New York-style cheesecake is one of the most enticing foods known to man. Sweet, creamy, and a little tart, it can be combined with fruit, chocolate, and/or a variety of spices and flavorings to create a bevy of wildly different and exciting desserts; everything from the traditional, topped with sour cherries, or the classic strawberry variety, to those with exotic fruit flavors, to those appropriate for holidays, to the divinely decadent. But as versatile and tempting as cheesecake is, in the heat of summer, sometimes so much milk can be, as Ron Burgundy aptly put it, “a bad choice.”
If you love cheesecake as much as I do, going without it for a whole season is impossible. So what’s a cheesecake lover to do? Don’t fret! I found a lighter, fluffier version of everyone’s favorite dessert, courtesy of Japan.
Strangely, I was first introduced to Japanese cheesecake on a business trip to Toronto. In between meetings, I passed a storefront (near Ryerson University for you Torontonians) with a bright red sign and a line around the block. The sign proclaimed: Uncle Tetsu’s Japanese Cheesecake. Japanese Cheesecake? Huh? Naturally, I was curious, and since I had a couple hours to kill, I got in the back of the line and waited.
After an hour of watching people walk inside the shop and come out with 10-inch square cake boxes and big smiles on their faces, not to mention being surrounded by the unmistakably rich and sweet aroma of warm cream cheese, I was excitedly salivating. When I got to the front and had procured my very own 10-inch square box, I couldn’t wait to see how the contents differed from my all-time favorite dessert: New York-style cheesecake. From my first bite, I was impressed. The texture was cloud-like and lush without sticking to the roof of my mouth. Somehow, the mellow, sugared tang of cream cheese – everything I love about New York cheesecake – wasn’t diminished despite the lightness. And weirdly, that lightness made the Japanese cheesecake feel more reminiscent of a soufflé than a traditional cheesecake. That makes sense, though, because in Japan, Japanese cheesecake is known as “soufflé cheesecake.” The technique required to get its characteristic airiness is exactly the technique you’d use to make a souffle: fold egg whites beaten to a stiff peak into the batter.
But how did a uniquely Japanese cheesecake come to be? I mean, cheese isn’t exactly a staple in traditional Japanese cuisine (it’s basically non-existent). Well, to start, it’s the fault of us Americans. The cheesecake craze in Japan began post-World War II when many Americans stationed there wanted to cook their favorite foods from back home. Naturally, many ingredients for those foods would need to be imported and, with the advent of home refrigeration systems in the 1950s, American foods, like cream cheese, became more widespread. Naturally, Japanese curiosity was piqued by these exotic imports, so interest in American food began to grow in households and among professional chefs alike.
But Japan’s new culinary horizons weren’t only set on America. In the early 1950s, Japan opened its borders to the west for the first time in 200 years. Japanese chefs like Tomotaro Kuzuno were excited to travel the world and find inspiration from across the globe. Kuzuno, for his part, went to Germany, where he found a German cheesecake, käsekuchen. Käsekuchen is made with quark, the German answer to cream cheese (high-fat ricotta is a pretty decent facsimile), and vanilla pudding. Because in käsekuchen, the eggs are separated and the whites are whipped to stiff peaks before being folded in, the end result has a light, fluffy texture. Sound familiar?
When Kuzuno came back to Japan from Germany, he wanted to create a new version of this käsekuchen, one that more closely mimicked the American-style cheesecake that his countrymen had begun to love. This combination of New York cheesecake with German käsekuchen gave us the Japanese cheesecake. Basically, Japanese cheesecake is the original cronut: a food mashup that spread like wildfire across the country thanks to a flavor and texture that feel familiar, but, together, are completely unique.
Unlike käsekuchen, which requires a very specific type of cheese, Japanese cheesecake can be made with bricks of the same stuff you shmear on your bagel. And don’t let the fact that it uses soufflé techniques make you nervous. Once you get the hang of separating eggs, making Japanese cheesecake is actually easier than the New York-style kind. And for a bit of extra sweetness, Japan’s customary topping, like strawberries or cherries for our New York cheesecake, is apricot jam. Get the Recipe.
If you’re like me, and want to see what the thing tastes like before making it yourself, Uncle Tetsu is rapidly expanding. It currently has locations in Toronto, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Honolulu, all over Southeast Asia and Eastern Australia and will soon be opening shops in England, Spain, and the home of all cheesecake: New York.
On a hot summer day, when everything is sticking to you – clothes, your hair, sweat – the last thing you want is something else sticking, like a thick textured food on the roof of your mouth. Japanese cheesecake is the antidote to that. It’s like the product of a torrid affair between angel food cake and New York-style cheesecake, with a sweetness that’s anything but cloying and allows the cheese to be the star. Serve it up with some apricot jam or fresh berries and you’ll have a perfect finish to a summer brunch.
Finally, in case you’re wondering, since the 1970s, cheese, thanks in part to the demand for cheesecake across the country, has solidified its place in new Japanese cooking, with people waiting in long lines to get their hands on cheesecake and savory cheese tarts alike.
Related Video: How to Fix a Cracked Cheesecake
Header image courtesy of Uncle Tetsu.