It could be argued that there are not many desserts which have consistently been as popular as Cheesecake. The recipe has changed by no small amount over time, but it remains ever present nonetheless. Let’s have a look at how this all started.
An earlier version may exist – however the earliest known recipe is from Ancient Greece. It is believed that it was consumed at the very first Olympic games in 776 BCE. This gives an idea of just how old this is. The first surviving work which we have that details how to make a cheesecake is by Athenaeus, a Greek writer from around 230 CE. He writes: take cheese and pound it till smooth and pasty; put cheese in a brazen sieve; add honey and spring wheat flour. Heat in one mass, cool, and serve.
The Romans also created their own version of a cheesecake, as recorded by Marcus Porcius Cato (234–149 BCE), called a Libum or Placenta (the latter was borrowed from Ancient Greek to mean a flat or slab-like cake). This was rather similar, although a notable change was that the Romans added an egg and flour to their rendition. Naturally, the Romans took this with them wherever they invaded and by 1000 CE, long after the Romans had left, Cheesecakes had maintained their popularity in North-western Europe, England and even Scandinavia. Over time, different tastes and ingredients in each region was the cause for a wild array of cheesecake variations.
In 1545, ‘A Propre new booke of Cokery’ was printed (the first printed cookbook) with recipes for cheesecakes, and a second edition was issued in 1557. Apparently, this contained the recipe used in Henry XIII’s Kitchen, which was:
To make a tart of cheese – This recipe calls for hard cheese with rind removed and sliced, milk or water, egg yolks, sugar and sweet butter. The cheese was placed in a shallow dish, the milk or water poured over, and set aside to soak for 3 hours. The cheese was drained and pounded in a mortar, then mixed with the egg yolks. The mixture was strained, then mixed with the sugar and butter. This filling was poured into a blind-baked pastry, then baked until the cheese filling had set.
English recipes would change constantly with some not even containing cheese, while others utilised drained curds which would likely have made the texture a little softer and easier to prepare. There was a lot of experimentation, with people adding ingredients such as currants, rosewater and nutmeg before baking in a pastry case. In the 18th century in particular, cheesecake was massively popular, and people were more than aware of the effects that these sweet things could have on body weight.
A notable caricature by Isaac Cruikshank titled “The Rage, or Shepherds I have lost my waist” was published December 1, 1794. In this he bewailed the need to forgo jellies, cheesecakes and other sweets to satisfy a fashionable dressmakers requirements.
Evolution to the Modern Cheesecake
By the middle of the 19th century, recipes were not as prevalent, which would indicate that the popularity of cheesecake was waning somewhat, at least in Britain. However, in the late 19th century, American dairymen achieved a technological breakthrough that ushered in the Modern Age of cheesecakes. In attempting to duplicate the popular Neufchatel cheese of France, they came across a formula for an un-ripened cheese that was richer and creamier. Cream cheese was the result. This completely shook things up and was the catalyst for the wondrous existence of Cheesecake as we now know it!
Perhaps the most well-known of these new recipes is the New York Cheesecake. Let’s give it a try by using the recipe below!
For the base
115g butter (melted)
300g biscuits, digestive
1 tbsp caster sugar
For the filling
900 g full fat cream cheese
250 g caster sugar
3 tbsp plain flour
pinch of salt
1 ½ tsp vanilla extract
Grated zest of half of a lemon
1 ½ tsp lemon juice
3 large eggs plus 1 egg yolk
200 ml soured cream
15 g unsalted butter (melted)
For the topping
225 ml soured cream
1 tbsp caster sugar
2 tsp lemon juice
- Preheat the oven to 160ºC fan, or 180ºC non fan. Line the base of a 9 inch (23cm) spring form cake tin with parchment paper.
- Blitz the biscuits into fine crumbs using a food processor. If you don’t have a food processor, put the biscuits into a bag and crush them with a rolling pin.
- Melt the butter in a large bowl in a microwave. Then, stir the crushed biscuits and sugar until the biscuits are evenly coated.
- Press the biscuit mixture into the bottom of the tin using the back of a spoon or your hands making sure it is an even layer. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes and then allow to cool while you make the filling.
- Increase the oven temperature to 200ºC (fan or 240ºC non fan). In a mixer with a paddle attachment beat the cream cheese at a medium-low speed for approximately 2 minutes until it is creamy. Reduce the mixer to a low speed and gradually add the sugar, flour and a pinch of salt.
- Change the paddle to the whisk attachment. Add the vanilla, lemon zest and juice to the cream cheese and mix. Whisk in the eggs and yolk, one at a time making sure you scrape down the bowl. Add the 200ml soured cream and mix on a low speed making sure you don’t over beat. The mix should be light and s