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Food We Love: Behind the scenes at Eli’s Cheesecake, a Chicago classic

Video by Brian Rich

Welcome to Food We Love, our Sun-Times video series featuring stories about Chicagoans and the food they love. Each episode has a new story about a hidden gem, secret recipe, family food tradition, unusual favorite dish or one of Chicago’s famous food specialties. Our host is Chicago journalist Linda Yu, who loves cooking at home, as well as exploring new restaurants throughout the city.

In today’s episode: Linda Yu goes behind the scenes of a Chicago classic: Eli’s Cheesecake. At Eli’s bakery, workers are busy with holiday orders especially the “holiday dippers” that are selling like crazy ever since Oprah Winfrey gave them as a nod as one of her “Favorite Things.”

You can read the story and watch the new video by Linda and the Sun-Times audience team about their recent visit to the busy cheesecake bakery.

A Chicago Classic

Peppermint, salted caramel, turtle, strawberry, double chocolate, pumpkin, cinnamon rum raisin, Snickers or original.

If you love cheesecake, you already know I’m talking about Eli’s Cheesecake, the creamy, luscious, decadent cake that has put Chicago on the dessert map. You may have ordered it at a restaurant, you may have bought it at your supermarket, you may have received it in the mail as a gift, you may have tried to make it yourself from a recipe in the Eli’s Cheesecake Cookbook.

But have you ever been behind-the-scenes at the Eli’s bakery to see how 20,000 cheesecakes are made every single day? Recently, I got a behind the scenes tour of the northwest side facility where two hundred employees work nearly round-the-clock mixing, baking, icing, slicing, dipping, packing, and yes, tasting, to assemble all those cheesecakes and assorted desserts.

Ingredients start in the giant mixers, then fill the baking pans which are slipped into the huge ovens. 35 minutes later, the cheesecakes emerge to begin a ride on a 2-story tall conveyor belt that gently protects them from being jostled as they cool. An hour and a half later, the cheesecakes are ready to be chilled so they can be sliced and packaged.

Executive pastry chef Laurel Borger knew she wanted to be a baker since she was a little girl when she tried her first petit four. She can’t imagine anyone happier in a career that allows her to taste cheesecake every day and pays her to develop new kinds and flavors of cheesecake (yes, Eli’s takes suggestions from cheesecake lovers around the world).

The Taste of Chicago connection

We also learned some history.

Chicagoan Eli Schulman had a namesake restaurant in the city that was known for its steaks and liver (yes , liver!) but Eli decided he also wanted a signature dessert. One afternoon, after the busy lunch service was over, he went into the kitchen and started mixing. Cream cheese, sour cream, sugar, eggs and vanilla. He didn’t know how others made their cheesecakes; he did it his way. Diners at the restaurant were asked if they liked Eli’s efforts as he kept baking and kept honing his recipes.

By the time Chicago began “Taste of Chicago” in 1979, Eli had a cheesecake that was growing in popularity. When it was served at that first “Taste”, Eli could barely keep up with the demand. His son, Marc Schulman, quit his law career to help because Eli was still making his cheesecakes every day in the restaurant kitchen. Marc’s wife, Maureen, and as the years went by, their 3 daughters were also all involved in the cheesecake production.

Eli’s is now a 62,000 square foot bakery, producing all those cheesecakes, cakes, and cookies that Chicagoans and tourists enjoy. It’s an important part of Chicago history especially the giant cheesecakes that have been driven from Chicago to Washington, D.C. for the inaugurations of former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.

The huge cheesecakes have also marked the birthdays of Illinois and Chicago, as well as cakes ordered for the special celebrations of lots of private citizens … not to mention the giant cheesecake Marc and Maureen Schulman made for me when I retired from ABC7.

Oprah’s impact

Plus, there’s the holiday holiday “dippers.” These are individual slices of cheese cake dipped in chocolate and then decorated to look like Christmas trees. Oprah Winfrey recently picked the Eli’s dipper as of one of her 2018 gift guide “Favorite Things” and now the bakery is practically working around the clock to keep up with the increased demand.

All of that adds up to the triumvirate of foods that so many identify with our city: Chicago hot dog, deep dish pizza and Eli’s Cheesecake!

We hope you’ve enjoyed this segment of “Food We Love with Linda Yu.” Check the links below to watch Linda’s other #foodwelove videos. Each one has a great story plus recipes for you to try at home. You can also follow Linda on social media.

I’m really easy to find on social media. I hope you’ll follow me for updates & beautiful photos and much more.
I’m really easy to find on social media. I hope you’ll follow me for updates & beautiful photos and much more.

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