It was negative three degrees on the day that I went to tour the Eli’s Cheesecake Factory and though it was bitterly cold the frigid air did nothing to dampen my eagerness to tour a refrigerated factory. If anything, the cold weather had caused me to bundle up so that I was amply prepared to walk into the room-sized blast chiller where the cheesecakes are placed and allowed to set. I hadn’t thought about this day for quite some time, but as I was roaming through the aisles of Shoprite the other day I caught a glimpse of an Eli’s cheesecake in the refrigerator section and it took me back to that brutally glacial day. Then, like a blow to the chest came the crystalizing realization that, even though it seems like Passover was just yesterday it was in fact two weeks ago and now I was looking down the barrel at Shavuot and I was woefully unprepared. That’s how it became clear to me that it was time to start thinking seriously about cheesecake.
Shavuot is easily one of my favorite holidays because it is the only Yom Tov that encourages us to eat ice cream at the end of a festive meal. Jewish culinary anthropologists will provide all sorts of reasons for this phenomenon, but I choose not to look a gift horse in the mouth and simply accept that there is no really solid halachic reason for eating dairy, it is simply a wonderful minhag (custom) that we developed at some point. The crowning achievement of this tradition is that (like so many of our other traditions) it decided to go for broke and take the single most dairy item in existence and add it as a staple to the Shavuot menu. I, of course, mean the glorious decadence that is cheesecake.
When I toured the Eli’s factory, I didn’t do it in my usual capacity as a food writer; I went with a friend as a civilian. My friend, Moshe, was visiting Chicago and, when I asked him what he wanted to see, he immediately asked that I bring him to tour Eli’s, the house that cheesecake built. Known as “Chicago’s Most Famous Dessert,” Eli’s first began selling cheesecake in the seventies and eventually developed into a countrywide brand. The factory is a sixty-two-thousand square foot behemoth that houses a café in the front end with a set of extra-wide double doors behind which is a team of people who construct the actual cheesecakes. I watched this small army furiously assemble cheesecakes and was then ushered to a room with a large screen that displayed a short film on the history of Eli’s. I digress for a moment to mention the following fact. Normally the Eli’s cheesecake tour would take place with about twenty or so participants but the aforementioned foul weather had thinned the ranks of people who showed up for the factory tour. In fact, only Moshe and I were on the tour, but when the Eli’s cheesecake representative brought out the cart of cheesecakes, it was meant to be eaten by a full tour group. I am not especially proud of what happened next, but I was young, and my constitution for cream cheese based desserts was much higher. What followed was a flurry of sampling; I tried every last kosher item offered by Eli’s.
As atavistically gluttonous as that act may have been I am now in the present able to call back on my experience when considering cheesecake options for this Shavuot. See,there is an entire world of cheesecake, not just the original plain flavor that is most often served. Eli’s in particular makes a Blackberry Sour Cream Cheesecake that is particularly marvelous and would pair nicely with richer pasta dishes (if one was so inclined to make one for Shavuot). For those looking for a chocolate fix Eli’s also makes a series of chocolate lover’s items like chocolate chip cheesecake or Heath bar Cheesecake not to mention their Dutch chocolate cheesecake. For my money, though, I would buy their cheesecake on a stick dipped in chocolate and frozen. That particular item comes individually wrapped and in boxes of six.
I walked away from Eli’s Cheesecake Factory stuffed to the gills and freezing, but feeling as if my life had been enriched by an overly decadent experience. As a result of that day years ago, I found myself amply prepared for company on Shavuot, after having walked out of Shoprite with several armloads and flavors of cheesecake.
Zechariah Mehler is a widely published food writer and expert in social marketing. Follow him on Twitter @thekoshercritic