The History of Cheesecake and Cream Cheese

The Evolution of Cheesecake from Ancient Greece to Upstate New York

White chocolate cheesecake with brownie base
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According to anthropologists who have found cheese molds dating back to that period, cheese making can be traced back as far as 2,000 B.C. Cheesecake, however, is believed to have originated in ancient Greece. In fact, a form of cheesecake may have been served to the athletes during the first Olympic Games held in 776 B.C. to give them energy. Greek brides of the era also cooked and served cheesecake to their wedding guests.

In "The Oxford Companion to Food," editor Alan Davidson notes that cheesecake was mentioned in Marcus Porcius "Cato's De re Rustica" around 200 BCE and that Cato described making his cheese libum (cake) with results very similar to modern cheesecake. The Romans spread the tradition of cheesecake from Greece across Europe. Centuries later, cheesecake appeared in America, with a variety of regional recipes brought over by immigrants.

Cream Cheese

When Americans think of cheesecake now, it's most often associated with a product that has a cream cheese base. Cream cheese was invented in 1872 by American dairyman William Lawrence of Chester, New York, who accidentally stumbled on a method of producing cream cheese while trying to reproduce a French cheese called Neufchâtel.

In 1880, Lawrence began distributing his cream cheese in foil wrappers under the auspices of the Empire Cheese Company of South Edmeston, New York, where he manufactured the product. However, you might know it better by the more famous name Lawrence came up with for his "not Neufchâtel"—Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese.

In 1903, the Phoenix Cheese Company bought Lawrence's business—and with it, the Philadelphia trademark. In 1928, the brand was bought by the Kraft Cheese Company. James L. Kraft invented pasteurized cheese in 1912, which led to the development of pasteurized Philadelphia Brand cream cheese, currently the most popular cheese used for cheesecake making. Kraft Foods still owns and produces Philadelphia Cream Cheese today.

Fast Facts: Cheesecake Favorites

  • Traditional Greek Cheesecake—Most “traditional” Greek cheesecake is made using ricotta cheese, however, for the real deal, try to find authentic unsalted anthotyros or myzirtha cheeses which are made with either goat’s or sheep’s milk. Greek cheesecake is usually sweetened with honey. Some recipes incorporate flour directly into the cheese/honey mixture prior to baking, while others employ a crust.
  • Cream Cheese Cheesecake—The cheesecake most Americans grew up with is one or another version of a cream cheese cheesecake. At the bottom of such cheesecakes, you’ll usually find a crust made of crushed Graham crackers or other cookies (Oreos are a top choice for chocolate cheesecakes) that have been blended with butter and tamped into the bottom of a pan or mold. Cheesecakes that rely on a custard base must be baked. (The original New York Cheesecake that hails from Junior's on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn is a baked cheesecake.) However, there are scads of recipes that use a blend of other rich ingredients—such as sour cream, Greek yogurt, or heavy cream—that firm up in the refrigerator to create a “no-bake cheesecake.”

Cheesecake is Technically Pie, Not Cake

While it's called cheesecake because cheesecake is generally unleavened and usually has a crust—whether that crust is baked or not—it's is really a form of pie. Most baked cheesecakes use a custard base for filling comprised of milk, eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla or other flavorings. The standard cheesecake recipe has the addition of cream cheese but allows for variations in the type of crust, other flavorings, such as chocolate, and a variety of toppings that range from fruit to nuts to candy.

Another misconception about cheesecake is that it has to be sweet. The French classic, quiche, is for all intents and purposes a savory cheesecake. You can find any number of recipes for savory cheese pies from countries across Europe and throughout the United States.