The History of Cheesecake 🧀🍰

The Cheese-Based History of Cheesecake

Having covered the history of cheese, it’s now time to turn to the glory that is cheesecake. This most fantabulous of unhealthy foods is a delight to behold.

It has a cool and refreshing quality, whilst being as light as a feather.

And it’s got cheese in it! Hurray! Thusly, let’s explore this cake that’s right up there with the likes of the excellent and legendary prinsesstårta.

What’s Cheesecake?

It’s a sweet dessert cake, usually consisting of two layers. The base is made up of a crust such as mangled biscuits. The top layer is made of cheese, eggs, and sugar.

Essentially, it’s a baked custard. There are four main types of cheese that very from one cheesecake maker to the next:

  1. Curd
  2. Ricotta
  3. Quark
  4. Cream cheese

Cheesecake can take many flavours! Vanilla is the classic serving. But you can get types such as:

  • Strawberry
  • Raspberry
  • New York Style
  • Chocolate
  • Key lime
  • Japanese cotton
  • Savoury (kind of like a quiche)
  • Vegan

And the list goes on! You have to bake most of that lot, but there are some no-bake recipes available (such as French cheesecake).

It’s fair to say they’re all rather delicious. But, as it is cake, it’s not so good for you. As always in life, you must balance out the desire to gorge on cheesecake badness 24/7 with the use of bad old moderation.

The History of Cheesecake

Okay, this ended up being more complicated than we were expecting! Truly, the history of this dish dates back into the distant past.

We can’t be exact with many those dates, but we do know where everything originated from.

Cheesecakes in Ancient Greece and Rome

Any guesses for where this hails from?! Well, historical records all indicate it emerged in ancient Greece.

The Greek polymath physician Aegimus (Αἴγιμος) wrote of it in fifth century BC. Apparently, he was also the first medical professional to write a thesis on the human pulse.

One too many cheesecakes there, eh, Aegimus? You glutton, you!

He noted of cheesecake in a cookbook about sweetening cheese with honey (sugar wasn’t as readily available as it is now, so bee stuff was the alternative). The book is called πλακουντοποιικόν σύγγραμμα (plakountopoiikon sungramma).

The name translates into English as “placenta journal”, which sounds pretty horrific. But it’s about placenta cake, which was common in ancient Greece and Rome.

After the fall of ancient Greece, the Roman Empire took on many of its customs.

Those guys took a major liking to the dish. Evidence suggests cheesecake was served to competitors at the very first Olympic games.

A Roman soldier, senator, and historian called Cato the Elder (234–149 BC) wrote one of the earliest surviving records of the recipe. Accounts show he held staunch conservative political views, but loved his food.

And in De Agri Cultura (Concerning Agriculture—160BC) he penned about the glorious dessert. An excerpt for the savillum recipe reads as follows.

“Make a savillum thus: Mix half a libra of flour and two and a half librae of cheese, as is done for libum. Add 1/4 libra of honey and 1 egg. Grease an earthenware bowl with oil. When you have mixed the ingredients well, pour into the bowl and cover the bowl with an earthenware testo [lid]. See that you cook it well in the middle, where it is highest. When it is cooked, remove the bowl, spread with honey, sprinkle with poppy, put it back beneath the testo for a moment, and then remove. Serve it thus with a plate and spoon.”

It’s not strictly a cheesecake as we know it today, but it’s a very early example of a recipe resembling it. However, the above is missing out on the crust that often defines the dish these days.

Want to know what it would have looked like?! Forward to the seven minute mark below, you hungry lunatic.

Other recipes Cato the Elder covered included libum and (again) placenta. The latter is closest in cake-based form to modern cheesecake as it includes the fabled crust.

However, despite minor foodie differences, dessert customs were much the same in Roman times as they are now.

The cake would’ve been served at the end of a meal, following on from a starter and main course.

Cheesecakes in Mediaeval England

The recipe continued generation after generation and spread out across the world as modes of travel facilitated international cheese-based cake growth.

Finally, it was included in the English Medieval cookbook The Forme of Cury (1390).

It’s much more in line with our modern cheesecake delights. Back then, it was called sambocade and key ingredients included elderflower and rose water.

And, yes, there’s another video on that! Courtesy of Max Miller there.

The Forme of Cury’s version became the norm in England and over the next 500 years cheesecake was unmoving from any British cookbook.

But despite the prevalence of the dish through history, the cheesecake name didn’t become the norm until the 15th century. And it still remained distinctly different to what we’re used to today, that is until the 18th century.

Helping that shift was its popularisation around the world due to the British Empire (tally, bally ho!). Naturally, it reached the American colonies.

