The unbelievable yet true story of cheesecake

From classical Greece to medieval Europe to the New World: What defines the quintessential Shavuot treat?

cheesecake 88 (photo credit: )
cheesecake 88
(photo credit: )
For almost the first two decades of my life, cheesecake unquestionably involved cream cheese and occasionally a graham-cracker crust. But it only took one Shavuot in Israel to discover that the New York-style delicacy of my youth was simply one of a number of variations on a theme - variations so variant, it turns out, that the only two common factors to cheesecake are the presence of cheese and sweeteners. Of course, part of the reason for the difference between Shavuot cheesecakes may have been what was then an acute shortage of American-style cream cheese in Israel (and substitutable Neufchatel wasn't any easier to find). But whatever its immigration patterns may have been, from Eastern Europe to the Middle East or from Italy to the New World, one thing can be said for cheesecake: It has been beloved by Europeans across the continent for as long as recipes have been recorded. Cheesecake is first documented in classical Greece. According to The Cheese Book by Vivienne Marquis & Patricia Haskell, cheesecakes were so popular in Greece that they constituted the majority of wedding cakes, and they were also used to feed Olympic athletes. The Greek delicacy was apparently eagerly adopted when Rome conquered the Aegean region. Roman-era cheesecakes were known by two names: "libum," due to their role as offerings in temples, and the significantly less-appetizing moniker (at least in modern context) of "placenta." Cato, a first-century Roman politician and writer, included a recipe for libum in his work On Agriculture. This early recipe called for crushing cheese and mixing it with flour and egg before baking it. Alternate Greek recipes also added honey, bringing the mixture a step closer to the dessert concoction we know today. It is not certain whether northern Europeans had their own ideas regarding cheesecake prior to the spread of Roman influence, but it is certain that the confection flourished during the medieval period. Incidentally, the medieval period likely saw another development that was to eventually change the taste of cheesecake forever - the invention of soft, creamy Neufchatel cheese in the Norman town of Neufchatel-en-Bray. AS IF cheesecake itself was a driving factor behind social change, written cheesecake recipes began scattering European cookbooks as literacy levels rose and the printing press democratized - among other things - household cheesecake cooking endeavors. The Oxford Companion to Food (Alan Davidson, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1999, p. 158) asserts that the earliest of the modern European cheesecake recipes discovered appears in the 1390 London work Forme of Cury under the title "Tart de Bry." A century and a half later, a 1545 book with the questionably marketable title of A Proper newe Booke of Cokerye, declarynge what maner of meates be beste in season, for al times in the yere, and how they ought to be dressed, and serued at the table, bothe for fleshe dayes, and fyshe dayes includes a recipe involving cutting, soaking in milk and straining hard cheese, and then baking it together with six egg yolks, sugar and butter for a flourless concoction that could be easily adopted by modern Pessah cooks. Cheesecakes entered the modern era running strong, with colonial immigrants to America bringing different recipes from the British Isles, France and Germany. If the founders of the American Cheesecake Factory chain (a product of the last decades of the 20th century) thought they were onto something new, they only had to look back to the exceptionally popular Cheesecake House, a Philadelphia establishment that flourished over 200 years earlier. New York-style cheesecake, one of the best-known varieties of cheesecake, has a complex - and somewhat unclear - history. Italians coming to the city at the end of the 19th Century brought with them a series of ricotta-based cakes, which can still be found throughout New York today; but it is frequently Jewish immigrants who are credited with the diffusion of the cream cheese-based concoction that began to sweep Jewish delicatessens as early as the 1920s. Arnold Reuben, owner of the Turf Restaurant, took credit for inventing the first cake based on cream cheese while others still relied on cottage cheese and other soft, white cheeses. By the 1940s, Lindy's, a popular Broadway hangout, became the alpha and omega of the cheesecake scene, where New York's glitterati fed on the calorie-heavy delight. The cream cheese-based cake has become so completely identified with American Jewish culinary culture that Jewish cooking denizen Joan Nathan dedicated an entire episode of her 26-part series Jewish Cooking in America to a search for the best version of the product. BUT IS the Jewish connection restricted to the deli regular? A quick scan across the Internet will inevitably lead to hundreds of recipes for "Jewish cheesecake," the majority of which purport to be the real deal. For the most part, they seem to be divided along two parameters - type of crust (pastry, crustless or crumb) and type of cheese (Neufchatel and cream cheese versus farmer's cheese and cottage cheese). Montreal's Cheskie Heimishe Bakery, where the name alone gives it a leg up in credibility, sells a product that appears as a solid cake and bears little resemblance to the New York-style product, with its creamy layer of cream cheese-based sweetness. Many Central and Eastern European Jewish recipes tend to be based on cottage cheese. Not to be outdone, the local Tnuva dairy subsidiary Hachef Halavan lists over 40 cheesecake recipes on its Web site. Some are baked, some are prepared in the refrigerator and at least one is listed as divine - although creation ex nihilo still seems a bit unlikely, even for cheesecake. The site does, however, offer a bit of an indication of the ethnic origins of Israel's diverse forms of cheesecakes. "Russian Cheesecake" is a baked affair with a dry, crumbly crust and a main cheese layer that combines "spreadable cream" with sour cream, and is then topped with a cinnamon-sour cream concoction. Although the final product may physically resemble the New York variety, the cinnamon and sour cream puts an entirely different spin on the business. And the "classic" cheesecake, according to Tnuva, involves that quintessentially Israeli product "white cheese," captured between a sort of sandwich of crumbled cookies. Cheesecake, it turns out, is far beyond what I ever imagined after the white cheese-based Israeli standard rocked my cream cheese-based world to its core, but over 2,000 years of appreciation goes to show that no matter what cheese is used - cheesecake is here to stay.