We New Yorkers are serious cheesecake mavens. And rightly so; “New York-Style” cheesecake has become the standard by which cheesecakes everywhere are judged. But when did we start eating cheesecakes, and where did they first appear?
Cheesecakes are probably as old as cheese and cakes, which are very old indeed, though written evidence on the subject is slight. Cheesecakes were mentioned in Marcus Porcius Cato’s De re Rustica (also known as De Agri Cultura) around 200 BCE. Cheesecake recipes, however, do not appear in the oldest surviving cookbook: Apicius’ De re Coquinaria, named for a first-century gourmet, was compiled in the fourth century. Apicius (or whoever it was who compiled the recipes in his name) was writing for an aristocratic audience, and cheesecakes may have been excluded because they were, by then, too common.
Jumping forward in time, Alan Davidson in The Oxford Companion to Food tells us that in 1265 the Countess of Leicester kept a receipt (or recipe) for “cheese for tarts.” Davidson doesn’t provide the recipe, but the cooking of Medieval Europe was heavily influenced by Islamic ideas, so the Countess’s dish might have been very like this recipe by al-Andalusi, also from the 13th century:
Knead the necessary quantity of flour, one time with water, another with oil, and to it add yeast and milk until it has the same consistency as the dough of fritters, and leave it until it has next risen. Next grease with oil a large earthen pot, stretch in it a piece of dough, and over it a bit of cheese, and over the cheese a bit of dough, and so a little of one, and a bit of the other until the last of the dough and cheese. Next cover it with dough as you did in the previous recipe and cook it in the same way in the oven. Afterwards, drizzle it with honey, sprinkle it with sugar and pepper and eat it.
That seems more like a cheese-filled baklava than a cheesecake. According to Davidson, the earliest recipe known for a more recognizable cheesecake was published in the 14th century — it appeared in The Forme of Cury (ca. 1390), a kitchen manual written for the cooks of England’s King Richard II.
Tart de Bry
Take a Crust ynche depe in a trape. take zolkes of Ayren rawe & chese ruayn & medle it & ye zolkes togyder. and do yerto powdour gyngur. sugur. safroun. and salt. do it in a trape, bake it and serue it forth.
[Translation] Brie Tart
Place a crust [pastry dough], an inch thick, in a dish. Take yolks of raw eggs and cheese of Ruayn [possibly Rouen — at least one modern cook has suggested that Pont Leveque would be a good substitute] and beat them together. Add thereto powdered ginger, sugar, saffron, and salt. Add it [the cheese mixture] to the dish, bake it, and serve it forth.)
Without knowing the number of egg yolks called for, it’s unclear if the texture of this tart is more like a sweetened quiche or a cheesecake — and, if the title accurately reflects the type of cheese used, it still doesn’t sound much like our idea of cheesecake.
Cristoforo Messisbugo was a 16th-century Italian, working in Ferrara. He wasn’t a professional cook, but he did write Banchetti, Compositioni di Vivande et Apparecchio Generale (Banquets: Composition of Victuals and General Equipment), a three-part treatise on how to hold banquets. The following recipe comes from the last part:
Ferrarese Herb Tart, or Romagnola
Take a bunch of beet greens well washed and chopped very well, and place in a bowl with four fresh cheeses (povine) and four cups of milk, eight eggs, a pound of fat cheese, and a pound of fresh butter and a quarter of pounded pepper, and incorporate everything together well, and grease a pan with three ounces of fresh butter over which you place the first sheet of dough, and then over that the abovementioned composition which you spread over the sheet, having a pound and a half of fat tomino cheese in slices as thin as you can make them and spread them over the composition, and then lay on that the other sheet keeping the contents inside, then over that pour half a pound of melted butter, and place it to cook, and when it is almost done place over four ounces of sugar, then let it finish cooking.
And we worry about the cholesterol content of our cheesecakes. At every step, Messisbugo pours on yet more melted butter atop his “fat cheeses!” (The translator recommends using fresh mozzarella for the first layer and Tomino from Piedmont or a French Tomme de Savoie for the second layer).
