Playing to the palate, local cheesecakes range in taste

Playing to the palate, local cheesecakes range in taste

Advice and recipe served up by Pittsburgh bakers

Squirrel Hill resident Etti Martel made this cheesecake. Photo courtesy of Etti Martel
Squirrel Hill resident Etti Martel made this cheesecake. Photo courtesy of Etti Martel

For more than 700 years, rabbinical writings record that Jews have consumed dairy products on the holiday of Shavuot. In some generations, this custom was fulfilled by eating bread baked with milk and honey. In other years, dairy kreplach or knishes were devoured with delight.

More recently, cheesecake has been a go-to dish for dairy seekers. In Pittsburgh, bakers young and old boast recipes and photos of their delectable designs. Ranging in diversity, reflecting the makers themselves, cheesecakes are big or small, topped or left alone and made from recipes widely shared or held with governmental confidentiality.

“In my household I make mini-cheesecake pies. They are mini-cheesecakes in miniature graham cracker crusts with fruit topping,” said Rina Itskowitz.

“I make a Chips Ahoy! one,” offered Linda Joshowitz, whose cheesecake’s heavy base differs from “those whipped ones.”

Both Itskowitz and Joshowitz’s cheesecakes have strong American influences. The former prefers a recipe printed on the Philadelphia cream cheese box, while the latter follows instructions from Susie Fishbein’s “Kosher by Design, Kids in the Kitchen.”

Etti Martel, an Israeli native who moved to America 12 years ago, bakes with deference to home.

“If I am lucky enough to get the Tnuva cheese at the kosher store, then I make my cheesecake,” she said. “It’s a much more light, puffy Israeli cheesecake. The texture is different than when you make it with the American cream cheese.”

While Joshowitz said that she has been making cheesecake for only “five to six years,” other bakers began earlier.

“I started 12 years ago, when I came here,” said Martel.

“I have been making cheesecake since I got married, so for about 20 years,” said Itskowitz.

Shifra Poznanski, who makes a pareve (dairy free) Viennese crunch cheesecake, estimates her dessert date as “probably since I got married eight years ago.”

“I have been making cheesecake for 25 years, my mother taught me,” said Elhanan Abrams.

Boasting flavored cheesecakes including vanilla, chocolate chip, chocolate chip cookie dough and last year’s raspberry white swirl, Abrams said that he bakes based on where his “interests and tastes” take him.

Conversely, Andy Weiss has been making the same exact dessert for 63 years.

“It’s the only cake I make,” she said.

With its graham cracker crust mashed up on the bottom and “wonderful cherry topping,” Weiss described her cheesecake as “dense” and “not too sweet.”

“My cheesecake is my crown and glory,” she claimed. “I get applause when I walk in with a cheesecake because that’s the only decent thing I make.”

For those trying to retrieve the recipe, good luck.

“I would have to kill you if I told you anything,” she said with a chuckle. “I got the recipe from a friend who fortunately moved out of the city at least 20 years ago, so it’s perfectly secret unless someone writes to her or calls her in Florida, but I won’t give anyone the address.”

While Weiss’ cheesecake is a smash, certain problems do arise. For instance, it is unclear how many servings each cake yields.

“Maybe six, maybe eight,” she said. “My grandkids like to take double, so it’s hard to judge how many.”

Other bakers cited additional cheesecake complications.

“Sometimes, they end up not looking quite as pretty; there will be cracks on the top of the cheesecake,” lamented Itskowitz. “Those times, I put a topping on the cheesecake so no one will notice, but sometimes the look of the cheesecake won’t come out as smooth as I’d like.”

“My son likes it, but my daughter does not; she likes chocolate cake,” admitted Martel.

“I do make it once a year on Shavuot because it is tradition,” said Joshowitz.

However, don’t expect to find it in the kitchen any other time.

“Nobody else eats it, and I don’t need to eat a whole cheesecake,” Joshowitz said.

Nonetheless, even in a household where no one takes the cake, secrets still exist for creating the creamy concoction.

“I follow the recipe to a T,” maintained Joshowitz.

“Gvina levana, it’s sort of like white yogurt but not exactly; that creates the best base, and then I can add my flavors as I feel necessary,” claimed Abrams.

Martel maintains that bakers focus on the wrong components.

“Every time you make a cheesecake you put a big pan with hot water underneath the oven,” she said. By placing the boiling hot water on a shelf beneath the cheesecake the added moisture keeps the cheesecake soft. “That’s the secret for good cheesecake. You should come try my cheesecake.”

Etti Martel’s Israeli Cheesecake Recipe


1 cup flour

1⁄3 cup sugar

½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter,

cold and cubed

2 tablespoons milk

Cheese filling:

26 ounces gvina levana white cheese,

5 percent

9 ounces mascarpone cheese

or cream cheese

6 eggs, separated

1 cup sugar (½ plus ½)

¼ cup flour

½ cup cornstarch

8 ounces heavy cream

1 teaspoon vanilla

Crust base:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor fitted with the metal blade, process the flour, sugar and butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add the milk and process till dough comes together. Press the dough into the base of a pan, prick with a fork and bake for about 10 to 15 minutes until golden. Cool.

The filling:

In a large bowl mix the white cheese, mascarpone, egg yolks, 1/2 cup of sugar, and the flour and cornstarch mixture. Mix until there are no more lumps. Add heavy cream and vanilla extract and blend. In a mixer, beat egg whites at medium speed until pale and fluffy foam forms. Add the remaining sugar (½ cup) and whip for foam, but still quite soft. Gently fold the egg whites cream into the cheese batter. Pour the batter over the baked crust in the pan. Lower the oven temperature to 330 degrees and bake the cake for about 1 hour and 15 minutes. Turn off the oven and let cool in the oven for another 30 minutes. Take out and cool; then refrigerate for at least three hours.

A tip for all cheesecakes: Fill another pan with boiling water and place it at the bottom of the oven, creating a rich environment.

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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