The Cheesecake Story

Cheesecake has long been one of America’s favorite desserts, with annual sales exceeding $400 million. The Cheesecake Factory alone sells almost 35 million slices of its namesake each year, in addition to an untold number of whole cheesecakes. Another attribute to cheesecake’s popularity is that the cast of Golden Girls devoured over 100 of these creamy desserts during its 7 seasons, in spite of Bea Author hating them.

But have you ever wondered who invented cheesecake, and when?

Our story begins in Greece more than 4,000 years ago on the small island of Samos in the Aegean Sea. There is evidence that shows the Greeks enjoyed cheesecake in 776 B.C. during the first Olympic Games. Cheesecake at that time was usually reserved for weddings as well as other special and religious events.

The first cheesecakes known as “plakous,” were simply made using only flour, wheat, honey, and cheese, a far distant cousin to the more complicated variations found throughout the world today. Although Greece had been making their ancient cheesecakes for some 2,000 years, it was not until 230 A.D. that Greek writer Athenaeus wrote down what is believed to be the first known recipe.

When the Romans conquered Greece in 146 A.D., they made cheesecake their own by adding eggs and crushed cheese. They called their cheesecake “libuma,” or sometimes “placenta.” And like the Greeks, the Romans reserved libuma for special occasions, as well as an offering to their gods. In the 1st century A.D. Marcus Cato, a Roman physician and politician, included in his writings De Agricultura a recipe for libuma, which called for “2 pounds of cheese well crushed in a mortar, 1 pound bread-wheat flour, and 1 egg. Mix together well and form into a loaf and bake slowly under a brick and serve warm.”

From Rome, cheesecake spread throughout Europe, and eventually to the Middle East, North Africa and Russia, with each region adding their own unique twist based on culture and available ingredients.

It didn’t take long before cooks throughout Europe began experimenting with a variety of techniques and ingredients in an attempt to make cheesecake uniquely their own. Even early European royalty got in on the act with each king trying to outdo the other. King Richard II had his chef write Forma di Cury featuring a cheese tart and another cheesecake recipe. Then in 1545, King Henry VIII commissioned A Proper New Booke of Cokerye, thought to be the first printed cookbook and included the King’s favorite cheesecake recipe.

So popular had cheesecake become in Europe that it’s no surprise the early American colonists brought with them both their love and recipes for this delicacy. In the 1730s Philadelphia had the Cheesecake House Tavern where one could enjoy a slice with their ale. In 1749 Martha Washington’s first husband Daniel Custis gave her the <emBooke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats as a wedding gift. It contained three cheesecake recipes and a baked “Curd Pudding,” a cheesecake without a crust.

In 1872, American dairyman William Lawrence of Chester, New York accidentally invented cream cheese while trying to reproduce Neufchâtel. This new cheese was distributed in a foil wrap under the name of Philadelphia (yes, the same brand available today); enabled Americans to produce cheesecake with a more dense and creamer texture than was previously possible.

While cream cheese recipes such as “Cream Cheese Pie” and “Cream Cheese Cake” were published in late 19th and early 20th century cookbooks, it was the mid-1920s and the addition of stabilizers in its production that Americans began experimenting in earnest with using this new cheese in their baking. Previous to this addition, cream cheese would “break” and become grainy during the baking process.

Enter Arnold Reuben, a German-Jewish immigrant restaurateur and inventor of his very popular namesake sandwich of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on grilled rye. As the story goes, in 1929 Reuben attended a dinner party where he was taken by the cheese pie served for dessert. After acquiring the recipe from his hostess, he began experimenting with replacing the curds with cream cheese. By the early 1930s Rueben began serving his new cheesecake, dubbed New York Cheesecake, in his Turf Restaurants where it garnered high raves from customers.

While it was Rueben who introduced New York to the cream cheese cheesecake, it was Leo “Lindy” Lindemann who brought it into the forefront. In 1921, Lindy and his wife Clara opened a deli in Manhattan’s theater district. Said to have hired Reuben’s baker, Lindy’s featured a cheesecake topped with a strawberry gel.

Today most cheesecakes produced in the United States use cream cheese as the primary ingredient, although there are numerous variations. Probably the two most popular U.S. cheesecakes are Junior’s in New York and Eli’s in Chicago.

Did you know that cheesecake is not really a cake? Because it contains eggs and no flour it’s actually classified as a custard pie, although some consider it a flan, tart, or torte.

But whether you think of it as cake, pie, or a flan, there are two basic varieties of cheesecake—baked and unbaked. And among baked cheesecake in this country, probably the two most popular styles are New York and Chicago:

  • New York style cheesecake is probably the most popular, using a cream cheese base, sometimes with the addition of sour cream or heavy cream, to produce an extremely dense, but smooth and creamy texture. It is usually baked in a graham cracker crust.
  • Chicago style cheesecake is known for its firm outside and soft creamy center which comes from extra cream cheese added to the batter. Chicago cheesecakes are baked in springform pans with crushed shortbread crust Although today some New York bakers use shortbread crusts and some Chicago bakers prefer the graham cracker crust.

