Wednesday, August 31, 2016

An Ancient Favourite: Cheesecake

By Lauren Gilbert

Cheesecake could be considered the quintessential American dessert. However, that would be denying the incredibly long history of this dessert, a true culinary evolution. Cheesecake may have been the earliest wedding cake. Ancient cheese molds dated about 2000 b.c. were excavated in Greece, and cheese making existed centuries before then. Considered a source of energy, it appears that cheesecake was served to athletes in the Olympic games in 776 b.c. They combined cheese, honey, wheat and flour and baked it into a cake. The first recipe was written by Athenaeus in approximately 230 a.d. and instructed the baker to pound the cheese until smooth, mix with honey and spring wheat flour, heat into a mass, cool and serve. Clearly it was a very simple dish.

Libum-Sweet Cheesecake Ingredients and Recipe

Of course, the Romans took cheesecake along with everything else when they conquered Greece. They added their own ingredients to the recipe, including eggs, baked it under hot bricks and served it warm. The mixing technique included crushing the cheese. Marcus Porcius Cato, who died 149 b.c., wrote De Agricultura (or De re Rustica) discussing farm management, and included what is considered the oldest known Roman cheesecake recipe: “(LXXV) This is the recipe for cheese cake (libum): Bray well two pounds of cheese in a mortar, and, when this is done, pour in a pound of corn meal (or, if you want to be more dainty, a half pound of flour) and mix it thoroughly with the cheese. Add one egg and beat it well. Pat into a cake, place it on leaves and bake slowly on a hot hearth stone under a dish.” (1) Clearly, the Romans enjoyed savoury as well as sweet cheesecake, as honey does not appear in this recipe. Sometimes, the mixed ingredients were poured into a pastry shell and baked that way.

Cheesecake accompanied the Romans to Europe, Great Britain and Scandinavia by 1000 b.c., as they conquered and traded. Different locations meant different cultures, different tastes, and different ingredients caused adjustments to the recipes. The earliest English cookbook, Forme of Cury (1390), compiled by the master cooks of King Richard II and written on vellum, included a recipe that involved a pastry shell baked with a filling of cheese, egg yolks, saffron, ginger and salt. In 1545, A Propre new booke of Cokery was printed (the first printed cookbook) with, of course, recipes for cheesecakes. A subsequent edition was issued in 1557. One recipe is called (in modern English) to make a tart of cheese. This recipe calls for hard cheese with rind removed and sliced, milk or water, egg yolks, sugar and sweet butter. The cheese was placed in a shallow dish, the milk or water poured over, and set aside to soak for 3 hours. The cheese was drained and pounded in a mortar, then mixed with the egg yolks. The mixture was strained, then mixed with the sugar and butter. This filling was poured into a blind-baked pastry, then baked until the cheese filling had set.(2) This recipe seems to be the recipe supposedly used in Henry VIII’s kitchen. The sugar and spices used would have made cheesecake a luxury dish, as these were very expensive ingredients.

English recipes included cheeseless options, as well as options using drained curds. The curds would have been softer, which would have made preparation easier for the cook. An Elizabethan recipe was made up of drained curds, butter, currants, rosewater and nutmeg, and baked in a pastry case. In a 17th century recipe, the instructions start with combining milk and rennet to make curds, then blending the drained fresh curds with thick cream, sweet butter, eggs, currants, cloves, nutmeg and mace (spices beaten), sugar, and rosewater. After mixing well, this was poured into a puff paste and baked.(3) Another 17th Century recipe for curd-cakes is a variation, and involved making a batter of curds, eggs (minus some of the whites), sugar, nutmeg and flour mixed, then fried in a little butter. (4) The cheeseless option sounded very much like a custard pie, as it contained a filling of cream, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, pepper and currants, baked in a pastry “coffin”. (5) Samuel Pepys was known to be passionate about cheesecake, writing in his diary about places that served it multiple times.

By the 18th century, cheesecake was firmly established as a national favourite. Recipes abounded in cookbooks, including Eliza Smith’s THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE, and Hannah Glasse’s THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY. Martha Lloyd, a friend of Jane Austen’s who lived with Jane and her family before marrying Jane’s brother Francis, had multiple recipes for cheesecakes. The effects of cheesecake on the figure were also well known. A caricature by Isaac Cruikshank titled “The Rage, or Shepherds I have lost my waist” was published December 1, 1794, bewailed the need to forgo jellies, cheesecakes and other sweets to satisfy a fashionable dressmakers requirements. It clearly had evolved to a dessert recognizable today, and, within England, regional twists were common. Cheesecake was also carried to the colonies, including America, as demonstrated by a tavern called the Cheesecake House established in Philadelphia in the 1730s and the first American edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy published in 1805 in Alexandria Virginia with multiple cheesecake recipes.

