In late winter of last year, Maria Kitsopoulos, a member of the New York Philharmonic since 1996, arrived for rehearsal with a cello on her back and Rubbermaid container in hand. Inside, she had tucked little squares of homemade cheesecake, the luscious filling held together by two layers of flaky pastry. “Musicians love free food,” she told me. “They see that box and come running.”
She made sure that the first pieces went to the stage manager and stagehands. (“They’re the ones who find cushions for you,” she said.) Then, just before going onstage, she handed the last squares to an assistant of the guest conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, the Venezuelan superstar with a halo of dark curls who, in 2009, took over the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has led it to glory ever since.
Recipe: Sopapilla Cheesecake Bars
She didn’t know if her small offering would be left to languish in a dressing room. But at the end of the concert later that evening, after the thrilling race to the end of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony and with the audience aroar, Dudamel turned to the cello section, gave her a thumbs-up and mouthed, “Great cheesecake.”
Apparently he never forgot it. In February, news broke that Dudamel — a singular figure both exalted in the insular classical-music world and adored by the public, and even granted his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — would become the music and artistic director of the New York Philharmonic in 2026. (Trumpets blare!) As reported in The New York Times, when Dudamel returned to Lincoln Center to meet with his colleagues to be, he told Kitsopoulos that her cheesecake was a major factor in his decision to cross the continent.
Surely the powers that be at the Philharmonic had mustered many temptations in their campaign to win Dudamel away from the West Coast. But in the end, was it a humble cheesecake that tipped the scales? I reached out to my daughter’s cello teacher, Wolfram Koessel, a member of the American String Quartet who regularly plays with the Philharmonic. “Have you heard about this cheesecake?” I texted.
Dudamel turned to the cello section and mouthed, ‘Great cheesecake.’
Immediately the phone rang. It turned out that Kitsopoulos was a close friend of Koessel’s and made the same cheesecake six years ago when they were playing at a festival in Vail, Colo. He, too, never forgot it. Even though Kitsopoulos accidentally burned it — “the altitude,” she said with a sigh when I asked her later — Koessel’s daughter, then 8, still insists that it’s the best cheesecake she’s ever had.
What kind of cheesecake withstands burning and triumphs, and sears itself into the memories of child and worldly wise alike? The ingredient list is brief: for the filling, only cream cheese, sugar and vanilla extract. And the crust isn’t gently coaxed and toiled over. It comes from a can: crescent-roll dough, which pops out with a twist — “it’s so fun to open,” Kitsopoulos said — unfurls, turns fluffy when baked and is somehow precision-engineered to evoke the rich, milky purity of the fattest butter (even if the dough might contain vegetable shortening instead).
Unknown to Kitsopoulos, who grew up in New Jersey, she had stumbled on a Southwestern tradition: a mash-up of cheesecake and sopapillas, pieces of dough dropped into hot oil until they puff into little pillows and often served dusted with cinnamon sugar and dripping with honey. The origins of sopapillas, also spelled sopaipillas, go back to Latin America — the word is believed to derive from Mozarabic, a medieval Spanish-Arabic vernacular — and regions of the United States that were once part of Mexico. In 2003, Texas briefly proclaimed the sopaipilla as its official state pastry (alongside strudel) and “a much-savored part of Texans’ shared cultural identity.” “Sopapilla cheesecake” was the dish most Googled during Thanksgiving week in Texas and Oklahoma from 2004 to 2013. Oklahoma State University even features a recipe on its website, one of seemingly countless online.
Kitsopoulos took a recipe from Pillsbury, developed by Deborah Harroun, the writer of the Taste and Tell blog. The cellist made a few adjustments: a little less sugar and a lot more cinnamon. Baking, like music, demands discipline and precision, but in the kitchen, Kitsopoulos is the least fussy of bakers, approximating more than measuring. Where Pillsbury advises first rolling out the dough for the topping on parchment paper, she just plops it on. “I’m so not an exact person,” she said with a laugh. “I’m flying by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I forget I have something in the oven.”
In December, when the young Finnish maestro Klaus Mäkelä came to town — “he looks exactly like my son,” she said — she gave him brownies. “He had eight of them,” she recalled in wonder. “I don’t think they give the guest conductors enough food.”