Here’s a 17th-century English recipe that might appeal to modern tastes (if not our modern taste for convenience. Note that it begins with how to make the cheese):
Take 12 quarts of milk warm from the cow, turn it with a good spoonfull of runnet. Break it well, and put it in a large strainer, in which rowl it up and down, that all the whey may run out into a little tub; when all that will is run out, wring out more. Then break the curds well; then wring it again, and more whey will come. Thus break and wring till no more come. Then work the curds exceedingly with your hand in a tray, till they become a short uniform paste. Then put to it the yolks of 8 new laid eggs, and two whites, and a pound of butter. Work all this long together. In the long working (at the several times) consisteth the making them good. Then season them to your taste with sugar finely beaten; and put in some cloves and mace in subtle powder. Then lay them thick in coffins of fine paste and bake them.
That’s closer, but what we really want to know is when cheesecake became an item in the United States, and, specifically, when it became associated so strongly with New York City.
There’s a lot of argument over who made the best New York cheesecake, whether it was Lindy’s on Manhattan’s Broadway or Junior’s out in Brooklyn. Lindy’s opened in 1921, and Junior’s in 1950. Lindy’s tends to get the credit for being first, not only because of its earlier opening date but because it had a more famous clientele and therefore received more press. Merle Evans* traced the beginnings of New York cheesecake to the 1920s, and credited it to delicatessen owner Arnold Reuben, who opened his restaurant on 58th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues — and is also credited with inventing another quintessential New York dish: the Reuben Sandwich.
However, there’s a good chance that Ratner’s, a kosher dairy restaurant, which opened in 1905 on the Lower East Side, may be the real source of the dish. Ratner’s version was not only classic New York cheesecake but was in the right place at the right time. While Russian paskha, an unbaked Easter cheesecake-like dish with nuts and dried fruits, and Italian pizza dolce were both precursors of our cheesecake — and would have been known in New York’s ethnic neighborhoods — we may never know who produced the first New York-style cheesecake, but one thing is certain: genuine New York-style cheesecake could not have been made before 1872, the year cream cheese was invented, in nearby Orange County.
Before the Civil War, the Catskills were known as “the blue hills,” because that’s how the hemlock-covered hills looked from a distance. Once the war started, however, the forests that had been untouched since the Ice Age were cut down to provide bark for the tanneries producing leather for the Union armies. In the past, leather was an essential war material; it was needed for boots, saddles, harnesses, ammunition boxes, belts, and gun straps. Mountains of hides were shipped from South America (mostly from Argentina) to be tanned in mills where the hemlocks were plentiful and rushing streams provided power for the mills.
Afterwards, the Catskills were just huge tracts of rocky open land that weren’t suitable for farming. Farmers often complained that “there were two stones for every dirt” — but the deforested hills were ideally suited for cow pastures. This, in turn, created the need for a market that could absorb the glut of New York State dairy products. However, with limited refrigeration available, and fears of tuberculosis in the city, fresh milk could not yet be shipped safely in the large volumes that were being produced. Consequently, cheese makers in the region found a ready market for their products. In 1870, Neufchatel was being made in New Jersey for the New York City market, but Charles Green, living in the village of Chester, at the southern edge of the Catskills, thought he could do better. In 1872, he hired a European cheese maker to teach him how to make the soft cheese.
What Green didn’t know was that another local cheese maker, William A. Lawrence, had overheard the lessons. Lawrence immediately went home and duplicated the recipe — but doubled the amount of cream. The result was cream cheese, which was packed and shipped from Philadelphia as “Star Brand Cream Cheese.” Lawrence also produced and sold “Cow Brand Neufchatel.” By the 1880s he had moved his plant west, to Philadelphia, New York.
At the time, Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia had a reputation for making fine foods, so the most fashionable marketing name in the United States was “Philadelphia,” and in 1885, the Empire Cheese Company in South Edmeston, New York, registered the brand name “Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese.” The Empire Cheese Company’s factory burned down in 1900, but was rebuilt as “The Phenix” (like the mythical bird that rises from its own ashes every 500 years — but spelled without an “o”). The company itself was renamed “The Phenix Cheese Corporation” in 1924, but the name didn’t last nearly as long as its namesake because Kraft bought the company along with the “Philadelphia” brand name, in 1928.
