Cheesecake – the Dessert of Champions
The next time you eat cheesecake, remember that you are eating one of the world’s oldest recorded recipes, from 7,000 years ago. Certainly, what we think of cheesecake now is much different than then, but how far did we stray as it travelled from Greece to Rome, to Europe and England and finally to the new world? And how close can we come to making the original recipe?
It is claimed that the Greek physician Aegimus (5th century BCE) wrote a book on the art of making cheesecakes. Archeologists found broken pieces of cheese moulds dating back as far as 2000 BC on the Greek island of Samos, which somewhat confirms the suspicion that Samos is the birthplace of cheesecakes. As an aside, Samos is also the birthplace of Pythagoras – maybe it helped him think!
Fast-forward to the first Olympic Games in 776 BC, and the ancient Greeks believed that they were good for energy and gave little cheesecakes to competing Olympians. That’s a pretty nice post-workout snack! Make some from the recipe at the end and try it after your exercise :).
Ancient Greek author Athenaeus included cheesecake in a book he wrote in 230 AD with this recipe: “Take cheese and pound it till smooth and pasty; put cheese in a brazen sieve; add honey and spring wheat flour. Heat in one mass, cool, and serve.” The ancient Greeks were brief.
While we could still do that, that’s not the recipe today, which is for Plakous, the one that Athenaeus particularly loved. It is a layered cheesecake of crisp, flaky pastry layered with ricotta, honey and bay leaves.
And then came the Romans (again!)
Meanwhile, the Romans conquered Greece in 146 BC and adopted the recipe. They altered it by adding eggs, crushed cheese and lemon or orange zest and called it savillum, or libuma. The name depends on which source you read. In fact, the De Agri Cultura (On Farming and Agricultural) written by Cato the elder in 160 BC contains the oldest existing recipe for cheesecake.
Then the Romans took it with them to England and northern Europe, and each country modified it according to their local ingredients. Apparently, Henry VIII was very fond of it and his chef made it a special way by finely dicing the cheese and then soaking it in milk for three hours. After he strained this, he mixed it with eggs, butter and sugar.
I think it’s starting to resemble what we would think of as cheesecake!
The big change to cheesecake in North America came after a dairyman named William Lawrence created cream cheese by accident in 1872 – he was trying to recreate a French cheese from Neufchâtel. This became Philadelphia cream cheese.
But how did cream cheese get into the cheesecake?
The story goes that New York deli owner Arnold Reuben (yes, who created the Reuben sandwich, but that’s another story!) substituted cream cheese for farmer’s cheese. It was an instant hit. And with the addition of heavy cream, we now have the New York Cheesecake.
Cheesecake is different in other places
When you travel, you find variations by country. For example, the Italian version uses ricotta cheese instead of cream cheese. And since the 1600s, Germany has made its käsekuchen, made with quark and either dough or shortbread crust.
After eating this käsekuchen in Berlin, Germany, Japanese confectionery king Tomotaro Kuzuno returned to Japan and created the Japanese version, using cream cheese, first brought to Japan by the American soldiers after WWII. He made his cheesecake lighter and less sweet, like a souffle when it is warm and like a chiffon cake when it is cool.
Depending on where you are in the world, you may get a version that is lighter, or drier, or airier. Which version is best? I don’t know I am willing to try them all and compare them for you.
But what’s the original cheese?
The ancient Greeks used myzithra, which has been produced in Greece for thousands of years. According to Culinarybackstreets.com, “it’s made from a mix of sheep and/or goat milk (depending on the region) and whey, with many using the whey of feta cheese, in a production process similar to that of ricotta in Italy. If you can’t get fresh sweet myzithra cheese you can replace it with anthotyro (a similar Greek cheese), manouri mixed with a bit of yogurt to soften it up, or Italian ricotta.”
The recipe below is not your standard, modern cheesecake recipe. It comes from https://digventures.com/2015/09/recipe-how-to-make-your-very-own-ancient-greek-cheesecake/ and is the Plakous extolled by Atheneous in ancient Greece. You can see that it is actually fairly simple, and like all fine things, depends on the quality of the ingredients.
Recipe: Ancient Greek Cheesecake – Plakous
enough water to make the dough
200g honey (runny!)
6-8 bay leaves
- Make the dough by mixing the flour and water together. Divide it into 5 parts and then roll it out very VERY thinly. Leave it to dry, brush with oil and then put it in the oven to dry again.
- Mix the ricotta and honey into a thick, creamy mess.
- Grease the bay leaves and cover the bottom of your baking dish with them. Then add the first layer of dough (or puff pastry if you’re being lazy), but this first layer needs to be much bigger than the others, covering the base with plenty of spare to go up and spill over the sides (you’ll be folding the edges back in over the layers to make a parcel)
- Now add your second layer of dough. Cut it to fit the base and put it in on top of the first layer. Cover this layer with a generous helping of ricotta and honey. Repeat, alternating between a layer of pastry and a layer of ricotta and honey until both you use all of them.
- Now pull those edges from the bottom layer up and over the cake. Grease it with oil and bake for 20-30 minutes at 165C (325F)
- Bathe it in honey! When the top is golden brown, take it out and bathe it in MORE honey!
Enjoy at any time of day, not just after exercise!
Note re: DigVentures.com was an interesting discovery for me, They do crowdfunding to support archaeologic projects that everyone can be part of and publish their findings online.