April 23rd is National Cherry Cheesecake Day.
For most of us in the U.S., cheesecake means a cream cheese batter with a crust of graham cracker crumbs. Most of us know cherry cheesecake as the plain cheesecake topped with [usually] canned cherry pie filling (photo #2).
But often the canned filling is glop, and there are other cherry cheesecake recipes we prefer.
During cherry season, simmer fresh, pitted cherries for a fresh cherry topping (add sugar as necessary), and/or use them as a layer in the center of the cake (pour half the batter into the pan, add the cherries, and top with the remaining batter).
You now have options for many National Cherry Cheesecake Days to come.
Our favorite recipe combines chocolate and cherries, but not in the aforementioned way. It’s a chocolate cherry cheesecake, or a Black Forest cheesecake (photo #1):
Modern cheesecake is actually not a cake but a pie: It’s a cheese custard pie with a bottom crust. There is no cake layer, although some versions of the recipe do use a half-inch cake bottom layer instead of crushed cookies.
There are savory cheesecakes, too, and you can serve a slice as a first course.
Popular savory cheesecakes use blue cheese, basil, lobster, smoked salmon, even tuna. Here are some recipes.
Savory cheesecakes were popular in ancient Greece, and subsequently with the Romans. Cheesecakes were served to athletes during the first Olympic Games, in 776 B.C.E.
The cheese portion was baked on a pastry base, or sometimes inside a pastry case. A 1st century C.E. recipe, written by the Roman Marcus Porcius Cato in his treatise on agriculture, De Agricultura or De Re Rustica, gives this recipe for libum, a cheesecake often given as a temple offering:
Libum to be made as follows: 2 pounds cheese well crushed in a mortar; when it is well crushed, add in 1 pound bread-wheat flour or, if you want it to be lighter, just 1/2 a pound, to be mixed with the cheese. Add one egg and mix all together well. Make a loaf of this, with the leaves under it, and cook slowly in a hot fire under a brick.
Cheesecake—made with different fresh cheeses—traveled throughout Europe with the peripatetic Romans. A sweetened version, recorded by a Greek writer in about 230 C.E., adds honey.
By 160 B.C.E. a newer version emerged with a separately baked crust, and an English recipe from 1390 C.E. blended sugar and dried elderflowers with cheese curds before baking the entire dish in a pie shell [source].
Although sugar arrived in Europe around 1100, it was very expensive and not widely used except by the wealthy, who used it both to sweeten foods and as a medicine.
In the 16th century, the price of sugar, though still high, was affordable by the middle class. A mid-16th century recipe from a British cookbook shows that the Tudors liked their cheesecake sweet:
To make a tarte of Chese – Take harde Chese and cutte it in slyces,and pare it, than laye it in fayre water, or in swete mylke, the space of three houres, then take it up and breake it in a morter tyll it be small, than drawe it up thorowe a strainer with the yolkes of syxe egges, and season it wyth suger and swete butter, and so bake it.
The history of modern cheesecake begins in 1872, when a dairyman named William Lawrence invented modern cream cheese in Chester, New York. It was a happy accident: Chester was trying to make Neufchâtel cheese*, a soft French cheese.
With bricks of cheese wrapped in foil, Lawrence’s Empire Company began to distribute cream cheese in 1880. He called the product Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese. At the time, Philadelphia was known for its fine cuisine; “Philadelphia” implied “gourmet.”
In 1903, the Phoenix Cheese Company of New York bought the Empire Company and Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese. In 1928, the Kraft Cheese Company bought the brand, which it owns to this day.
Home economists at Kraft developed new ways to use the cream cheese, which were printed on the carton. Cheesecake, along with dips, spreads, fudge, and other recipes that became staples, entered the American culinary repertoire.
And the rest—including thousands of variations on that original plain cheesecake recipe—is history.
*American Neufchâtel cheese is different from French Neufchâtel; the latter is a mold-ripened cheese similar to Camembert. American Neufchâtel has approximately 33% lower fat than cream cheese and a higher moisture content. It was long sold as a reduced-fat option to cream cheese. Philadelphia’s reduced-fat cream cheese, however, is far superior to any American Neufchâtel we’ve had.
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