As early as the 1730s there are records of a Cheesecake House tavern in Philadelphia. And it’s over the following century that Americans, in their inimitable way, transformed the nature of this dessert.

America’s Love Affair With Cheesecake

In the 20th century, it’s fair to say… USA, USA, USA! Really, the country put its marker down as the leading cheesecake nation of Earth.

Commercial American cream cheese was invented in 1872, paving the way for a revolution in baking. Chicago and New York are particularly notable for their takes on the dish. Here’s the difference:

  • Chicago: Uses baked cream cheese firm on one side, but soft on the inside.
  • New York: Mix it up with heavy cream, sour cream, and a cream cheese base for a dense consistency. It’s also often topped with fruit.

In fact, it became very famous in New York thanks to Arnold Reuben. In his venue Reuben’s Restaurant and Delicatessen, he was one of the first to start serving the dessert regularly.

Reuben opened doors in 1908 and it didn’t close until December 2001.

Due to his success with the dish, it led to mass competition from other restaurants eager to copy the cheesecake’s success.

But it wasn’t until the 1930s that cream cheese became the norm.

Reuben helped lead the charge there. He claimed to have tried a variety of “cheese pie” in 1929 at a dinner party. He asked the host for the recipe and modified it with masses of cream cheese.

Leo Lindemann was another big name during that period. His deli and restaurant chain was called Lindy’s and operated in Manhattan. The first one ran from 1921-1969 and became famous for its cheesecake recipes.

It was so popular the musical Guys and Dolls (1950) by Frank Loesser makes reference to the brilliance of Lindy’s dessert.

And New York’s obsession with cheesecake turned into a national one. Right up there with burgers… just not as greasy.

To note, the adoration continues. As July 30th is now National Cheesecake Day in America. And do you know what happens on that day!? Take a wild guess.

How to Make Cheesecake

Ermahgerd! Hunky overload here as Mr. Jamie Oliver hunks it up a notch to reach new levels of hunk. Also, why does he look so tanned in this video!?

He’s doing a disservice to the great British pale.

Anyway, it’s time to make some cheesecake! If you’re feeling bold, it’s well worth a shot. And the ingredients you’ll need are as follows:

Cheese (duh!)
Cream
Cream cheese (duh!)
Lemon
Butter
Eggs
Vanilla
Digestive biscuits

That’s the basics. Some of them are a bit stating the obvious, we know. Like… do you think you need to get some cheese for your cheesecake?

Well, if you want to use less cheese (as psychotic as that may seem) then there’s an alternative. Right below!

A Note on Japanese Cotton Cheesecake

Japanese chefs approach cheesecake in a different way to us in the west. In fact, Japanese desserts in general are unique—often very light, chilled, and refreshing.

We’ll cover those another time, for now it is Japanese cheesecake (スフレチーズケーキ)! It’s typically called cotton cheesecake in the land of Nippon. The big differences to the west are:

  1. The cheesecake is crustless
  2. Less cheese and cream are used
  3. Lots of whipped egg makes up for #2

The result is a fluffy and delicate cheesecake that’ll make you swoon in wonder.

36 comments

  1. EVEN THOUGH you assured me this was a family-rated blog, and EVEN THOUGH this selection bore a title like “The History of CHEESECAKE,” I invested my TRUST in you, and began reading it anyway. But when I got to “America’s LOVE AFFAIR with it, well, I ~ I just couldn’t continue. Where were you raised, young man? In the proverbial bar ~ ah, barn, I mean?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That 1390 cookbook gives me an idea. ‘Cury’ sounds a bit like ‘curry’, so why not have a cheesecake with curry? Use it in substitution for the sugar – and hey, sugar’s bad for people anyway, so the Black Forest Cheescake WITH CURRY is clearly a health food.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is infuriating. If only they’d included that extra “r”… probably history’s worst ever typo.

      Cheesecake curry sounds amazing! Sugar gets a bad rep these days, but I do think it’s not as harmful as, say, bleach.

      Bleach cheesecake wouldn’t be so popular. The curry one – well, that’s your next business venture right there. NZ won’t know what’s hit it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m inspired. I have a new vision. Curry cheescake. a franchise. I’ll trounce the beer-flavoured icecream (which was a thing) and the peanut butter flavoured icecream (also a thing). Then I’ll produce a new line of butter-chicken flavoured cheesecake. And then everybody will be lining up and I’ll have to come up with a new line. The money! The scandals! The awkward photos! It’s gonna happen.

        Liked by 1 person

Dispense with some gibberish!

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