Around the world cheesecake is championed as a delicious and indulgent treat and indeed one that conjures up thoughts of American bakeries, with many assuming that it has its origins in New York. However we will have to travel back to Ancient Greece to trace the origins of this bakery delight and travel the globe as we discover the culinary history of this popular dessert.
The first version of “cheese cake” is thought to have originated from the Greek island of Samos. In Ancient Greece, cheesecake was considered to be of great nutritional value and it was served to athletes during the first Olympic games in 776 B.C. as a form of power-food to boost energy. Greek brides and grooms were also known to use cheesecake as a wedding cake, an idea that has come back into fashion, although the recipes used are completely different.
The ancient version of cheesecake saw flour; wheat, honey and cheese formed into a cake and baked unlike the rich recipes of today. The writer Athenaeus is credited for writing the first Greek cheesecake recipe in 230 A.D. however, the tradition of eating cheesecake predates this recipe by 2000 years.
When the Romans conquered Greece they adapted the recipe for cheesecake moving it a step closer to the modern day cheesecake that we love and know with the addition eggs and sometimes serving it is a pastry case. The Romans called their cheese cake “libuma” and the version with pastry was known as placenta. These early cakes were often used as offerings to the Gods.
As the Romans expanded their empire, they spread cheesecake recipes and Great Britain and Eastern Europe adopted the recipes and cheesecake soon developed different cultural shapes with countries adding in their own regional ingredients and twists. Although it took until the
eighteenth century, for the modern day version of cheesecake to begin to emerge as the Europeans began to use beaten eggs instead of yeast to make their breads and cakes rise, resulting in a sweeter bake, but it still had some way to go to becoming the well-loved bakery favourite of today.
When Europeans immigrated to America, they brought their cheesecake recipes with them and it wasn’t long before the cheesecake was destined for a very American flavoured make-over.
Cream cheese was the American addition to the cake and this was a real turning point for this delicacy. In 1872, a New York dairy farmer was attempting to replicate the French cheese Neufchatel, however, his recipe turned out differently and by happy accident he discovered a process which resulted in the creation of cream cheese. Three years later, cream cheese was packaged in foil and distributed to local stores under the Empire Company brand. However, it took a few years for the cream cheese to get added to the cake.
There are variations of the cheesecake recipe from around the globe with Britain making a version with a crumbly biscuit base, uncooked cream cheese filling and fruit topping; whilst in Italy they use ricotta; Greeks use mizithra or feta; Germans favour cottage cheese; whilst the Netherlands, and Poland favour quark. Most American recipes call for cream cheese and of course, no story of cheesecake is complete without delving into the origins of the New York style cheesecake. This profoundly smooth-textured cake gets its deep, rich signature flavour from extra egg yolks in the cream cheese cake mix and the baking technique. A true New York Cheesecake is served naked with no fruit or other embellishments – after all it doesn’t need any help.
Arnold Reuben (1883-1970) is generally credited for creating the New York Style cheesecake. Reuben was born in Germany and moved to America when he was young In 1929, Reuben, owner of the Turf Restaurant in New York City, experimented in the kitchen using cream cheese instead of cottage cheese in his cheesecake recipe. He began serving it in his restaurant and the New York Cheesecake was born and was an instant success.
Today cheesecake is a popular bakery choice and is enjoyed by mere mortals and gods alike. It comes in many flavours and is still cooked to various recipes around the globe, but it must be said that rich, dense baked cheesecakes have most definitely become an all-round favourite.
Baked Vanilla Cheesecake Recipe
- 150 biscuit crumbs (plain digestives)
- 50g salted butter
- 350g full fat cream cheese
- 180g caster sugar
- 4 free-range eggs
- 40g plain flour
- 200ml soured cream
- grated zest and juice 1 lemon
- ½ tsp natural vanilla essence
- Mix together the butter and biscuit crumbs. Press the mixture firmly into the base of a 22-23 cm loose bottomed cake tin and chill whilst preparing the filling.
- Beat together the cream cheese. Vanilla essence and sugar until smooth. Beat the eggs in a separate bowl the eggs, then pour in gradually mixing on low speed as you pour a trickle of beaten egg in, mix until just blended.
- Stir in the flour, soured cream, lemon zest and juice.
- Bake at 170 °C, gas mark 3 for 1 hour or until firm. Turn off the heat and leave to cool in the oven for 1 hour.
- Chill completely before serving.