Seren on Saturdays. Cheesecake – food of the Gods

By Seren Charrington Hollins

Hazelnut chocolate cheesecake topped with crushed honey-glazed nuts and sesame seeds

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.

Retro Cheesecake Recipe – no bake

ingredients

  • 150g (5 oz) digestive biscuits
  • 45g (1 1/2 oz) butter
  • 110g (4 oz) caster sugar, divided
  • 120ml whipping cream
  • 150g (5 oz) dark chocolate, melted and cooled
  • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder mixed with a little hot water
  • 1 (200g) tub full fat cream cheese

Method

  1. Crush the digestive biscuits and mix with the melted butter and 1 tablespoon of the caster sugar. Press into a 18cm (7 in) cake tin and refrigerate.
  2. Whip cream until soft peak stage. Add cooled melted chocolate, then the cocoa powder mix. Blend well and set aside.
  3. Beat the cream cheese and remaining sugar together. Fold in cream/chocolate mixture and mix thoroughly.
  4. Spread into tin on top of crushed biscuits. Freeze for one hour.
  5. Refrigerate for about 30 minutes, then serve.

Author

  • Seren Charrington Hollins

    Seren runs a catering business and delicatessen in Mid Wales, but she is not your run of the mill caterer or deli owner. She is a mother of six and an internationally recognised food historian who has created banquets and historical dinner parties for private clients and television. Her work has been featured on the BBC, ITV & Channel 4 and she has appeared in BBC4’s Castle’s Under Siege, BBC South's Ration Book Britain, Pubs that Built Britain with The Hairy Bikers, BBC 2’s Inside the Factory, BBC 2’s The World’s Most Amazing Hotels, the Channel 4 series Food Unwrapped and Country Files Autumn Diaries. Her work has also been featured in The Guardian, The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Mail and The Telegraph. Her two most recent books are 'Revolting Recipes from History' and 'A Dark History of Tea'

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