Q&A with Maureen Schulman, coauthor of The Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook

December 1, 2015

The Eli's Cheesecake Cookbook

Today is the publication date for The Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook, a title that is 35 years in the making. This book celebrates the anniversary of a signature Chicago dessert and the restaurant where it all began. Opened by Eli Schulman in the late 1970s, Eli’s The Place for Steak quickly became a pillar of Chicago’s culinary community, a noted celebrity watering hole, and much beloved for its rich and creamy Chicago-style cheesecakes.

The Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook celebrates the 35th anniversary of Eli’s Cheesecake. Why do you think Eli’s Cheesecake has stood the test of time?

Eli’s has stood the test of time because, plain and simple, Eli’s Cheesecake is a great dessert. We have always put quality first and maintained the standard of excellence put forth by Eli himself. Whether it was at Eli’s The Place For Steak, purchasing the best cuts of meat, or testing sour cream as it went through the culturing process every hour for 18 hours—great quality, excellent ingredients, talented pastry chefs, and dedication to detail always stands the test of time.

Also, Eli’s Cheesecake is different than most cheesecakes in terms of taste and texture. If you like it, you’re a fan for life because nothing else tastes quite like Eli’s. It’s like a souffléed custard on the inside, a little firmer and golden on the top and sides, and not too sweet. My father-in-law is credited with creating Chicago-style cheesecake, and that’s what Eli’s is: richer and creamier than its New York counterpart and baked on an all butter-cookie crust instead of graham. 

In the book, you share stories as well as recipes. Which is your favorite anecdote?

When President Clinton came to Eli’s The Place For Steak for dinner and the Secret Service told us we couldn’t tell anyone about his arrival, even the staff. I suggested telling Hal Roach, our great piano bar entertainer, so that he wouldn’t react. The SS said that they would have the President at his table so fast, Hal wouldn’t even notice. The President wasn’t in the doorway for more than a second, when we all heard “Hail to the Chief” being played on the piano!

I also really like the Shrimp Marc story, when my husband was being interviewed for a job at a law firm. After looking at a fairly impressive resume, the interviewer asked him if he was Shrimp Marc.

Beyond the obvious differences you describe above (texture, crust), what sets Eli’s Cheesecake apart from other cheesecakes?

I guess you could say we’re control freaks. We do everything ourselves, from having ingredients made to our specifications and selecting certain fruits from specific groves at specific farms to making all our caramels, ganaches, and fruit compotes in house. So basically, nothing goes into or on top of an Eli’s Cheesecake unless we’ve made it, tested it, and tasted it. 

We still do a lot of things the old-fashioned way. There is handwork on almost every cheesecake and dessert we make. We have a decorating line that looks a lot like the candy scene from I Love Lucy. If a cheesecake has a swirl, decorators literally stand there with the skewer and make sure every swirl is beautiful. They dust the cocoa, smooth the tops, pour the caramel—real pastry artists are working on every cake.

Why did you include some savory favorites in addition to the many cheesecake recipes?

Eli’s The Place For Steak was a very popular restaurant and had a loyal following. It closed ten years ago, when the building was torn down to make room for Lurie’s Children’s Hospital. People ask us all the time if we will reopen Eli’s because they miss certain dishes. Since the book has a timeline theme to it and the cheesecake was created in Eli’s kitchen as the signature dessert for the restaurant, we thought it would be fun to include the most requested recipes. By far, Liver Eli is the most beloved.   

The book discusses how Eli’s took a scientific approach to cheesecake. What’s the secret to creating perfect cheesecakes at home?

Baking is a science, so we felt the best way to approach the recipes was to address the issues that affect the outcome of baking a perfect cheesecake. In the “Demystifying the Cheesecake” chapter, we call out the “Must do’s”: tempering ingredients, adding one ingredient at a time, scraping the mixing bowl after each ingredient addition, mixing slow and long, baking hot and fast, and letting the cheesecake rest at room temperature for an hour before releasing it from the pan. Once you understand those elements, you’ll be able to troubleshoot if your cheesecake turns out to be less-than-perfect and adjust your process for next time.

What do you hope readers gain from The Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook?

Confidence. Cheesecake is traditionally considered an intimidating dessert to make at home. If you do everything outlined in these recipes, the cheesecake will turn out perfectly. And if, for example, the cake cracks, the reader is now armed with the scientific knowledge to address the problem. I think our approach empowers the home cook to not only make a great cheesecake, but to understand the principles behind successful baking. The book provides a jumping-off point to be creative. 

What’s next for Eli’s Cheesecake?

Continuing the year-long 35th anniversary celebration and, of course, the sequel to this cookbook. We’re also planning to expand the bakery to meet demand and create new desserts. 

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