Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Jane's Cheesecake

What the Pilgrims wanted to eat on the First Thanksgiving!

Wait, what? Gwen, you've got to be kidding us. This can't be a historical recipe. There's no way cheesecake dates back to the 17th century, right?

Well, surprise! It totally does. And it actually has a much, much longer history than that, which is actually pretty well documented compared to some of the other desserts I've shared with you all. The one I made this weekend might not be the New York style cheesecake you're familiar with, but it's still cheesecake, and we might not have the cheesecake we know and enjoy today without this one.

(Might, because who knows. Someone else could've had the idea at some point.)

I know a 17th century cheesecake might sound like a hard sell to some of my readers, but trust me. This one might surprise you!

I was totally surprised to find out that the history of cheesecake actually goes back at least to Ancient Greece. If I put an authentic Ancient Greek cheesecake in front of you, you might not recognize it, and it probably wouldn't taste much like what you'd expect it to, but it's still some mashed up cheese and an egg that have been mixed together and baked, which means it's fundamentally still a cheesecake. When the Romans started stomping around Greece, they decided they liked the creation enough to adopt it and make it their own. There are a couple different recipes of Roman cheesecakes in existance, but like many Roman recipes, the ones I've been able to find don't do a good job of telling you just how much of each ingredient to use, which can make creating an authentic one a little tricky.

When the Romans branched out into Great Britain and the rest of Western Europe, they brought their recipes for cheesecake with them, where it was apparently happily adopted by the local population, even if the Romans themselves weren't. The dish continued to be a staple of many regional cuisines, and remained very popular in England. It's even featured in the first printed cookbook, published in 1545! As England became more involved with global trade during the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, dishes like cheesecake got gussied up a bit with more exciting ingredients like rosewater and nutmeg. Being able to use even a little bit of an exotic spice told your guests that you were wealthy and could afford to splurge a little.

These recipes are the ones early English settlers to the New World would have brought with them. Admittedly, most of the very early settlers wouldn't have had access to the materials to make a cheesecake, but some of the wealthy ones probably enjoyed it fairly frequently back home, and would have been able to make them once supplies were coming in more regularly from Europe and the colonies themselves had stabilized.

Plimoth Plantation actually gives you an opportunity to try out 17th century cheesecake when you visit their restaurant. You may remember I tried a slice when we visited last fall! It was really interesting, and I've been dying to try my hand at making it myself. Plimoth Plantation sells a small cookbook with historic recipes the Pilgrims would've enjoyed in the years beyond 1620, and one of them happens to be for that very cheesecake. You can also find a version of it online at Boston.com, posted with permission from Plimoth.

It turns out that Tudor or Elizabethan cheesecakes (which are essentially what the early Jamestown and Plymouth settlers would have grown up eating) are basically what we'd think of as a ricotta pie. The flavor profile is a little different, but the preparation is essentially the same.

You start by making your crust. Remember, pies and tarts originally had crusts called coffins, which were meant to act as a cooking utensil or a sort of packaging for the filling rather than a delicacy on its own. You generally weren't supposed to eat them, and some were even recycled the same way you might reuse a plastic take out container to store food. This recipe has been adapted for a modern audience, so I'm guessing the crust is intentionally a little less rock solid. When you think of a cheesecake, you definitely don't think of the crust as being something you'd just throw away.

You cut 10 tablespoons of cold butter and cut it into a mixture of 2/3 of a cup each of whole wheat and white flour. Then, you add in the white of one egg (save the yolk!) and add in just enough ice water to make a dough.

This all gets rolled out to be about 1/4 inch thick, and then gets pressed into a 9 inch spring form pan. My dough took a little bit of manipulating to get it to fit correctly, but it was very sturdy and wasn't too difficult to work with, unlike a certain Woolton pie crust I could name...

The recipe doesn't say you need to prebake the crust, so I left it alone and got working on my filling.

The recipe says you need to blend 1/4 of a cup of whole almonds in a food processor, but since I decided I didn't want to blanch my own almonds, I just used almond flour. I added in 1/4 of a cup of room temperature butter and 1/4 of a cup of sugar, and mixed them all together. Next, as instructed, I put in my egg yolk, and a 1/4 of a teaspoon of salt and nutmeg each.

