"Say Cheese(cake)!" - A Sweet Journey Through Time from Greece to New York

Ingredients for a cheesecake

Here's what you can expect from our article on Cheesecake:

  • Cheesecake has been around much longer than New York
  • European cheesecake is much creamier than New York cheesecake
  • There are at least 11 clearly defined and very different cheesecake variations
  • Cheesecake can be baked in the oven or chilled in the refrigerator
  • The USA has a National Cheesecake Day

New York cheesecake is the quintessential American dessert, now internationally known and loved even more than many other equally delightful American sweets like brownies, apple pie, or pancakes. During the time of our Munich store, we often couldn't resist the temptation and regularly baked fresh cheesecakes on-site, much to the delight of our customers.

But what exactly makes this fluffy king of cakes so unique that people can't resist it from America to Europe, Africa, and even the far East?

A Taste Triumph with Olympic Tradition

Even though the classic cheesecake, which most people today would easily recognize in a bakery's display case, is synonymous with the New York cheesecake, this sweet treat's origin lies not only in a completely different place but also in a time that predates the beginnings of the United States.

The oldest known cheesecake in the world comes from the Greek island of Samos and was enjoyed by locals there over 4,000 years ago. The recipe was naturally different, but surprisingly, it differs in many aspects very little from the cheesecake still beloved today, even millennia later. For the ancient Greek version, local ingredients (flour, grains, honey, and cheese) were kneaded into a mixture and cooked. There are even indications that cheesecake might be the oldest known form of doping, as it was served to athletes at the Olympic Games in 776 BC to boost their energy and performance in the upcoming competitions. In private settings as well, cheesecake was a festive dish among the Greeks and became a must-have at weddings – a tradition from which the now indispensable wedding cakes evolved over the millennia.

Just like many other things, the Romans adopted many of the Greeks' culinary traditions after their successful campaigns against them. The typical ancient Roman cheesecake, called Savillum, is hardly different from its Greek predecessor, but the Romans liked to enhance this dessert with an extra dose of honey and sprinkle poppy seeds over the finished little cakes – the birth of the toppings we often find in many variations of delicious cheesecakes today, such as chocolate, cookie, fruit, etc.

Cheesecake can also be found in the beloved cookbook classic among foodies, "Forme of Cury", from 1390. In fact, this iconic reference work (known for its very simplified and imprecise recipes, often just one sentence long and without any measurements) features not just 1 but 2 recipes for the popular dessert.

Despite its ancient roots, the modern cheesecake has a significant difference from its predecessors. While European cheesecakes today are mostly made with eggs, the classic recipes used yeast in the creamy filling until the 18th century. Fortunately, the bakers of that time recognized the taste advantages of eggs, allowing us to enjoy a particularly sweet version of this dessert today, a version that would likely never have emerged in antiquity, despite the well-known and often unhealthy Roman craving for sweets.

New York, New York!

The iconic original New York cheesecake, on the other hand, is a relatively young invention and is not the oldest American variation of this treat.

The first American cheesecake also comes from New York (though from the state, not the city), and while it's only slightly older than the New York cheesecake at almost 150 years, it was actually created back in 1872 by William Lawrence from Chester – by complete accident. Lawrence had initially attempted to imitate the French soft cheeses of his time, but the result of his experiments was an "unripened cheese" that was significantly creamier than regular cheese – the birth of the world-renowned Philadelphia Cream Cheese, which is now the main ingredient in most classic cheesecake recipes.

The original New York-style cheesecake, however, has a recognizable creator that fans of typical American cuisine will surely recognize: the German-born Arnold Reuben. The inventor of the beloved Reuben sandwich, another classic of American cuisine, is also responsible for what most people envision as a typical cheesecake today. According to legend, Reuben was served a cheesecake based on Philadelphia Cream Cheese in the 1920s by a nameless woman (at least in the popular accounts), and he was so taken by it that he started selling it under his name in his cafeteria on West Broadway.

But even this cake differs significantly from today's New York cheesecake. Its defining characteristic, after all, is the soft and creamy filling, which is created by using heavy cream or sour cream, or sometimes both, in the batter. This delicious, fresh, and above all creamy indulgence with a slight tartness was a later addition. For the original New York cheesecake from the late 19th century and early 20th century, bakers still relied on the usual ingredients of the time: cream cheese, eggs, and sugar – just like with Arnold Reuben's version. But for the decades-old classic recipe known today, we can thank a certain Samuel Kaminsky from Poland. Back in the mid-20th century, he refined the base in his New York bakery with sour cream, giving the cake its unique texture and taste. As a result, the dessert was so successful that it was soon given the name "New York cheesecake", even though its creators had initially nothing to do with Reuben or Kaminsky.

