The petite pastry case at Yardsale Cafe in Brooklyn is sandwiched between two walls lined with vintage bric-a-brac — antique keys, lanterns, trivets, and more. Behind the glass sits babka swirled with chocolate, cookies, and a burnished cheesecake. It’s not quite a Basque cheesecake, which has become so popular in New York City during the pandemic, but it’s not a classic pale New York-style one either.
When Israeli Shawn Peled opened the cafe in September of 2020, he didn’t think the cake would sell well — he feared it would be too unfamiliar to his customers. But, nearly two years later, everyone seems to claim the cake as their own. There’s a Polish butcher next door whose customers stop by and say it’s a sweet called sernik. Other times, “We get Russian Jews, they think it’s their cake,” Shawn says. Israeli visitors sometimes mistake it for a recipe from Kapulsky Café, which used to sell cakes along Tel Aviv’s boardwalk.
Instead, it’s a recipe Shawn created based on the one his mother Mira, grandmother Marta, and great-grandmother Rivka used to make. Born in Transylvania, Rivka fled to Bucharest during World War II where Shawn believes she hid with her family, including her daughter Marta, who was born in 1941. Together, they made Aliyah just after the founding of Israel settling in Netanya, along Israel’s coast.
Shawn’s parents hopped between one place and another — Turkey, France, and across Israel — for his father’s job, so holidays were always spent at his grandmother’s home. “Every holiday we had a regiment of food that we had to have,” he explains, including the cheesecake, which his mother would bake and bring to the celebrations. And, when the family visited friends in the north of Israel for the springtime holiday Shavuot, a cheesecake often came with them.
When Mira passed away six years ago, Shawn missed two of her recipes most: schnitzel and the cheesecake. Sadly, neither he nor his sister had ever thought to ask his mother to write them down, he says. On one visit home, the duo spent three days recreating the schnitzel recipe. But, for the cheesecake, Shawn was on his own.
He found a list of ingredients in a notebook from his high school years when he started baking. He had asked his mother about the cake, but no quantities were given — his mom and grandmother always measured by eye. It took Shawn a couple of years of trial and error to recreate it. He also decided to riff a bit, bringing in elements of Basque cheesecake: his rendition is less sweet than his mother’s, has a darker top, and is a touch more stable, ensuring a slice is still creamy but won’t collapse into a creamy puddle.
Like his mom, Shawn always brings a cheesecake with him — along with two babkas — when he visits friends. “This is my proud point,” he says, “I’ll always bring it with me.”