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A Brief History of Cheesecake

April 14, 2012 Carlino's Restaurant one comment
"Dense, smooth, creamy and sweet"

“Dense, smooth, creamy and sweet”

Throughout most of the world, New York and cheesecake are practically synonymous, but the modern cheesecake’s roots are as Italian as the Mona Lisa and a good bit older. In fact, cheesecake is almost as old as cheese itself.

The Greeks were the first to turn soft, fresh cheeses into cheesecake about 4,000 years ago. The original version contained only honey, cheese and enough flour to form the other ingredients into a thick cake that baked until it turned solid enough to slice. It was popular as a wedding cake or festival cake, and athletes ate it before races in the belief that it gave them energy. The idea of downing a thick slice of cheesecake before running a marathon seems odd, but the ancient libum was far less rich than today’s delicious version.

While the classic New York cheesecake is dense, smooth, creamy and sweet, its ancient Roman ancestor was dry and almost savory. The Romans didn’t have the luxury of granulated sugar to sweeten their desserts, so they used honey like Greek bakers did. The Romans added eggs and a pastry crust to their savillum, along with common flavorings of the day such as bay leaves. Grated orange and lemon zest were also popular flavors; unlike bay and ground pepper, citrus fruits still go great with cheesecake. Wherever Romans went in Europe, they brought their cheesecake with them, spreading the traditional food throughout the continent.

King Henry VIII clearly enjoyed his meals, and according to one of his cooks, cheesecake was one of his favorite desserts. His version contained bits of bread soaked in milk, sugar and butter along with soft cheese in a dish that probably resembled a bread pudding more than a modern cheesecake.

The sweet treat stayed more or less the same for hundreds of years until a dairy farmer in New York  created cream cheese. The smooth, creamy cheese was perfect as a base for the already beloved cheesecake, transforming it into something far greater than the sum of its ingredients. Despite its association with the product, it’s not Philadelphia, but New York that can lay claim to being the home of cream cheese – and that positioned the state perfectly as the home of cheesecake as well.

By 1900, New York cheesecake was already held to be the best in the world. Other parts of the country experimented with fewer egg yolks or more sour cream, but the quintessential New York version remained the gold standard. It still does, as any glance at a menu elsewhere will tell you. Every restaurant that boasts a great cheesecake invariably calls it “New York style.”

The next time you enjoy a slice of classic New York cheesecake, take a moment to appreciate the history you’re tasting with every bite. It may not be the best thing to eat before running a marathon, but it’s the perfect end to a great dinner and the ideal companion for a cup of espresso.


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