Love it or loathe it, cheesecake is a go-to dessert for many. It’s very hard to resist – a buttery, sweet biscuit base topped with a smooth and creamy mixture of cream cheese, sugar, and flavor. You might even go one step further and top it with more deliciousness like a coulis, chocolate sauce, whipped cream, or smashed-up cookie crumbs. I’ve put together the definitive list of the best cheesecake toppings you have to try. Give them a go when you next make one – you won’t be disappointed!
New Yorkers add extra cream, the Japanese add whipped egg whites and Italians use Ricotta cheese as a base. You can make a baked cheesecake (see my tips for the best baked cheesecake), a no-bake cheesecake, a vegan cheesecake, and even a savory version. You can make it by hand using a spatula and brute strength or you can use your trusty appliance. The possibilities really are endless.
Seeing as this dessert has become so iconic and is beloved across the whole world, I wanted to take a deep dive into who invented cheesecake, its origins and why is it called cheesecake (spoiler – it’s not technically a cake!). The history of cheesecake goes back thousands of years, and spans at least three cultures and the modern version was the by-product of a creamy catastrophe.
When Was Cheesecake Invented?
So, who invented cheesecake? Cast your mind back to 2,000 – 4,000 BC; you’re in Ancient Egypt, looking through your store of milk. Your hi-tech storage system of the time was using containers made from the stomachs of animals. You’re searching for the best milk you have but bummer, you’ve run into an issue. Your milk has gone off and turned to cheese.
Like many great discoveries in history, cheese was thought to be created by accident in Egyptian times. Error or not, I think most of us are glad of this mistake. Fast forward to roughly 776 BC and the Greeks found an excellent use for cheese by making it into a sweet dish. One of the first iterations of the now-popular cheesecake may have been served to the athletes at the Olympic games in Greece that year. If you were a Greek bride around that time, you probably served cheesecake to the guests at your wedding.
So, now you’re at a Greek wedding, smashing plates and having a lovely time eating delicious cheesecake. But, in come the Romans to break up the party. They conquer Greece and make the Ancient Greek cheesecake their own, renaming it “placenta” (appetizing right?) or a “libum” and these were more like a modern cheesecake, baked on or in a pastry case.
The Roman cheesecake recipe, spearheaded by Cato the Elder, can be traced back to about 160 BC. His book on running a farm, De Agricultura, contained no less than 8 cheesecake recipes and sees the introduction of eggs into the mixture. Another early rendition of the recipe comes from 230 AD, written by Athenaeus, a Greek author. It is a simple recipe, consisting of pounded cheese, wheat flour, and honey all mashed together, baked, and cooled.
If we speed ahead to the 14th century and pop over to medieval England, we find evidence of Sambocade, a recipe that more so resembles modern cheesecake. A popular dish, it was made from fresh cheese, egg whites, sugar, rose water and elderberry flowers, all mixed together and baked into a pie crust. Now we’re talkin’!
Another wonderful accidental discovery led to the creation of cream cheese in 1872. William Lawrence was beavering away making a French cheese called Neufchâtel when he accidentally added too much cream and boom, cream cheese was born.
Thus began the production of the cheesecake that we know and love today. Arnold Reuben was one of the first people to claim the credit for inventing the New York cheesecake, after tinkering with a recipe for a cheese pie he got off the hostess at a dinner party in 1929. He is also responsible for the Reuben sandwich – a busy chap back in those days.
Why Is It Called Cheesecake?
The baking purists among us are probably thinking – you know cheesecake is not technically a cake right? Correct, the creamy delicious dessert doesn’t fall into the exact definition of a cake. The Great American Baking Show producers had the same dilemma as to how to categorize it, including it in “Dessert Week” – which is pretty broad.
Cheesecake is indeed a misnomer. Cake is defined as “a sweet food made from a mixture of flour, eggs, butter, sugar, etc. that is baked in an oven. Cakes are made in various shapes and sizes and are often decorated, for example with cream or icing” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. A pie on the other hand is described as “a baked dish of fruit or meat and/or vegetables with pastry on the bottom, sides, and top”. This is bringing us a bit closer to an accurate definition but is still missing the mark.
The closest definition I could find was a tart – “an open pie filled with sweet food such as fruit”. Bingo. A pastry or Graham cracker bottom – check. A sweet creamy, delicious filling – check! So why is it still called a cake when it is more closely related to a tart. Realistically, It’s a twin of a tart but a cousin of a cake, let’s be honest.
I’m afraid I don’t have the definitive answer as to why it is called a cake, and I don’t think anyone else does either as the debate rages on amongst culinary professionals and the professionally opinionated. Some say it’s a cake because it is baked, but no bake cheesecake isn’t baked. Confusion all around. In short, the jury is out and this may just be a misnomer that we have to live with.
Another misnomer we have to live with; banana bread is not bread!
A Never Ending Flavor Profile
It’s clear that whatever the origins, cheesecake is a crowd-pleasing dessert that will grace our dinner tables for generations to come. The infamous Cheesecake Factory now has 38 different flavors including Tiramisu, Toasted Marshmallow S’mores Galore, Pumpkin Pecan, and Lemon Raspberry Cream.
One of the great joys of baking a cheesecake is that you have a pretty clean slate when it comes to flavorings. Thanks to its simple base of cream cheese, sugar, and crushed biscuits, you can go as tame or wild as you like with the flavors. Fruity, sweet and salty, nutty, spicy, chocolatey – or a combination – you can create your own masterpiece with just a few simple ingredients.
So we have the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and English to thank for bringing us this delicious dessert. Combine their inventiveness with a couple of happy accidents, and voila – we have the cheesecake that we know and love today. Now please excuse me as I take myself to my kitchen to whip up one of these delights.