Cheesecake is good. I have always been a fan. As a child, when cousins and friends were wrinkling their noses at the texture, maybe the comparative (to other pies on the Thanksgiving table) lack of sweetness, maybe the color, who knows– this girl right here was savoring every bite and begging for seconds. My genius brother used to request cheesecake instead of birthday cake, mostly for the cherry topping, but still. I love my Mom’s version of cheesecake; it’s made in a 9″ graham cracker pie crust and is dense and golden brown and delicious. Mom has also perfected a gluten-free version with an almond crust that is mind-blowing, and made a version last summer with blueberries that my friends and I raved about for weeks. In recent years, I took a cue from my brother and started asking for cheesecake on my birthday. Last fall, my husband made one with a salted caramel topping that oozed down the sides of each cut piece; it was heavenly. He is such a good baker. As fancy and scrumptious as that was, I tend to lean toward simple flavors: lemon, almond or plain are my favorites. You can leave the peanut butter cups and cookie dough out of my slice, thank you. And so, as I flipped through The Mile End Cookbook to decide what to make for April Cook the Books, a light bulb went on and the angels started singing as I found the page for cheesecake.
Mile End is a deli in Brooklyn started by a Montreal native, homesick for smoked meat sandwiches, and his wife, who had grown up “in (a) somewhat lapsed kosher household” in New York City and northern New Jersey. The Mile End Cookbook is a celebration of the Jewish comfort food they know and love: kreplach, chopped liver, lox, blintzes, mandelbrot, pickled vegetables, those smoked meat sandwiches and so much more. I am new to Jewish cooking– I have never in my life had matzo ball soup– but the flavors are familiar and inviting. As is the case with most Cook the Books choices, I wanted to try every recipe, and though my plans were lofty, I have several pages earmarked to try at some point; hamantaschen, knishes and maple baked beans are just a few.
So why did I choose something like cheesecake, something I’ve had dozens of times? Because this is New York cheesecake, authentic cheesecake, legendary stuff, and I have never made one. As I mentioned before, my Mom’s recipe is a little different, and it’s my go-to, so this recipe looked very new and was a challenge I wanted to try. The Mile End recipe is easy, with straightforward ingredients and methods, and the results were largely positive. Visually, it’s a beauty, with a cream-colored top (I wimped out and didn’t dare to get the dark brown of the cake in the book’s picture– I just don’t trust my oven). The texture is silken and the flavor is lemony, which I like a lot, and not overly sweet, which I like a lot. The cons? It tasted salty to me, which is shocking, coming from this self-described “salt tooth”, and I am not sure whether it was set in the middle. I think I did it right, followed the directions to the letter for checking temperature, but it was mighty soft in the center. And, though a paltry concern, the recipe calls for a 12″ cake pan– who has that? Am I the only one without one? I have a fairly well-stocked supply of baking pans and didn’t even know that was an option. I scaled the crust recipe back slightly and used my 9″ pan instead.
The verdict is that this is an absolute winner, a keeper recipe I foresee making for years to come. The cookbook provides three compote recipes to use for toppings– the fig and honey is particularly intriguing, as soon as figs are good again– and my choice of sliced, macerated strawberries was as tasty as it was simple. Really, this cheesecake is so good you don’t need a topping; that’s just lipstick on a pig. But sometimes lipstick is good, and you have infinite options for changing this recipe up with any fruit you can think of, fresh or in a compote. I hope you will seek out The Mile End Cookbook and take a look at this recipe, and all the others, for yourself.
Next up for Cook the Books: Tender by Nigel Slater. Perfect, perfect, perfect. I love that book so very much, and look forward to choosing which recipe to play with. Stay tuned!