Monday, July 23, 2018

Elizabeth's Lemon Cheesecakes

A modern interpretation of a Hannah Glasse original!

It always feels a little weird thinking of having Felicity host fancy tea treats. After all, she’s neither fancy, nor especially into tea after the whole tea tax thing. 

Fortunately her friend Elizabeth Cole makes a fitting hostess for such posts, and this one in particular is a very interesting treat. These tiny cheesecakes make a perfect accompaniment to your colonial tea party, and they’re definitely something you might have enjoyed were you paying a visit to some friends in Williamsburg all the way back in 1774. 

Read on to find out how to make these flavorful little bites!

We’ve talked a little about the history of the cheesecake with Jane, and the recipe we’re going to use today is going to be a lot more familiar for readers, both in terms of flavor and ingredients. It’s an adaptation of a recipe from Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, which was first published in 1747. It’s a favorite for colonial (or Georgian) food historians to turn to for inspiration, especially as it was republished multiple times. Although Glasse was often in financial trouble during her life, her book was extremely successful, and she’s been called the first domestic goddess. Many of her recipes are served at City Tavern in Philadelphia. 

This particular recipe was adapted by Colonial Williamsburg from a 1796 edition of Hannah’s book. It’s available on their food blog History is Served, which was one of the inspirations to start this blog. Their version offers a few suggestions to make it easier on the modern chef. I didn’t make my own puff pastry, for example. Someday I’d like to give that a shot, but I’m not above using modern shortcuts when available. 

There’s a very interesting part of this recipe: all the flavor comes from the lemon skins, not the juice or flesh of the fruit. I was really skeptical about if this would actually lead to flavorful filling. 

Lemons would have been available essentially year round in Williamsburg, along with other citrus fruits, thanks to orchards in the Caribbean which would import their fruit to Virginia. Limes were generally the cheapest citrus fruit available to colonists in Virginia, while oranges were more expensive. Lemons fell somewhere in between, so this would have been a good recipe for a family trying to show they could afford luxury fruit without being too extravagant. It’s something I can definitely see the Coles serving, as they were comfortably upper middle class… at least before the Revolution started. 

The recipe requires you to boil the skin of two lemons in water “until very tender”. Remember to peel your lemons very carefully, as too much of the white pith will make the filling very bitter.

It was a little tricky to tell when they were “very tender”, but I basically let them boil away until most of the water had evaporated and took them off the heat. 

Next, you need to pound the peels down, or process them in a food processor. Here’s where I ran into a snag – I don’t have a food processor. I just have an immersion blender, which isn’t very good at blending if there’s no liquid to process. You can also use a mortar and pestle, but I don’t have a human sized one of those, and I wasn’t sure using the one from Felicity’s Rescue Kit was really going to be efficient in terms of time. 

I ended up trying to process what I could with the immersion blender and then beat the peels with my rolling pin for a bit before giving up and adding in my wet ingredients in the hope that would help the immersion blender finish the job.

Hannah Glasse recommends you use “a little curd”, but Williamsburg has recommended cream cheese for the modern chef. 4 ounces of cream cheese, 4 ounces of sugar, 6 egg yolks, and 2 sticks of melted butter get added to your bowl and processed until everything’s well blended together. 

Fortunately, my blender did the trick here no problem.

Next, add puff pastry to “several tin molds like little pies” and fill them about halfway up. Again, I think having a different vessel might have been better because these muffin tins were very easy to overfill, and I had lots of batter left over. 

These bake in an oven for 25 minutes at 375 degrees, or until the tops are firm. 

They came out a lot more yellow than I expected.

The filling in mine collapsed a little once they came out of the oven, but they seemed cooked through when I started digging into them.

Although these were a little challenging to make, it was really down to not really having the right equipment in my kitchen versus the recipe actually being difficult to make. If I had a food processor and a better option for mini pie tins, I think this would have been a real breeze to throw together instead of vaguely frustrating. But hey, I always enjoy a challenge in the kitchen, and I still didn’t have to make the pastry myself, so can I really complain? 

These were also surprisingly tasty. Like I said earlier, I wasn’t sure if the lemon was going to come through just using the skin and none of the juice, but these definitely tasted lemony. It wasn’t too sharp or sour, but it was definitely a lemon cheesecake. They were also shockingly yellow! There’s no food coloring in there, that’s all natural, probably thanks to the peel and the egg yolks. The filling wasn’t too heavy either, definitely making this an ideal treat to serve alongside tea or at a dance lesson. 

Colonial dishes can sometimes be fussy and complicated, utilizing a lot of weird ingredients, or just a lot of ingredients, period. Remember the Twelfth Night cake I made? Or the Election Cake? They can also be heavy or take a long time to make. 

I can safely say that although this was a fancier treat thanks to the fresh lemons, it’s pretty much a breeze to make yourself in a modern kitchen. If you ever want to take a peek into the past with a fancy tea treat, you can’t really go wrong with this one. Just maybe make sure you have a food processor first!

Invite some friends over to share them, too! You’ll have more than enough to go around.


  1. It does look very yellow! I suspect that is all the egg yolks with the lemon though. I know when I use local farm eggs instead of store eggs, I get VERY yellow results in everything.

    I wonder if it would come out ok with ricotta instead of curd or cream cheese?

    1. The video that accompanied the recipe on CW's website made it sound like ricotta would be okay. I know I've substituted for that before in some recipes and the results have been perfectly tasty.

  2. I am ashamed to say it, but I do not systematically take the time to comment on each of your articles ... and yet, they are a real treat for the taste buds as well as for the eyes. Thank you for the time you spend on your blog for our greatest joy.

    1. Thank you for reading it! I'm always glad to share this stuff with my readers. :)