Almost every nation on the planet has its own take on cheesecake. Some of those styles and variations include:

  • Asian cheesecakes are usually light, spongy and contain a lot less sugar than many of their counterparts. They generally favor flavors such as green tea, lychee, and mango, although there are variations from country to country.
    • Japan uses a cornstarch and egg base resulting in a plastic-like texture.
    • In the Philippines the most popular cheesecake is made with a combination of cream cheese and purple yams, yielding its characteristic purple color.
    • Indian cheesecake is made with a type of cottage cheese mixed with sugar and nuts.
  • European regions offer numerous cheesecake variations, both in their base and flavor profiles.
    • In France cheesecakes are typically very light and thinner than American cheesecake. The French utilize Neufchâtel cheese and gelatin as their base.
    • German style cheesecake is made using a homemade cheese known as quark that resembles cottage cheese. Its also made with fresh dough instead of cracker or cookie crumbs.
    • Today the Greeks use mizithra, a goat and/or sheep milk cheese, that resembles Italian ricotta.
    • Modern Italian cheesecake is made using ricotta or mascarpone cheese, sugar, vanilla and a touch of orange flower water. It’s typically baked in a flour crust with lattice top. Sometimes candy fruits are added.
    • Ireland and the UK use a filling of cream cheese, cream and gelatin flavored with coffee, tea, Irish cream, chocolate, and even marshmallows. They are refrigerated rather than baked and almost always topped with a fruit compote. The Scots even make a savory cheesecake flavored with smoked salmon.
    • Poland, Portugal, Dutch, Russia and other European countries each have their own cheesecake variations as well, using local cheese and flavors.

    So there you have it—a brief story how cheesecake was born and evolved over the past 4,000 years. And for those adventurous souls among you who might want to try your hand at baking one, I’ve included my recipe for the popular New York style cheesecake. Looking for something a little less ordinary? Try preparing the Italian cheesecake. Both are delicious and fun to make.

    Make Em: New York Style Cheesecake, Italian Ricotta Cheesecake

Bread Pudding, the frugal dish turned trendy dessert

Bread has been a food staple for the past 30,000 years. Thought to have been invented in the Middle East, specifically Egypt, the first breads were flatbreads. Almost from the beginning people loathed food waste and devised a number of ways to utilize stale bread, from soup thickeners to edible serving vessels, to all kinds of stuffings.

Bread pudding can be traced back to the early 11th century as a way for frugal cooks to utilize leftover bread instead of letting it go to waste. Since custard was not invented until the Middle Ages, early bread puddings were simple dishes. Ancient Romans likely made theirs by simply adding milk, fat, and perhaps a sweetener to stale bread. Egyptians made a dessert called Om Ali from bread, cream, raisins, and almonds; India had Shahi Tukra, a dish made from bread, ghee, saffron, sugar, rosewater and almonds. A Middle Eastern variation, called Eish es Serny, was made from dried bread, sugar, honey syrup, rosewater and caramel.

Today, practically every country in the world has their own interpretation of bread pudding, in both sweet and savory varieties from India to Uruguay, Argentina to Asia, Europe and the United Kingdom.

Bread pudding was brought to America by the early colonists. By the 18th century bread pudding recipes began to appear in a number of popular cookbooks—The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy by Hannah Glass included three recipes. Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife provided readers perhaps the first upscale bread pudding recipe she called Sippet Pudding:

“Cut a loaf of bread as thin, as possible, put a layer of it on the bottom of a deep dish, strew on some slices of marrow or butter, with a handful of currant or stoned raisins; do this until the dish is full; let the currants or raisins be on top; beat four eggs, mix them with a quart of milk that has been boiled a little and become cold, a quarter of a pound of sugar, and a grated nutmeg – pour it in, and bake in a moderate oven – eat it with wine sauce.”

Today, bread pudding is popular throughout the United States, from east coast to west coast, both north and south of the Mason Dixon line. They can be sweet or savory, served at any day-part including breakfast, as a side or even the main entree. And while any bread pudding can be served unadorned, most sweet varieties are served with sauces ranging from alcohol based, such as rum or whiskey sauce, to vanilla and chocolate creme anglaise, to fruit sauces such as berry or citrus.

It may surprise you that French toast is a direct cousin of bread pudding. Dating back as far as the 4th century, it was first referenced in the Apicius, a collection of ancient Latin recipes. French toast, like bread pudding, was a way to utilize old and stale bread. But don’t let the name fool you. French toast was being made all over the world long before it got the name. In fact this delightful dish was around even before France was a country.

While not clear where the name came from, some historians suspect it was actually the English who, in the 17th century, began referring to it as “French Toast” after arriving in that country from Franc

One highly controversial legend credits Joseph French, an innkeeper in Albany, New York, as the dish’s creator in the year 1724, naming it after himself. However, due to the innkeeper’s poor grammar he failed to include the apostrophe calling it “French Toast”, instead of French’s Toast. Most historians reject this accounting because of the centuries old documentation of similar dishes.

Today both bread pudding and its cousin French toast have been lifted from their original peasant status to gourmet dishes that utilize a variety of ingredients ranging from fruits and nuts, to various sweet and savory fillings.

The truth is, bread pudding is no longer restricted to stale bread. One can use hamburger and hot dog buns, dinner rolls and baguettes, sandwich bread and even danish or donuts. In fact bread pudding can be made from just about any breadstuffs and fillings you can think of.

To get you started click on one of the links below for a great recipe for sweet bread pudding with rum sauce, as well as a savory strata, which is great for breakfast or brunch. So get cooking, have fun, and remember your creativity is limited only by your own imagination.

Make Em: Bread Pudding with Rum Sauce, Ham and Sausage Strata