The Philly Cheesecake: A mystery explored, in time for the holidays

Legend says the mythical cake has more flavor and a lighter texture. What’s the truth?

Cassie Owens, Reporter/Curator

What is Philadelphia-style cheesecake, really?

Google it and you’ll read, over and over, that Philadelphia style is lighter in texture and also deeper in flavor than New York style. But more often than not, there’ll be scant other distinguishing details listed. As Franklin Fountain co-founder and local food history buff Eric Berley put it, it’s as if the Philly version being described is the “gelato” to the “ice cream” of the New York cheesecake you probably know.

Can Philadelphia claim such a vision of love — a cake that’s more flavorful but also lighter? At best, the answer would be… maybe. It really depends which kind you’re referring to.

Yeah, there’s more than one Philadelphia-style cheesecake out there. After speaking with several experts and chefs, we identified at least three varieties. 

The brand, not the city

When most people refer to Philadelphia-style cheesecake, experts say, they’re talking about a version marketed by the cream cheese brand. New York style typically has sour cream or heavy cream in the mix. Philadelphia style doesn’t. Which means it doesn’t have anything to do with Philadelphia, the city.

Food historians say the cheesecake dates back to ancient Greece. Later, in medieval England and then colonial America, cheesecakes made from curd cheeses were all the rage. A widely referenced history by food historian Gil Marks notes that Philadelphia had a tavern called “Cheesecake House” in the 18th century. Early European cheesecakes looked more like tarts than the dessert we’re now familiar with. We didn’t get these creamy, thick-as-a-brick cheesecakes until the invention of cream cheese.

While there are debates about whether certain cream cheese production techniques were around before, most sources point to New York dairyman William Lawrence as the inventor. He started producing the cheese in 1872. At first, Lawrence was merely calling it cream cheese, but a distributor had a slick marketing idea for him. “’Philadelphia’ used to signify ‘quality,'” Berley explained in an email. “We once were a ‘Workshop of the World.’” The rest is not-actually-from-Philly history.

Rows and rows of cheesecake.

Rows and rows of cheesecake.

Termini Brothers on Facebook

Cream cheese varieties of cheesecake seem to predate New York style, but it wasn’t really until Jewish New Yorkers embraced the dish in the ’30s that usage of Lawrence’s cream began to rise, becoming the standard in NYC and across the nation.

“Almost all cheesecakes we’re used to are Philadelphia cheesecakes, because they only use cream cheese as their fat,” said Cheesecake Bible author George Geary, who’s currently working on his third book solely devoted to the dessert. 

Whether it’s plain, has a crown of fruit or comes with a drizzle of this or some sprinkles of that, it’s the fat in the recipe that counts here. “The typical Philadelphia cheesecake, that’s really hard to pinpoint, because I really think it’s because of the cream cheese more than anything,” Geary said.

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Alex Dugger/Flickr

In this respect, both New York style and this type of Philly style are exceedingly popular— and not that dissimilar, with a graham cracker or cookie crust. But New York style, for all its glory and added fats, can somehow still manage to taste dry. Multiple chefs told us that Philly style gets pointed to as an alternative to New York attributes that not everyone loves.

“I think that’s what people are thinking of when they say they want cheesecake— that’s what they’re thinking in their brain,” Melanie Underwood, the author of Making Artisan Cheesecake, said of Philadelphia-style. It’s “the quintessential cheesecake.”

Underwood teaches cheesecake recipes at NYC’s Institute for Culinary Education. She noted that they teach both varieties at ICE, but where New York style is tagged as such, the Philadelphia-style recipe is simply called “cheesecake.” 

Most experts, like Geary and Berley, will tell you our city can’t take credit for this. Underwood agrees with them that signs point to the brand, but also believes there was likely a sort of a “sibling rivalry” between cities that contributed to a sense of competition between the two styles.

“I could not find conclusive information [on this],” she said. “People claim things… Who doesn’t want to say they invented cheesecake?”

