Updated: May 5
To find S&S Cheesecake is to love it
In the Kingsbridge section of the Bronx, there is an unassuming single-story, brick building on 238st Street. There are no windows or obvious adornments, and, unless you’re paying attention to the top of the building, no hints that behind that beleaguered door lies an old-school bakery creating culinary magic.
S&S Cheesecake, as the name suggests, does one thing and its legions of dedicated fans will tell you it does it the best. The cheesecake is light, yet still dense enough to deliver on the velvety richness one expects from this decadent dessert. The slight tang cuts through any chance of this cheesecake being too sweet. The barely-there sweet dough crust at the base and sides ensures each handmade cake holds its shape, yet the cream cheese mixture is the center of attention. Ultimately, each and every bite of this award-winning cheesecake melts in your mouth.
The S&S story begins with Fred Schuster, a Holocaust survivor who fled his homeland of Germany and spent several years in Switzerland, where he worked many jobs. Schuster found his passion for the food industry while working at Swiss restaurants and, eventually, bakeries. Schuster came to the US and opened his own bakery in 1962. When it first opened, Schuster offered all types of baked goods, but over the years his focus turned to his number one selling item: the cheesecake.
Schuster, now 93 years old, has left his bakery and recipe in the very capable hands of his son-in-law, Yair Ben-Zaken. Ben-Zaken is not new to the inner-workings of S&S; he worked side by side with Schuster for over 30 years (Schuster still often comes to check in on the bakery). Like his mentor, Ben-Zaken keeps many aspects of the recipe secret—from the temperature of the brick ovens to the proprietary blend of cream cheese they use. “More than once, I’ve found people digging in our trash to try to find our suppliers,” he says, laughing.
Ben-Zaken is an outgoing personality with a love for the neighborhood and a mind working overtime to try and create new, local businesses. He has kept everything about S&S Cheesecake very much the same and still lives by Schuster’s motto, “Bake with love, serve with pride.” His biggest change in the last several decades is the addition of a chocolate cheesecake to the S&S offerings—which also include fruit-topped cheesecakes. “It took over four years of trying to get the fat content from the cocoa just right,” says Ben-Zaken. But it’s not just the quality ingredients that make the cheesecakes what they are. “It’s everything from the process, the consistency, the ingredients and our passion for the product,” he explains. “You take away one these elements and it just won’t taste the same.”
During the recession, the business’s wholesale portion suffered and they were unable to economically transport cheesecakes to some of New York’s best steakhouses and gourmet grocery stores. A more recent setback was a fire that completely gutted the bakery last year. In a testament to what a stalwart S&S Cheesecake is to the area, Ben-Zaken was able to partially rebuild and start baking again within a month with help from the community. In fact, he’s using this as an opportunity to rethink the front portion of S&S as a café for people to sit and enjoy a larger selection of flavored cheesecakes. “It’s what the people want these days,” he insists.
According to Ben-Zaken, retail business is booming through direct sales and mail order. And though he knows he could expand into the wholesale business, he worries about sustaining the quality his loyal customer base expects. “We’d have to go into automated production to produce more,” he explains. “And until a machine is created that can satisfy our formula, I just can’t go that route.”
Those who know S&S Cheesecake consider themselves to be in a select group lucky enough to know where to get New York’s best cheesecake. It’s a controversial statement, as there are as many styles, baking techniques and flavors of cheesecake as there are opinions on the subject. So how can you be sure? As they say, the proof of the pudding—or in this case, the cheesecake—is in the eating.
Words by Randi Greenberg and Photos by Amanda Celestino