Something Like A Valentine by George Cruikshank

In 1849, George Cruikshank published a caricature, “Something Like a Valentine,” in which he avoided sentiment and listed the material advantages to marriage, including money, jewelry, a grand piano and cheesecake. Unaccountably, as the 19th century progressed, the popularity of traditional cheesecake began to wane and by the middle of the 19th century, recipes were not as prevalent. Of course, by the late 19th century, cream cheese had been invented in America, starting the evolution to the modern cheesecake known today. Back in England, traditional recipes could, and still can, be found in specific locales, such as Deptford cheesecake, a traditional cake made with curd cheese, although fresh ricotta is shown as an acceptable alternative. (You can find a modern recipe in “The Devil at Work in Deptford” – link below.) Another local favourite is Yorkshire Curd Tart, which is also made with curd cheese, and spiced with allspice. (A modern recipe is available in “Yorkshire Curd Tart”- link below.) Both of these articles contain instructions for making curds to use in the recipes if a local source for fresh curds or curd cheese is not available.

Sources include:

World History International. Project Gutenberg e-book. ROMAN FARM MANAGEMENT THE TREATISES OF CATO AND VARRO DONE INTO ENGLISH, WITH NOTES OF MODERN INSTANCES BY A VIRGINIA FARMER, 1918. Released April 25, 2004. (Footnote 1) Here.

A PROPER NEW BOOKE OF COKERYE Classic Tudor Cookery. Kindle Edition. by Dafyd Lloyd Evans. Nemeton: June 27, 2012. This is a facsimile edition of the volume published in 1557, based on the 1545 edition. (Footnote 2)

A Boke of Good Cookery presents 17th Century English Recipes. “To Make Cheese-Cakes-the best way.” From The Accomplish’d Lady’s Delight in Preserving, Physick, Beautifying, and Cookery, 1675. (Footnote 3) Here. “To make Curd-Cakes.” From A True Gentlewomans Delight, 1653. (Footnote 4) Here. “To make Cheese-cakes.” From A True Gentlewoman’s Delight, 1653. (Footnote 5) Here.

Google Books. Goldstein, Darra, ed. OXFORD COMPANION TO SUGAR AND SWEETS. Oxford University Press, PP. 124-125. Here.

Food Timeline. “Cheesecake.” Here.

Google Books. England Under the House of Hanover; Its History and Condition During the Reign of the Three Georges. Illustrated from the Caricatures and Satires of the Day. Vol. II. Wright, Thomas, esq. London: Richard Bentley, 1849. p. 316 Google Books. England Under the House of Hanover; Its History and Condition During the Reign of the Three Georges. Illustrated from the Caricatures and Satires of the Day. Vol. II. Wright, Thomas, esq. London: Richard Bentley, 1849. p. 316 Here. (The caricature described can be viewed clearly Here. Scroll down!)

Hickman, Peggy. A JANE AUSTEN HOUSEHOLD BOOK with Martha Lloyd’s recipes. Newton Abbot: David & Charles 1977.

Life and Food. “The Devil at Work in Deptford” by David Porter. October 13, 2011. Here.

British Food-A History. “Yorkshire Curd Tart.” February 9, 2014. Here.

All images from Wikimedia Commons:

Libum-Sweet Cheesecake Ingredients and History. Here. (Uploaded December 28, 2013 by Marcus Cyron)

Curds and Whey by Thomas Rowlandson 1820. Here. Held by British Library, released to public domain.

Something Like A Valentine by George Cruikshank 1848, from A Comic Almanack of 1849. Here.


Lauren Gilbert's first published book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, was published in 2011. A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is due out in early 2017. Please visit her website Here. She lives in Florida with her husband, with fresh herbs and roses in the garden.


  1. Just to clarify for your readers: for the Romans, "corn meal" was not from New World maize (what we in the US call corn). "Corn" was an old word for grain.

  2. Delightful read! This is the first and earliest reference I have seen describing how to bake something on the hearth under a container--149 BC.