A Guy Walks into a Bar -- and Orders Cheesecake
Great cheesecake is no joke to aficionados of the venerable dessert.
By Leslie Bilderback 10/03/2013
People often ask what my favorite dessert is. The answer is a cheese plate. It shouldn’t be a surprise. As a pastry chef and baker, up to my eyeballs in sugar and flour every day, I rarely feel like putting sweet stuff in my mouth too. At the end of a meal, I want something a little salty, a little creamy. But, when I am pressed, I usually split the difference and opt for cheesecake. A well-made, creamy, not-too-sweet cheesecake can be blissful.
Cheesecakes are a dime a dozen. You can find them in the freezer section of the supermarket. You can buy them online and have them delivered to your door. You can even visit their “factory,” dine under Italianesque murals, Egyptian columns and hand-blown glass chandeliers. (One half-expects Pagliacci to deliver your seared tuna.) Their purveyors’ mission is to cater to any cheesecake whim imaginable, studding them with candy, cookies or cookie dough, or flavoring them with piña colada, mangos, key lime,caramel apple streusel or peppermint bark. But real cheesecake does not need help from layers of gooey mix-ins or red velvet cake. When my cheesecake craving hits (usually close to bedtime), it’s not the factory style I want. I want a plain cheesecake.
I want it Lindy’s style.
Lindy’s began as a Jewish deli in New York but quickly became the most iconic culinary symbol of the Jazz Age. It is rumored that Al Jolson convinced owner Leo Lindermann and his wife, Clara, to convert the deli into the restaurant that opened on Broadway in 1921. Popular until the ’60s for its Jewish comfort food — pickled herring, beef tongue, corned beef, pastrami, goulash, borscht and blintzes — Lindy’s is best remembered for its cheesecake and waiters. Though the waiters were Swiss, Polish, Hungarian and the like, they were considered the original “Jewish waiters,” a reference to the menu, but forevermore associated with wisecracking insults. Their entertaining shenanigans drew in regulars — including the likes of Uncle Milty and Groucho Marx — presumably to steal material. (“Waiter, do you serve shrimps?” “Sure. We don’t care how tall you are.”)
It was a colorful place, filled with hoodlums, showgirls, artists and musicians, a place to schmooze and be seen. Mobster Arnold Rothstein had a regular table he considered his “office,” from which he orchestrated his Prohibition-eluding empire and fixed the 1919 World Series. Tin Pan Alley songwriters hung out at the bar, scanning the room for celebrities on whom to pounce and pitch. The regulars also included journalists, like Walter Winchell and Damon Runyon, who cast Lindy’s in several of his stories as “Mindy’s.” (You may recognize the name from a song in Guys and Dolls, a play based on a few Runyon stories).
No doubt it’s the history more than anything else that attracts me to the Lindy’s cheesecake. I do appreciate the bare simplicity of it, devoid of gooey chunks and embellishments. But I really love it because it brings me one step closer to being a hard-boiled dame, with great gams, glad rags and the moxie to match, spouting phrases like “everything’s Jake.” Besides, making a cheesecake goes over better with the kids than dressing up like Zelda Fitzgerald.
Leslie Bilderback, a certified master baker, chef and cookbook author, can be found in the kitchen of Heirloom Bakery in South Pasadena.