While cheesecake may seem as American as, well, apple pie — and as Jewish as the New York deli — the truth is that cheesecake has been around for nearly 3,000 years and has traveled the world in many different forms, from savory to sweet, pie and pancake to pastry, tart to mousse.
Cheesecake’s roots are in the ancient world, where it was fed to athletes at the first Olympic games in 776 BCE to boost their energy for the competition. That might also explain why it became a wedding cake for the wealthy Greeks, who may have thought it would boost their energy in other arenas as well… Fast forward a couple thousand years and halfway around the world, and there’s Bill Clinton. To celebrate his 1993 inauguration, the public was served pieces from a 2,000-pound, red, white, and blue cheesecake.
How did that happen? Thanks to the Roman Empire, cheesecake spread from upper class citizens and athletes to the masses so that by the time of Julius Caesar, his subjects were offering their gods a baked version called libum. The recipe as recorded by Cato in a 2nd century BCE farming book included cheese, cornmeal, flour, and an egg beaten together and baked “slowly on a hot hearth stone under a dish.” The result was savory and probably lumpier than more modern versions.
There is some debate as to when Jews were introduced to cheesecake, either in Greek-occupied ancient Palestine, where cream was left hanging in skins to thicken by draining the water out (similar to turning yogurt into labneh), or by the Romans a century or two later. The important thing is, Jews took to cheesecake, and both made it to what is now modern Europe and beyond, where everyone adapted cheesecake to local tastes and ingredients.
We know a lot about various forms of cakes, tarts, pies, and pastries using cheese curd in the 13th to the 17th centuries from recipes in cookbooks. In Central and Northern Europe, it was often a sweet tart made with a larger-curd, tangier cheese called quark. A fresh, mild soft cheese, quark could be described as mascarpone mixed with sour cream.
Italian recipes combined ricotta (usually sheep’s milk) with polenta and almonds, and sometimes lemon or rum as well, to create a more pudding-like, sweet budino di ricotta, directly descended from the ancient Romans. This creation has been served for centuries at Easter and is now part of Shavuot celebrations for Italian Jews.
By the 18th century, recipes became more thick custards of cream and eggs, flavored with lemon or citron peel, rosewater, and spices like cinnamon. From colonial manuscripts, we know that the English and other European colonists brought their versions to North America.
But it was the Jewish immigrants from southern and eastern Europe who came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries who really created today’s popular cheesecake culture. New York delis Reuben’s and Lindy’s feuded about which was the originator of the classic New York style cheesecake. Sometimes called Jewish style, this is the cheesecake most popular today: cream cheese, sour cream, eggs, vanilla, and sugar, baked in a crumb dough. In the past, a sponge-cake crust was also popular. Cream cheese and toppings of fresh fruit or fruit in a sweetened syrup are American creations as well.
Today, the U.S. has more cheesecake recipes and varieties than anyplace else in the world. For me, though, after all the many, many recipes for cheesecake, my go-to is an easy, less sweet cheesecake pie, close in taste and consistency to the kind German Jewish immigrants brought to America.
My recipe is a hybrid of American and German versions using farmer’s cheese for some curd mixed with cream cheese. Hold the sour cream and use a little yogurt instead for that little extra bit of tang. A graham cracker or cookie crust adds a modern twist. To be more authentic, use a dough pie crust, especially one with yeast. Many of the cheesecakes throughout the centuries used dried fruit, so I like that in this version. But I admit that in summer, I sometimes substitute with fresh blueberries.
Considering how far cheesecake has wandered before finding stardom in this country, it seems yet another reason to enjoy, especially at Shavuot.
Traditional Cheesecake Pie
- 1 graham cracker or other cookie crust, or a regular pie crust
- 1/3 cup superfine sugar
- 1/3 cup (3/4 stick) unsalted butter, softened
- 1 8-ounce package cream cheese or Neufchâtel cheese, softened to room temperature
- 6 oz Farmer’s cheese, softened to room temperature
- 1/3 cup yogurt
- 2 large eggs, beaten well
- Grated zest of 1 large lemon or a small orange
- Optional: 1/2 cup chopped up dried fruit such as apricots, prunes or golden raisins, or ½ cup fresh blueberries
- Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Follow directions for your favorite graham cracker or cookie crust. If using regular pie crust dough, roll it out and line a greased 8-inch tart or an 8-inch pie pan.
- Prick the bottom several times with a fork and bake for 10 minutes to crisp the crust. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool a bit before filling.
- Let the cheeses and butter soften to room temperature. If you don’t have superfine sugar, put it in a blender or food processor and pulse until fine.
- In a food processor, add the butter to the sugar and pulse to cream until light. Add the softened cheeses and yogurt, and pulse until smooth, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the eggs and process until smooth and creamy. Pulse in the zest just until evenly mixed.
- If not using a food processor, in a mixing bowl, cream the butter and sugar until light. Add the softened cheeses and yogurt, and beat together until well blended. Beat in the eggs and mix very well. Stir in the zest and, if using, the dried fruit.
- Once the filling is ready, fill the cooled pie shell with the mixture. Put the cheesecake into the very hot preheated oven, then immediately turn the heat down to 350 degrees. Bake until the filling is set, about 25 to 28 minutes. Let cool.
- Serve with fresh fruit or berries and whipped cream. Good also with a favorite fruit preserve spread gently on top.