Today, Kraft is the world’s largest producer of cream cheese, and its factory in Lowville, New York, is responsible for 40% of its production. The next largest producer is Breakstone, with its plant in nearby Downsville.
So, the connection between the Lower East Side and the Catskills’ dairy farmers was an intimate one, and the fortuitous combination of ethnicity, history, proximity, and market forces may have resulted in the inevitable success of New York-style cheesecake. Ironically, the domestic “Neufchatel” found in our markets today is just cream cheese in a different package. It bears little resemblance to the original bloom-ripened cheese from Normandy that inspired the creation of American cream cheese.
Two characteristics define American eating habits: the influence of many different cultures on our menus, of course, and of industrial methods and economies on our ingredients. Both are reflected in these low-cost substitutes for European cheeses that work equally well on a bagel, or in the preparation of what many New Yorkers would agree is the only cheesecake worthy of the name.
* * *
Within a few miles of “Philadelphia” cream cheese in Monroe, New York, one cheese maker there named Emil Frey invented two uniquely American cheeses: Liederkranz in 1882 and Velveeta in 1917.
In the 1880s, several cheese companies were trying to make efficient use of a voluminous waste product of the cheese-making process: whey. Disposing of it was a problem (some cheese factories went into the pork business, fattening pigs on leftover whey). Frey was trying to reform Swiss cheese trimmings when he discovered that combining reduced whey with ground cheese produced a smooth and velvety cheese-like substance. Before long, all the big cheese companies in the area were experimenting with his technique. Phenix made something called “Phenett,” Pabst made “Pabst-ett,” and Kraft made “Nu-Kraft.” Suits and countersuits between these companies were finally resolved when Kraft bought out all its competitors. The only brand name for these first processed cheeses to survive was “Velveeta,” which was certainly more mellifluous than those of its former competitors.
Liederkranz was an early example of what we would call an “artisanal cheese” today — it was soft-ripened and aromatic, with a firm crust — while Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Velveeta typify modern American mass-produced processed cheeses. Interestingly enough, Liederkranz was created in response to a contest sponsored by a New York City delicatessen owner, Adolphe Tode, who wanted to replace imported Bismarck Schlosskäse with a lower-priced domestic imitation. Limburger was another attempted copy of Schlosskäse. Both Liederkranz and Limburger have their rinds washed with beer during the aging process, and they usually develop dark reddish bacterial stains from Brevibacterium linens.
Liederkranz was named for a German singing society in New York, and its popularity grew quickly. Eventually, its tiny factory in a dairy barn was moved to larger quarters. At first the cheese could not be made at the new, modern plant. Legend has it that the original boards from the old plant were nailed up inside the new sterile plant, and as much of the cheese as could be found on store shelves was smeared on the boards to recreate the proper biological environment for the cheese. Whatever actually occurred, they were able to restart the cultures and this wonderful cheese was saved.
For a while.
Borden’s bought the rights to the cheese, and continued selling it for a few years in the then-familiar yellow-and-white boxes. However, the market for the smelly cheese was too small for the corporate giant and they discontinued its production in the early 1980s, ironically, just as Americans were beginning to develop a taste for something more sophisticated than the bland industrial cheese food called “American.” Borden sold the rights, and the all-essential cultures, to a firm in Australia. Rumors circulate, every few years, that production of Liederkranz will begin again, but those of us who remember this amazing cheese have been disappointed every time.
* The “Toscanini of the Big Top,” Merle Evans was Band Master of Ringling’s Barnum and Bailey Circus from 1919 to 1970. He died in 1987.
“Cheesecake” and “Cream Cheese,” in Davidson, Alan (ed.). The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Stamm, Eunice R. The History of Cheesemaking in New York State: The History of Cheesemaking in the Empire State from the Early Dutch Settlers to Modern Times. Endicott, NY: Lewis Group, 1991.
Thanks to Sharon Hudgins for explaining the subtleties of paskha.