1. Formerly: †a tart or pie containing a mixture originally including cheese, later usually curds or cream, eggs, sugar, butter, and various flavourings (obsolete). Subsequently: a dessert or sweet dish made from a mixture of cream cheese, sugar, and eggs on a base of cake or crushed biscuits, sometimes containing or topped with fruit, and either baked or chilled.
Oxford English Dictionary, first published 1928
Historically, cheesecake is not something that I’d rush to order a slice of. If I fancy something sweet, I’m much more inclined to go for a scoop of ice-cream, a dessert made with sharp fruits, or, most often, a cheese plate. But the thing about working in a kitchen with my pal Livvy Potts is that she’s just that good at making extraordinary desserts. Her cheesecake is rich, dense, not too sweet, and with the sort of delightful texture that clings to the fork – nothing like the sickly, sticky, cloying cheesecakes you could order when I was growing up, or the dry, crumbling, unappetising ones that stayed too long in the oven. Hers is a cheesecake I find myself thinking about still now, months after I last had a slice of it. And it’s a cheesecake that inspired some research into the etymology of the word, curious about the diversity of desserts that carry the name.
Early cheesecakes (cheese cakes, or occasionally cheese-cakes) were just that: cakes made with cheese, and relatively unrecognisable to us today as a sweet pudding. The first known recorded recipe is a vague one, from De Re Rustica, a treatise on agriculture written by Roman politician, and directs that cheese should be crushed, flour and an egg added to it, and that it should be cooked slowly, in a hot fire. Similar cheese cakes were offered to athletes during the first Olympic Games in Greece.
Roman armies brought their cheese cakes to Britain, and to Northern Europe, more than 1000 years ago. By Tudor times, recipes for a ‘tarte of Chese’ existed, which directed that cheese should be soaked in milk, pounded, mixed with eggs, sugar and butter, and baked. A 17th century recipe, calling for lemon, egg yolks, sugar, and butter, sounds like an unlikely cheesecake recipe – made, as it is, without cheese. However, it was referred to as such, and a version of this recipe is one we use today – now called lemon curd (or lemon cheese).
In the 18th century, Hannah Glasse’s tome The Art of Cookery included a recipe for a cheesecake made from curd cheese, sugar, egg yolks, and butter, flavoured with lemon peel, and baked into a case made from puff pastry. It’s a recipe that bears a resemblance to some cheesecakes we still eat now, particularly the Italian ones, made with soft ricotta curds.
But it was the invention of cream cheese in the late 19th century that had the biggest impact on the cheesecakes we have cooked and eaten since. William Lawrence, an American who was attempting to recreate Neufchatel, a creamy and slightly crumbly French cheese, instead created the first smooth, rich, un-ripened cream cheese. It is now a standard ingredient in both cooked and uncooked cheesecakes; the smooth and creamy texture it lends is a feature of most contemporary cheesecakes.
Like many of the recipes since Tudor times, modern cheesecake is really more of a tart than a cake – a mixture of cheese, sugar, and eggs, on top of a base made from pastry, or from crushed biscuits combined with butter. It can be flavoured with myriad fruits, spices, or sweeteners, often influenced by country and region. My friend Livvy makes hers with some dark muscavado sugar, and a base of malted milk biscuits. It is a joy – as is (I hope you’ll agree) my gently citrusy, pillowy soft, ricotta version below.
Based on Hannah Glasse’s 18thC recipe in The Art of Cookery
500ml whole milk
3tbsp lemon juice
Strips of zest from one lemon
60g caster sugar
3 egg yolks
115g butter, melted and cooled
A block of puff pastry
1. First, make the cheese. Bring the milk to a gentle simmer in a saucepan, until it reaches 80C. Add the lemon juice and stir; the milk will separate into curds and whey. Leave to cool for a couple of minutes, and then strain through a sheet of muslin before allowing the curds to sit for twenty minutes or so, until soft, and still a little damp.
2. Preheat the oven to 180C. Cover the zest with a little water in a small saucepan. Bring to a simmer, and cook until the zest is softened. Keep an eye on it, as you don’t want the pan to boil dry.
3. Put the softened zest in a mortar and pestle with the sugar. Pound the sugar to flavour it with the zest, then remove the zest and whisk the sugar with the egg yolks, and 125g of the curds. Whisk in the cooled butter.
4. Roll out the puff pastry, until it is a couple of millimeters thick, cut into discs and use to line six small tart shells. Divide the filling between the cases, and transfer to the oven. Bake for 25 – 30 minutes, until golden on top.
50g butter, melted
160g cream cheese
60g golden caster sugar
2 large eggs, separated
Grated zest of lemon and orange
1. Strain the ricotta through a sieve, to get rid of any excess liquid. Preheat the oven to 150C (fan), and grease and line a loose-bottomed 15cm cake tin* with greaseproof paper. Wrap tightly in two sheets of foil.
2. Blitz the biscuits to a fine powder in a food processor, and then mix the melted butter through them. Tip this mix into the base of the cake tin, and press it down firmly with a glass. Transfer to the oven for 10 minutes.
3. In the meantime, whisk together the ricotta, cream cheese, sugar, and egg yolks. Fold through the Marsala and the grated zest.
4. Beat the egg whites to soft peaks, and then fold these gently through the cheesecake mixture. Pour over the base, and then place the tin in a roasting dish. Transfer to the oven, and pour boiling water into the dish, so that it comes halfway up the sides of the cake tin. Bake for 45 minutes, until the cheesecake is set, but still has a wobble in the centre.
5. Take the cheesecake out of the roasting dish, but leave in the oven, with the door open, while it cools down.
*Either a tight fitting loose-bottomed cake tin, or a springform tin will work; make sure you’re not using a tin that has a tendency to leak.
This piece was written to celebrate the 90th birthday of the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s the only book in the world that includes, in its pages, all of my favourite words, like obsequious, elixir, imbue, conundrum, soporific, and mellifluous. And cheesecake.