Vanessa Jackson, who goes by the moniker “The Cheesecake Lady,” sold her signature personal-sized cheesecakes out of a Jenkintown storefront until earlier this year. She doesn’t reckon that we can really plant our flag here either.

“I think anyone in Philadelphia is making an adaptation of somewhere else. We’re not really known for cheesecake,” she said. And in fact, a lot of the cheesecakes around this town are New York style. Termini Bros sells New York; Brendenbeck’s sells New York; Tiffany’s sells “New York Style with Philly attitude.”

For a bit, the brothers behind Darling’s made a point to change that. 

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Darling's Diner on Facebook

A lament for Darling’s ?

Starting at a small cafe in Center City and eventually expanding to another location plus Darling’s Diner at the Piazza, the Arnold brothers became famous for serving what they called “the original Philadelphia-style” cheesecake. Writer after writer called it fantastic, but unfortunately all locations have since shuttered. The brothers could not be reached for comment.

According to The Spirit of the Riverwards, the entire concept for the Arnolds’ business began with their cheesecake recipe. It was cream cheese-based but still fluffy, “so light you could eat it with a meal instead of as a meal.” 

We couldn’t find any bakery or restaurant that currently offers this version, which isn’t actually surprising. The Northeast Times reported in 2008 that only two people knew the recipe— its inventor Harry Arnold and one of the workers on staff. The recipe was so secret then that even Arnold’s brother and business partner John didn’t know what it was.

Per that article, the first Darling’s location opened in 2005. It’s final location closed last year. So, the city only really had that much-lauded version of cheesecake for a decade.

Getting really old school

Before cream cheese, bakers used other cheeses—  whatever was available to them locally.

In the Northeast, you can still get it that way. Schenk’s, Haegele’s and Holmesburg Bakery all keep New York-style on deck, but they also sell a cheesecake that’s closer to the Pennsylvania Dutch version. The cheesecake that you’ll find at these three establishments is traditionally baked in a rectangular form with the basic crust used for most pies. The cream is made from baker’s cheese. If there’s fruit involved, it’s placed inside the pie with the cheese mixture poured over it.

Another cheesecake you can find in town that’s reminiscent of the Old World is a ricotta cheesecake available at some Italian bakeries, like Potito’s and Isgro’s.

At Schenk’s, they call theirs the German cheesecake, actually. German recipes still call for quark, though. Baker’s cheese is a more modern, seemingly local twist. 

 

The "old fashioned" cheesecake at Holmesburg Bakery. That red peeking through comes cherries inside.

The "old fashioned" cheesecake at Holmesburg Bakery. That red peeking through comes cherries inside.

Anton Nikiforov

Buddy Gouger, who runs Holmesburg Bakery, put a call into his dad to make sure he could properly explain why they make the “old fashioned” as they do. In the olden days, Gouger reported back, they would strain cottage cheese in a cheesecloth, but that proved too time-consuming as the years went on, so they modified the recipe by using a baker’s cheese base.

As it turns out, the old-fashioned is the better seller at Holmesburg. “We don’t even put it in the display. People just know,” said Gouger.

Buddy Gouger, who runs Holmesburg Bakery, shows a photo of his grandfather, who he was named after. The bakery has been in his family since at least 1900.

Buddy Gouger, who runs Holmesburg Bakery, shows a photo of his grandfather, who he was named after. The bakery has been in his family since at least 1900.

Anton Nikiforov

The sign on the door says that Holmesburg Bakery was established in 1900, but Gouger clarifies that that’s the earliest date they can prove with documentation. He’s seen a plaque from 1888. They still have horse shoes from when the location was a stable.

Rather than by the slice, at Holmesburg Bakery, you order the old fashioned by the quarter. And instead of tall and dense, it’s maybe an inch-high and soft. It’s tart, but has the feel of country custard pie too. Gouger said the cream mixture is made from the baker’s cheese, sugar, salt, vanilla, milk, powder and eggs. Thank God for minimalism. That cheesecake is delicious.