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The (Rich) History Of The Cheesecake

Food writer Élodie Noël explores the delicious past of one of our favourite cakes. 

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Alongside brownies and cookies, cheesecake features on the classic American dessert list, yet its history goes way back – long before Uncle Sam appeared on the world culinary map.

A thin layer of crushed biscuit, a rich creamy filling and a luscious topping to bring it all together: the simplicity of the cheesecake makes it the ultimate comfort dessert that everybody can make and enjoy. While it has become remarkably popular in recent years, this sweet treat finds its roots in ancient times.

According to historians, an early form of baked cheesecake was a popular dish in Ancient Greece and may have been given to the athletes at the first Olympic Games in 776 BC to replenish their energy levels. While the Greek physician Aegimus (5th century BC) is said to have written a book on the art of making cheesecakes, the earliest extant recipes can be found in Cato the Elder's De Agri Cultura. Composed around 160 BC, this Roman tome includes recipes for three cakes, libum, placenta and savillum, all made with a cheese base. With a crust baked separately, placenta (which means flat cake in Latin) can be considered the ancestor to our modern cheesecakes.

An extensive collection of medieval English recipes from the 14th century, The Forme of Cury mentions a recipe called Sambocade, made with fresh cheese, elderberry flowers, egg whites, rosewater and sugar mixed together and poured onto a pie crust before being baked. In Europe, several versions of cheesecakes have been made traditionally using different types of soft cheese: ricotta in Italy, quark in Germany or mizithra in Greece.

According to the Encyclopedia of Jewish Food by Gil Marks, a cheese-filled pastry called fluden was very popular among Franco-German jews by at least 1000 AD. With the filling becoming deeper and the top crust omitted, a cheese tart made from curd cheese became a classic Ashkenazic dessert in Germany and Eastern Europe. In the mid-nineteenth century, immigrants brought the German cheesecake to America. To this day, the Jewish community eats the dessert to celebrate Shavuot.

While cheesecakes had existed for centuries, it is the invention of cream cheese in America that led to the dessert as we know it. William Lawrence, a dairyman in Chester, New York, was the first to mass-produce cream cheese. In 1872, he purchased a factory making soft, French cheese Neufchâtel. By adding cream to the process, he developed a richer product that he called “cream cheese”, before branding it “Philadelphia” twenty years later.

In the 1930s, Jewish bakers in New York City substituted cream cheese and sour cream for the curd cheese, creating the New York style cheesecake, which soon became ubiquitous in local delis. Originally, New York cheesecake was made with a pastry crust, but it was soon supplanted by another American invention, Graham crackers, which were turned into crumbs then bound together with butter and pressed into a pan.

Among those claiming credit for the creation of the New York cheesecake was Arnold Reuben, a German Jewish immigrant who owned several restaurants in Manhattan. After sampling a cheese pie at a dinner party in 1929, Reuben (also the brain behind the popular Reuben sandwich) is said to have asked the hostess for the recipe and proceeded to play with the ingredients, substituting cream cheese for the cottage cheese. Served in his restaurant, this cheesecake earned such praise that it was widely copied by the local competition.

Traditionally, the ingredients entering the preparation of a classic New York-style cheesecake are cream cheese, sugar, cornstarch or flour, eggs, double cream, lemon zest and vanilla, with a crust made of crushed crackers or digestive biscuits, sugar and melted butter. While the flavour is quite plain, fruit coulis or jelly was often served alongside the cake.

“This dessert is definitely a global favourite”, says Graham Herterich, founder of The Bakery by The Cupcake Bloke in Rialto. “My personal choice is for set cheesecakes as opposed to baked cheesecakes. I love the creaminess and that velvety texture that you can get in your mouth.” The baker still fondly remembers growing up eating his mum’s cheesecakes, with “classic flavours like strawberry or Irish cream”, and “always decorated with the classic glacé cherries and thin strips of angelica”. “I do think that because we [in Ireland] produce some of the best dairy products in the world, we are very partial to a good creamy dessert.”

Nowadays, pretty much every sweet flavour under the sun has been turned into a cheesecake. The famous Cheesecake Factory in the US has no less than 35 flavours on their menu, changing seasonally. Graham and his team took part in the Wine and Cheese Festival in the Iveagh Gardens in 2019 and having encountered such success with their cheesecakes, they have proceeded to sell a different cheesecake each week at the Bakery. “Recent flavours have included gingernut, chocolate & orange, raspberry & white chocolate, and a more unusual rhubarb & custard, complete with custard creams base.”

Among the most popular cheesecakes in Dublin are also those from Queen of Tarts, in Dublin 2. The café usually carries two flavours, a New York-style and a Bailey's cheesecake.

Fried chicken specialists Mad Egg have also made a name for themselves since opening their doors with a “DIY Cheesecake”. Served naked, it allows customers to choose from the most indulgent list of toppings, including melted chocolate, roasted hazelnuts, peanut butter pieces, Oreo crumbs, smashed Maltesers or Kinder Bueno - resulting in highly Instagrammable creations.

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If this story has made you crave a proper drool-enticing cheesecake, click on the recipe link below!

Rocky Road Cheesecake, by The Cupcake Bloke