cheesecake did have a nice vanilla flavor. The New York Style cheesecakes and the baked cheesecake really don’t have much additional flavor other than the cheese, so I would recommend adding lemon zest, real vanilla bean, or a fruit topping. The No Bake cheesecake was also very simple on its own, so I can see why the original recipe recommends various fruit toppings to elevate it.
Some recipe notes:
- If you are making the no bake, the recipe recommends that you thoroughly dissolve the gelatin before adding it to the rest of the mixture. I was lazy about this and paid the price with a few gelatin granules in my cheesecake. So do make sure it is dissolved!
- Since I was making many of these small cheesecakes in paper baking containers, I wasn’t able to cook them in a water bath. The result was cracked tops. I also noticed that all the recipes rose quite a bit while baking, so when I filled the containers too much, they spilled over the edge. Make sure you leave at least an inch/few cm to give your cake room to expand without spilling out. As the cake cools it will shrink back down.
- Toppings are a nice way to disguise cracked tops ; )
Summary: Both American and Israeli cheesecakes are delicious, obviously. If you like the dense American style, it is very possible to make it easily in Israel by substituting 30% fat shemenet for cream cheese and 15% fat shemenet for sour cream. I found that I actually preferred the lighter cakes, but this is definitely a personal preference. If you’re looking to try a new recipe this year, I highly recommend the butterscotch topped cheesecake. Don’t leave out the lemon zest!