Cheesecake Story: From Ancient Greek Olympics To NY Cheesecakes
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Ah, cheesecake. Who doesn't love a nice, cold slice of a New York Cheesecake? You'd be surprised to know that the beloved round of baked custard did not originate in modern times. 

A rudimentary cheesecake was first described almost 4000 years ago, in the book Plakountopoiikon Sungramma (Placental Writing or Placental Book) by Aegimus, a Greek physician, in the 5th century BCE. There were three varieties of cheesecake that were staples at the time, namely, libum, savillum, and the book’s namesake, the placenta. Libum was more of a bun cake, topped with honey. Savillum was a bit more elaborate, akin to a Basque cheesecake minus the caramelized top. The batter was a mix of ricotta with eggs and was flavored with orange zest and bay leaves. The placenta, or plakous, is the closest of the three to a modern-day cheesecake: the batter was made with goat cheese and honey, then layered between sheets of dough before being baked. It was served with honey as well as dried fruits and nuts. Cheesecakes were even served to athletes at the ancient Greek Olympics as a source of energy. 

The next iteration of the dessert was in medieval England, in the form of the sambocade, an elderflower cheesecake. The dish was first mentioned in The Forme of Cury, a 13th-century cookbook penned by the chief master cooks of the English king Richard II. That cheesecake featured a crust, not unlike the one now found in most modern-day cheesecakes. The batter was made using ricotta, cottage cheese, butter, sugar, heavy cream, orange zest, rosewater, elderberries and/ elderflower cordial, and flavored with spices, namely clove and nutmeg. The dish was baked, and served cold. Given how the sambocade is much more similar to the modern cheesecake as opposed to its ancient Greek counterpart, many British chefs, the most vocal of the lot being the celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, have long argued that the dessert has British roots.

The exact means of how the cheesecake reached American shores is unknown. That said, most sources credit one Martha Washington (wife of George Washington) for the deed. Martha owned the Cheesecake House Tavern in Philadelphia, which was famous for its namesake. In 1749, Daniel Custis, her first husband, gifted her two books, Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeat, on the day of their wedding. The precise origins of these books are unknown, though it is widely believed that they were from England. Martha released her own book - Martha Washington's Booke of Cookery – that contained three cheesecake recipes, including one without a crust. 

It is impossible to think of the modern-day cheesecake without cream cheese, Philadelphia ‘Philly’ cream cheese to be exact. The cheese was invented in 1872 by William Lawrence in New York. The invention occurred quite by accident, ax William was trying to make Neufchâtel (a French cheese). Later that year, William would partner with A.L. Reynolds, a cheese distributor, to market the cheese in bulk, wrapped in tin foil. They used the name “Philadelphia” on the blocks of cheese, capitalizing on the neighboring town’s reputation for its rich dairy products.

Philly cream cheese would change the way desserts were made, especially after the addition of stabilizers in the 1920’s. This allowed the cheese to retain its texture at high temperatures. New York bakers would take advantage of this change for years to come. In 1929, Arnold Reuben, who invented the Reuben sandwich in 1914 and ran Reuben's Restaurant and Delicatessen, was captivated by a cheese pie he had tasted at a dinner party. Reuben procured the recipe from the hostess and modified the recipe, substituting the cheese curds with cream cheese. The new cheese dish became popular among his clients and patrons over the next few years, even gaining a cult following.

Lindy’s Restaurant in New York also featured a cheesecake topped with strawberry compote around the same time. The restaurant's owner, Leo “Lindy” Lindemann, based the recipe on one that he acquired from Reuben’s baker, or so the story goes. Gauging the popularity of the cheesecake, bakers all over New York began to offer their own versions that would help them stand out from the competition. They experimented with the various components that made up the dessert. Older flavors and ingredients like rosewater and spices were replaced with subtler flavorings, namely lemon and vanilla. The cream cheese filling was cut with sour cream in order to impart a tart cheese, and the pie crust was switched out with crushed zwieback (a European rusk) or graham cracker crumbs. These variants never strayed too far from Rueben’s recipe, which remains the inspiration for the many cheesecakes that are served on the streets of New York, and, consequently, all over the world today.