The pesky idea of baking an Israeli cheesecake, the kind I used to bake before I moved to the United States, lodged itself in my head last year just before Shavuot, the ultimate dairy food holiday, of which the reigning queen, in Israel, is the cheesecake. Only I had forgotten the exact quantities of the ingredients. So I embarked on a hunt for the old-country recipe, which, at times, was not unlike that beloved children’s book, Are You My Mother?—except in my case it was Are You My Cheesecake? I knew what the cheesecake looked like, but, as it turned out, like many things in life, recipes evolve, and now there are several “Israeli cheesecake” recipes. But I was adamant about finding the authentic recipe. Could I replicate the recipe and the experience that I remembered? It would be like going back home.
I don’t recall how I came about the original cheesecake recipe when I lived in the Old North of Tel Aviv while a student at the university. Israeli cheesecake at the time was quite light and airy in texture and tangy in flavor, very different from the much richer and denser cheesecake I encountered when I came to this country.
Make no mistake—I loved the American cheesecake so much that I begged for the recipe. Diane, my late sister-in-law Lois’ late neighbor, ended up giving it to me. I think of her fondly whenever I come across the typewritten original she gave me. I loved it and adopted it as my go-to. And that was how I abandoned my own Israeli cheesecake, completely forgetting the recipe I once knew by heart in the process.
Always a recipe tinkerer, I recalled adding, back then, a “surprise” to my Israeli cheesecake. After pouring half of the batter into the pan, I would carefully lay a circle of canned peach halves, then pouring the remaining batter on top. Cutting into the chilled cake revealed the half circle of the yellow peach, a cheerful splash of brightness in the white cake. And the tangy peach complemented the sweet and slightly lemony cheesecake in the most delicious way.
My search for that cheesecake, which started online, proved futile at first. I realized that nowadays instant pudding is almost the rule in Israeli cheesecakes, not the exception. But as a purist, I wanted the original. Eventually, with the help of the Internet, friends and my dear sister Tsila, the resident baker of the family, I was able to recreate the recipe.
What happened next is the kind of irony immigrants know only too well. I finally had the recipe—but couldn’t get the right ingredients. So like many an immigrant before me, I had to adapt to the readily available local options.
Luckily, my adjustments resulted in a cake with the fluffiest texture and tangiest flavor—and not a drop of instant pudding. And unlike its American cousin, it is not too sweet. I loved it; every spoonful was deliciously satisfying. Some things never change though: once a tinkerer, always a tinkerer—instead of canned peaches baked inside the cake, though, I caramelized peach halves, one for each slice of cake. My lost cheesecake recipe took me back home, but the new cheesecake reminded me that home is where I bake my cheesecake.