The Glorious History of Cheesecake. Bonus, My Orange Cheesecake with a Shortbread Crust
Cheesecake is one of those desserts that seem to please almost everyone. In my house, I think my husband has tried a piece of cheesecake at every restaurant we have ever gone to. Cheesecake has been enjoyed long before the Cheesecake Factory in 1972 or when the classic New York style cheesecake came on the scene in 1929. As you go through this timeline you will quickly notice that the foundational flavors that we taste today are not too far off from the earlier versions. Cheese is always included, as is a sweetener, like honey, and it is always cooked or baked. As people moved west throughout Europe and America, cheesecake takes on new flavors and cooking techniques. Today, most cheesecakes are made with some sort of cheese (cream cheese in America, feta in Greece, ricotta in Italy, Neufchatel in France and quark in Germany), as well as eggs, sugar, vanilla and baked in a crust.
Like a lot of the other delicious dishes we enjoy, the origins go back to antiquity. All signs point to the first cheesecake created on an island in the eastern Aegean Sea, Samos, between 800 and 700 B.C. If you are wondering how that is possible, consider this. Cheese molds have been excavated in Greece that date back as far as 2000 B.C. and it is believed that cheese and cheese products were even made earlier than that. Whoa. The cakes were not the elaborate displays we have now, they were a simple mixture of honey and cheese, which were pounded out until smooth, and then mixed with wheat flour, formed into a cake and then baked or cooked on an earthenware griddle. The cheesecake became so popular that wealthy families often served this as wedding cakes. The brides would bake the cake and, as a gesture of her hospitality, serve it to her new husbands friends. It was believed that the dish had nutritional value and provided athletes with the fuel they need to compete, which is why it was given to participants of the first Olympic Games held in 776 B.C. in Olympia, the rural sanctuary in the Western Peloponnese area which is dedicated to Zeus. Ironically, the first winner of the Olympic Games was a cook from Elis named Coroebus who won the sprint race. On a separate note, I have just added this location to my bucket list. Lonely Planet named it as one of their top European spot in 2016, the history here is mind blowing. Back to cheesecakes... The first written cheesecake recipe came from the Greco-Egyptian writer Athenaeus of Naucratis in 230 A.D. in his manuscript called ‘Deipnosophistae’ (The Gastronomers). The manuscript is known as one of the oldest surviving cookbooks.
Less than 100 years after Althenaeus documented his recipe, the Romans conquered the Greek. In the 1st Century A.D., Roman statesman and historian Marcus Porcius Cato, known as Cato the Elder, documents the oldest known Roman version of cheesecake, called libum, in his only remaining preserved work, De Agri Cultura. The book focused on agriculture, farming, wine making, olive growing and cooking. The small, sweet cake consisted of cheese made from sheep’s milk, honey, then slow cooked in a crust and was often served on special occasions. The recipe later modified by others introduces the modern day ingredients of crushed cheese and eggs. As the Roman’s moved west, cheesecake gets introduced to Scandinavia, Great Britain and northwest Europe, around 1000 A.D.
By the 14th century the French and German were influencing food in England. Food became fancier, and thanks to the spice trade, delicious. In the 1390 manuscript called a Forme of Cury (loose translation: act of cooking) written by the chefs of Richard II, the cheesecake was referred to as a Sambocade. Strained curds and whey, were combined with sugar and egg whites, flavored with elderflower, and baked in a pie plate. Sugar was a luxury item, very expensive; therefore the wealthy used the ingredient while most others used honey as a sweetener. It is also around this time (1400s) that the name ‘cheesecake’ officially begins to be used, representing a cooked tart made with curd cheese. It would take until the late 1600s/early 1700s for cheesecake to resemble the modern day version. Yeast, which was often used, was removed, and flavoring, like vanilla, starts to become popular.
When Europeans begin to colonize America they brought recipes of dishes they enjoyed along with them. In the 1727 (England)/1742 (American) cookbook ‘the Compleat Housewife’ by Eliza Smith there is a recipe for lemon cheesecake. The ingredients are fairly similar to others however the addition of the bottom crust is added. Most cheesecakes are made, at that time, with cheese the consistency of ricotta or cottage cheese. The cheese would be beaten and strained through a sieve to remove the lumps before cooking. In addition to flavoring with lemon, housewives also used almonds, nutmeg, and crushed macaroons. Then in the widely popular ‘Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management’ published in 1861, the Victorians began to make cheesecake grand. The book published almond cheesecake made with puff pastry, apple cheesecake made with apple pulp, and lemon cheesecake made with biscuits.
Just a few years later, a dairy farmer from upstate New York would make an interesting mistake that would change the way cheesecake was made in America. In 1872, William A. Lawrence of Chester New York attempted to duplicate the popular Neufchatel cheese of France. Neufchatel is the soft, unripened cheese that originates from Neufchatel-en-Bray, France. During the processing, Lawrence’s cheese resulted in a richer and creamier version of Neufchatel, which he aptly called cream cheese. Lawrence began a small-scale production company to make his highly sought after cheese. By 1880, a dairy distributor from New York City, named Reynolds, approached Lawrence about producing the product on a larger scale. Reynolds selected the Empire Cheese Company of South Edmeston, New York to begin producing the cheese, which would now be called ‘Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese’. The introduction of the name ‘Philadelphia’ has long been speculated that it represented the fine quality of food that was being made in the city at the time, however it is known that the cheese was not produced in Philadelphia nor had any affiliation with the city.
I would be remiss in not giving a nod to the New York style cheesecake. You know that smooth tasting cheesecake that is a mile high and so incredibly creamy? It is said that it started in 1929 with the German born restaurateur Arnold Reuben. Arnold owned the Turf Restaurant at 49th and Broadway in New York City. According to the story, Arnold was invited to dinner at a friend’s home. The hostess served a cream cheese style pie. Using her recipe, Arnold began to experiment with new flavors and ingredients, up until then most cheesecake was made with ricotta. New York cheesecake is made with pure cream cheese, cream, eggs, and sugar. The recipe was a huge success and was replicated in famous restaurants like Lindy’s and Junior’s. You cannot go to New York and not have a slice!
The recipe I have included was made for my historical era cookbook ‘The Unofficial Poldark Cookbook’. During this time period, The Georgian Era in England, cheesecake was clearly made. Households that were fortunate enough to have dairy cows made all kinds of cheese products and recipes, including cheesecake. In the television show Poldark there is a scene in season one when a character, Jud, is making off with a pie that one of the lead characters, Demelza, just made. If you stop the show at that very moment it is none other than a cheesecake. I included the orange flavor to represent the scurvy issues they were having in Cornwall at the time and one of the characters, Dr. Enys and his future wife Caroline would provide oranges (okay, he did the work, she paid for them), to those in the lower class to prevent the effects of the illness. The addition of the orange gives it a light “cream’icle “ flavor. Enjoy.