The famous graham cracker crust, too, which most people associate with cheesecake, was not originally a part of either Reuben's or Kaminsky's recipes. It was not until 1929 that the American innovation of the graham cracker found its way into the cake's recipe.

This brings us to the real star of American cheesecake history and the decisive step towards the worldwide sensation that we now know as the original New York cheesecakeArnold Reuben's significant role in post-war America. After World War II, his eponymous restaurant on East 58th Street had become the regular meeting place for the stars of the city and countless tourists from all over the world. The restaurant served classic American dishes, including the legendary cheesecake. Reuben's creations and the atmosphere of his glittering cafeteria were so popular that many other cafeterias and diners simply copied his concept. Just like today, people in the 1920s to 1940s wanted to take a piece of this luxury home with them as a memory – and so the cheesecake found its way into the homes of thousands of New Yorkers.

Even then, cheesecake was already much more than just a dessert; it was a cultural asset. For decades, numerous cafeterias in New York have been offering countless variations of this creamy pleasure, and every deli simply had to have its own version of the famous cake. Even though the classic New York cheesecake became more and more varied over time, the basic recipe always stayed the same – and the creamy New York cheesecake that we know and love today is still closely linked to Arnold Reuben's original recipe from the 1920s.

Many Cheesecakes of Many Countries

Even if New York is a long way from Ancient Greece, the popularity of cheesecake in all its forms is based on the same principle. After all, the culinary concept of creating something sweet out of simple ingredients that doesn't perish quickly is a tried-and-true one, as cake and pie crusts have shown us for centuries. With cheesecake, the idea is that the savory base made from cheese serves as a solid foundation, while the numerous toppings leave ample room for creativity.

Since the arrival of the New York version of cheesecake in the world of international cuisine, however, some creative minds far from the New York kitchens have been busy inventing their variations of this classic, many of which are closely linked to the respective country's culinary history. After all, cheesecake has not only traveled the world for centuries but has also adapted time and again to new eating habits and local preferences.

France, for example, has its own interpretation of cheesecake that probably William Lawrence would hardly recognize as a descendant of his creation. Fromage blanc, the French version of curd cheese, takes on a leading role here. The filling is prepared with sugar, vanilla sugar, and eggs, while the cake is refined with a classic butter dough base. The highlight: ripe pears that are placed on top of the cheese mixture and caramelized during the baking process. This gives the French cheesecake not only a delightful sweetness but also a fine caramel note and a hint of vanilla from the refined quark mixture. Just like the classic American version, the French cheesecake also uses a shortcrust base.

The cheesecake is also a big deal in Italy. The land of the best coffee in the world relies on its cheese variation of this dessert – the ricotta cake. This variant is far from the typical Italian simplicity – on the contrary. The filling is made from a ricotta cheese base mixed with sugar, lemon zest, and grated almonds. The base is made with shortcrust dough, and the cake is refined with an abundance of cinnamon. The best thing about it: if you love Italian espresso, you can order a slice of ricotta cake to go with your strong coffee.

While the French and Italian variations represent a sweet way to enjoy cheesecake, the Japanese have a slightly different approach. They've taken the creamy and rich concept and transformed it into something lighter and more delicate called mochi, a cake made from glutinous rice. The Japanese have embraced the concept of bite-sized portions, and their mochi cheesecakes are often sold in individually wrapped pieces. These treats come in a variety of flavors, often with matcha (green tea), sesame, ho and mochi have quickly gained popularity beyond Japan's borders.

So, whether you're enjoying the classic New York cheesecake with its dense and creamy filling, exploring various European twists on the cheesecake with French fromage blanc or Italian ricotta cake, or experiencing the unique textures of Japanese mochi cheesecakes, you're savoring a dessert with a rich history that has evolved and adapted over centuries.

As for the future of cheesecake, who knows what innovative culinary minds will come up with next? With the pace of gastronomic creativity, we might soon find cheesecake flavors and styles that blend cultural influences, modern techniques, and unexpected ingredients. The cheesecake journey, which began thousands of years ago, is sure to continue surprising and delighting our taste buds for generations to come.