Nutmeg is the ingredient in here that really makes this a special dessert. Even though international trade was becoming easier and easier, in an era before planes, trains and automobiles, it still took a lot of time for spices to be imported from Asia, and so what stores a family had were used very sparingly. And nutmeg doesn't just taste good - it's been proven it makes you feel good, too!

Here comes the heart of the dish: the ricotta cheese. You need a whole pound of it, which you can generally get at the grocery store pre-measured and packaged for you. This gets added in along with 1/2 of a cup of cream and 1/2 of a teaspoon of rosewater, another very popular flavoring from this period. This gets mixed together until everything's just combined, and then 1/2 of a cup of currants get folded in.

This gets carefully poured into the crust. I was a little worried to see how much of a gap there was between the top of the crust and the top of the filling, but hoped it would rise in the oven.

It gets baked at 325 degrees for somewhere between 1 hour and 1 hour and 10 minutes. I wasn't exactly sure what it would look like when it was finished, and when I first pulled it out of the oven, the filling still seemed really wet and wobbly. I popped it back in and did a little research into how you know when a ricotta pie is finished baking. Apparently, you want the top to look cooked, but still have some wobble in the filling. It'll finish baking as it cools in the pan.

Mine would up taking about 65 minutes to cook. It needs to sit for at least an hour to finish cooking and set up a little bit.

Peeling it out of the spring form pan was a little nerve wracking, but it came out mostly fine! 

The hardest part was getting the bottom of the crust off the pan along with the rest of the cake!

I've actually never had a ricotta pie before, but according to my mom, they're generally flavored with citrus flavors, not spices or rosewater. Otherwise, the texture is pretty similar. The rosewater isn't overpowering, but it's definitely not a flavor everyone loves, so this might be more of a fun curiosity than something you're going to devour like Cookie Monster. It's definitely period authentic, though: once people had even slightly easier access to spices we'd generally think of as exclusive to baking or sweets, they put them in everything, and that paired with the rosewater really does give this an old fashioned flavor. It's not overly sweet, either, but is definitely a dessert and not a savory dish.

(Fun fact, during the Elizbethan era, sweet treats were still served alongside savory dishes, rather than coming at the end of the meal! This is a trend that would continue in the New World for several decades.)

I actually liked my version better than the one I had at Plimoth. The texture didn't feel as grainy, and while it still wasn't as smooth as a New York style cheesecake, it was nice! Definitely interesting, and something my taste testers seemed to enjoy giving a try. I'm not sure this is going to be a recipe anyone's going to be clamoring to make for them again any time soon, but I had fun making it, and as it's probably the oldest recipe we've tried out for the blog, it's pretty cool to know you can still make and enjoy it in the 21st century!

French chefs pioneered a cream cheese based cheesecake in the mid 1800's, and the New York style cheesecake didn't become a staple until the early 1900's, but until then, the cheesecake most people would have been familiar with probably wouldn't have been too far off from this one. Spices and other flavors might have changed based on personal preference and availability of ingredients, but the method and the base were more or less consistent. I can see why this might have fallen out of favor in the United States as tastes changed and new desserts entered the arena, but it was still fun to say I successfully made a 400 year old cheesecake, and it didn't taste half bad, either!

Definitely one of my more interesting soundbytes from running this blog!


  1. Cheesecake is my "step over babies for a slice" dessert of choice, so this looks interesting! Unfortunatley I have nothing resembling a springform pan, so I'd have to try it with pre-baked crust. I wonder if it would work that way.

    1. I would think so! Definitely leave a decent amount of space between the edge of the crust and the filling though, mine filled out a lot while it baked and I figure you don't want it spilling all over the oven, haha. Let me know how it works out if you give it a try! :D

  2. I remember one of my mom's old "natural" cookbooks had a recipe for cheesecake. For cheese, it called for ricotta or "cottage cheese passed through a food mill." I never heard of cottage cheese being used in this dessert anywhere but that book. Have you?

    1. Sure! Cottage cheese isn't texturally too much different from ricotta, so if you break down the chunks a little further by running them through a strainer or food mill, you'd wind up with pretty much the same result.