Translating “cheesecake” into Polish

When you think of Polish food, pierogies and kielbasa may come to mind. But Liisa Ecola’s Chicago grandmother broke the mold: she is remembered for her cheesecake.

Large numbers of Poles began arriving in Chicago in the early 19th century when unrest rocked their homeland. Today, they are among the city’s three largest European ethnic groups, just behind people of German and Irish ancestry. 

Chicago Polonia, as they are sometimes called, have left their mark on the Windy City’s culinary landscape with a proliferation of restaurants and bakeries. Polish culinary culture culminates in the annual Taste of Polonia, a festival celebrating Polish food, drink and culture that has been held every Labor Day weekend since 1979. (This year’s event features blintzes, kishka and stuffed kapusta as well as 38 live bands. That’s a lot of polka!)

Cheesecake goes back even further, perhaps to ancient Greece. Early cheesecake recipes called only for flour, wheat, honey and cheese. The cake was considered to be an excellent source of energy and was served to Olympic athletes as well as to brides and grooms. Later, the Romans added crushed cheese and eggs and sometimes a pastry crust. The Roman politician Marcus Porcius Cato — aka Cato the Elder — is often cited as the first person to have recorded a cheesecake recipe.

As the recipe spread through the Roman Empire, the various geographic entities of Europe gave it their own spin. Americans, of course, have also adapted the dish.

American cheesecake is characterized by cream cheese. The key ingredient was invented accidentally in 1872 when a New York dairy farmer trying to recreate Neufchatel cheese from France ended up with what we now know of as cream cheese. New York cheesecake is the most widely known style of American cheesecake and was created by Arnold Reuben, a man perhaps better known for sloppy corned beef on rye with cheese, sauerkraut and Thousand Island dressing. But Philadelphia, St. Louis, and, of course, Chicago, are all cities that have special ingredients in their cheesecake recipes. Chicago recipes typically call for sour cream to make the filling even creamier.

Ecola was happy to share her grandmother’s story with us – but not her recipe. For that, we’ll just have to use our imaginations.

 — Text by Nora Scheland

— Video by Daniel McCollum

Makes 10 to 12 servings

AFR Tested

Mascarpone cheesecake

This cheesecake is not from Liisa Ecola's grandmother, but it has the qualities she admires: it's soft and creamy and invites seconds. It also incorporates elements of New York cheesecake (cream cheese) and Chicago cheesecake (sour cream.) Originally published in Gourmet magazine, this recipe was adapted from Epicurious.

Ingredients

  • For crust:
  • 70 vanilla wafers (8 1/2 oz), finely ground in a food processor (2 1/3 cups)
  • 1 1/4 sticks (10 tablespoons) unsalted butter, melted and cooled

  • For filling:
  • 20 oz cream cheese (2 1/2 eight-ounce packages), softened
  • 8 oz mascarpone cheese at room temperature (about 1 cup)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt

  • For topping:
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Instructions

Make crust:

Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bottom and side of a 9-inch springform pan.

Stir together cookie crumbs and butter in a bowl. Reserve 1/4 cup crumb mixture for sprinkling over cheesecake, then pat remainder onto bottom and 1 1/2 inches up side of springform pan (about 1 inch thick). Put pan in a shallow baking pan and bake until golden, about 10 minutes. Cool completely on a rack, about 25 minutes. Leave oven on.

Make filling while crust bakes:

Beat cream cheese, mascarpone, and sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium high speed until fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add vanilla, lemon juice, and salt and mix at low speed until combined. Pour into cooled crust and bake until cake is set and puffed around edge but still trembles slightly when pan is shaken gently, 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and cool slightly in springform pan on rack, about 20 minutes. (Cheesecake will continue to set as it cools.) Leave oven on.

Make topping:

Stir together sour cream, sugar, vanilla, lemon juice, and salt in a small bowl and spoon over cheesecake, spreading gently and evenly, leaving a 1/4-inch border around edge.

Bake cheesecake until topping is set, about 10 minutes. Run a thin knife around edge to help prevent cracking. Sprinkle top with reserved crumbs and cool completely in pan on rack, then chill, loosely covered, at least 8 hours.

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