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

Cake Mix: Redefining Baking in America

Growing up in the mid-twentieth century, I observed first-hand a number of food innovations and convenience products that directly affected how the American housewife prepared the family meal. Arguably, the one product that brought about the biggest change was the invention of boxed cake mixes.

I can remember when every pie and cake my mom baked was made from scratch. Then came the fifties and, like other American households, convenience items became commonplace in our home, as well. It seems my mom fell in love with Betty and Duncan, eventually even turning to canned frostings. From those days forward, only after much begging would she make one of her popular scratch cakes, and I’m honestly not sure she didn’t do a little cheating even then.

Boxed cake mixes in America actually got their start in the early 1930s when P. Duff and Sons, a Pittsburg molasses canning company, found itself with a surplus of molasses. Its founder John D. Duff, who had successfully found a way to dehydrate his excess syrup, began searching for a way to utilize his molasses powder. Employing techniques used by the Pearl Milling Company to launch Aunt Jemima’s “just add water” pancake mix, Duff developed a gingerbread cake mix.

Later that year, Duff applied for a U.S. patent for his new invention. In his application, Duff explained that for housewives to go to the expense and inconvenience of maintaining the ingredients needed to bake cake for their family was no longer necessary when they could purchase a can of Duff and Sons gingerbread cake mix for 21 cents a 14-ounce can. Yes, cake mixes were first marketed in cans.

“When I got to France I realized I didn’t know very much about food at all. I’d had those cakes from cake mixes or the ones that have a lot of baking powder in them. A really food French cake doesn’t have anything like that in it – it’s all egg power.” – Julia Child

By the end of 1933 Duff’s baking mix, now available in other flavors including devil’s food and spice, was granted its first patent–no. 1,931,892. However, in an effort to improve its mixes the company had already began tweaking its formula. John became aware that the taste of his cake mix was a bit off due to the use of powdered eggs, so his new formula required housewives to add fresh eggs. Not only did this change resolve the off-taste issue but actually improved the rise and texture of the finished product. On June 13, 1933, Duff filed for his second patent, writing in his application, “The housewife and the purchasing public in general seem to prefer fresh eggs and hence the use of dried or powdered egg is somewhat of a handicap from a psychological standpoint.” On October 8, 1935, patent no. 2,016,320 was granted.

Probably the most well known myth about cake mix development is that Ernest Dichter, psychologist and the man who coined the phrase “focus group,” was working with General Mills on how to improve cake mix sales. As the story goes, Dichter determined that housewives wanted more involvement in the baking process, so from then on Betty Crocker cake mixes required adding fresh eggs. While Dichter did work with General Mills, he did so in the 1950s, some fifteen years after Duff was granted his patent for eggless cake mix. A later survey determined that although homemakers said they preferred to add their own eggs, they really liked the convenience of those mixes that include eggs.

By the end of World War II and the late 1940s there were more than 200 brands of cake mix, including labels like Swans Down, Dromedary, X-Pert, Helen’s, Joy, Occident, and PY-O-My. Of course, the largest share of the market was held by the big flour companies who had spent the war years getting ready to jump into the cake mix game once our troops were home. Taking a lesson from J. Duff and Sons, flour mills decided they had to do more than just sell flour–convenience was now the name of the game.

“My idea of baking is buying a ready-made cake mix and throwing in an egg.” – Cilla Black

It is interesting that while as previously mentioned American housewives really liked cake mix that included eggs, only Pillsbury stayed with the add water only mix, while GM’s Betty Crocker and Consolidated Mills’ Duncan Hines (later sold to Procter & Gamble) went the add-your-own-fresh-eggs route.

Between 1956 and 1960 cake mix sales began to flatten (increasing only 5% during that time) and many companies shut their doors. The remaining cake mix companies began searching for what went wrong and what was needed to kick-start sales. Enter marketing psychologist Ernest Dichter, who proclaimed the problem to be frosting, not eggs. Since baking the cake was so simple, the housewife wanted to make the baked goods their own through cake decorating and other creativeness. Soon photographs on cake mix boxes and in magazines began to showcase elaborate cake constructions and over the top icing techniques. It is interesting that a product developed to save time has since become a culinary time-filler.

Today, boxed cake mixes are a staple in every supermarket, household pantry, and yes, many commercial bakeries in the United States, as well as most developed countries in the world. And with American home bakers using more than 60 million cake mixes a year, the homemade scratch cake is quite an endangered species.

Make It: Homemade Cake Mix