Eli’s Cheesecake: A slice of Chicago


Lauren Heist
Beep Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

In this corner, Joe New Yorker! Weighing in at 300 pounds, he’s gonna be a strong contender in this fight. He’s wearing a Yankees cap, he bought his shorts from Macy’s, and he’s taking a bite out of a big, floppy piece of greasy pizza.

And in the opposite corner, Frank Chicagoan. He may only weigh 250 pounds, but this broad-shouldered fighter is wearing a White Sox hat and shorts from Marshall Field’s, and he just consumed an entire deep dish pizza.

But wait! Looks like Frank Chicagoan just pulled out his secret weapon: An Eli’s Cheesecake.

“New York cheesecake is thicker, denser and heavier,” explains Hillary King, 29, a tour guide at Eli’s headquarters in northwest Chicago, where thousands of cheesecakes are produced every day. “[Chicago-style cheesecake] is light and creamier. It’s more smooth, not as gritty.”

Eli’s typifies the Chicago version of the dessert – light, creamy and a little bit tart – and that signature taste has made this family-owned business a Chicago institution.

The company dates back to 1940, when a young entrepreneur named Eli Schulman opened up a small restaurant at the corner of Ogden and Kedzie avenues. That lead to a second restaurant in 1958, and finally to Eli’s The Place For Steak, which served celebrities and locals alike from 1966 until 2005. Eli’s restaurant may have advertised its steak, but what it became renowned for was its cheesecake, which debuted in two flavors, plain and chocolate chip, in 1977.

“He said, ‘I want to make a great dessert,’” says Marc Schulman, Eli’s son who became president of the company when his father died in 1988. “His dream always was to create a signature product like Hershey’s or Wrigley.”

Schulman, 51, says his father experimented with different variations of the cream cheese-based dessert before he got the taste he was looking for. “Our cheesecake, baked on a butter cookie crust, makes it unique,” Schulman says.

In 1980, the Schulmans began mass producing their cheesecake and shipping it all over the country. Today, about 200 employees work in the company’s Chicago factory churning out anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 cheesecakes a day to keep up with demand. The desserts can be found in Wal-Marts, Jewels, Albertsons and other retailers, as well as in restaurants around the country.

Inside the factory, workers in white hair nets make magic. They lift up huge packages of cream cheese and dump 300 pounds of it into a bowl along with two to five pounds of eggs, 10 to 15 pounds of sour cream, half a gallon to one-and-a-half gallons of vanilla and 50 to 70 pounds of sugar per batch. Then the batter gets mixed together in a nine-foot-tall mixer and squirted into various sized round metal pans that already have the crusts in them, which are made the night before.

The pans travel on a conveyor belt through a 70-foot-long tunnel-like oven and are baked at 360 degrees for about 45 minutes. When they come out the other end, they ride up a rotating metal cylinder — kind of like a turning screw that’s two stories tall — and by the time the cakes get to the top, they’re cool.

Then the cakes slide down a shoot to the bottom, where workers pop the cakes out of the pans and send them on to the decorating department. Here, a worker catches globs of icing from a large funnel, plops the icing on the cake, and then another worker uses a flat spatula to even it out. Fancier flourishes are added, then the cake is sent to be sliced, packed and shipped. From start to finish, it takes about 10 hours to complete a cheesecake.

Eli’s insists their products don’t use any preservatives, so the cakes turn out like they would if you made them yourself, except they make a lot more of them. That’s why Eli’s suggests you freeze your cheesecakes or keep them in your refrigerator for no more than five days. Of course, if you’re a cheesecake lover, it’s unlikely the cake will last that long in your fridge anyway.

Marc Schulman says Eli’s steps up production to 20,000 cakes a day during November and December, when business is busiest and people are buying cheesecakes for holiday meals or ordering them as gifts.

Schulman’s two original flavors continue to be the most popular sellers, although the company produces over 150 different varieties – everything from an Oreo cookie cheesecake, to white chocolate raspberry, Key lime and Marc Schulman’s favorites, turtle and mud pie.

The original 9-inch cheesecake sells online for $26. Other varieties are more expensive. The 10-inch raspberry brulee cheesecake, for example, retails for $43.

But the best way to taste Chicago’s famous dessert? Take a tour. They’re offered every weekday at 1 p.m. and they always ends on sweet note – with a free slice of cheesecake.

Eli’s Original Cheesecake Recipe

4 packages (8 ounces each) cream cheese, softened
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1 egg yolk
6 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
graham cracker or cookie crust for 9-inch spring form pan

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Beat cream cheese, sugar and flour in mixing bowl of an electric mixer until light and creamy. Add eggs and yolk, one at a time, scraping down sides of bowl until completely incorporated. Add sour cream and vanilla. Beat mixture, scraping down sides of bowl, until smooth. Pour mixture into prepared crust in un-greased 9-inch spring form pan; place on cookie sheet. Bake until cake is firm around edge and center barely jiggles when tapped, about 45 minutes. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or overnight to completely set up before serving.

Crumb Crust
1 ½ cups vanilla wafers (ground)
½ cup powder sugar
¾ cup melted butter

Mix all ingredients in medium bowl using your fingertips until mixture is well moistened.

Graham Crust
1 ½ cups graham meal
½ cup brown sugar
¾ cup melted butter
½ tsp. cinnamon

Mix all ingredients in medium bowl using your fingertips until mixture is well moistened.

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