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Cheesecake

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Cheesecake is a favored dish in many parts of the world and is often served as a fancy dish at special occasions. It is most often served as a part of the dessert course after a meal has finished, because of its sweet flavor. Cheesecakes vary from type to type, but generally speaking, it is a flat cake-like dessert with two or more layers—the bottom layer acting as a crust.

The crust is often a thin and crunchy layer of pastry, sponge cake, crushed graham crackers or crushed cookies or biscuits. Inside the crust sits the main layer(s) of the cake, those which are generally made from sugar, eggs, fresh cheeses of varying types and sometimes other sweet ingredients like nuts, jellies, chocolate or caramel. The crust is placed in a pan or pie dish, and the inner ingredients are mixed in another bowl and then added on top of the crust. It is possible to make a cheesecake without baking it, but most often cheesecakes are baked at least once.

Cheesecakes can be made from scratch with ingredients found at the grocery store or from boxed recipes in which a few “wet ingredients” need to be added before baking (e.g. eggs). Frozen cheesecakes can also be purchased pre-made from stores or mail order catalogs and websites. Cheesecakes can be served frozen or at room temperature. Often cheesecakes are topped and decorated with fruits or fruit sauces, nuts, caramels, toffees, whipped cream or ice cream.

Types of Cheesecake Around the World

The crust type and inner ingredients of a cheesecake depends largely on the type of cheesecake it is. In North America, classic style New York cheesecakes have sour cream or heavy cream as a main ingredient in the center. The consistency is dense, creamy and smooth from the extra egg yolks which are added to the batter along with sugar and extract of vanilla. Although variations with fruit, caramel, chocolate or ice cream may claim the name “New York Cheesecake,” New York cheesecakes are traditionally served at room temperature and come without any extra sauces, fruits or drizzles. Sometimes candied fruits and/or fruit sauces with cherries, strawberries or raspberries top the faux-New York styled cheesecakes.

Similar to the New York cheesecakes are the Philadelphia and Chicago-styled cheesecakes, which are also often served plain. The Philadelphia variation has a richer flavor, but a lighter and fluffier style, whereas the Chicago variation is creamier inside from the ample amount of sour cream that is added in, and it has a firmer exterior. Finally, in St. Louis, Missouri, cheesecakes often have an additional layer on top of the cheesy layer. This extra sweet layer is made from butter cake. Turtle cheesecake is another popular variation with pecans, caramel and chocolate is drizzled on the top of the cake, and the interior may include layers of cream cheese mixed with chocolate.

In other parts of the world, cheesecake carries different names. European, South American, Asian and Australian cheesecakes all use different types of cheeses, which in turn results in a variety of flavors and textures. In Germany, for example, cheesecakes are made with quark cheese, and the final cakes are called Käsekuchen. Bulgarians add Smetana (Bulgarian sour cream) as a top layer to their cheesecakes, and they also use ground nuts in their crusts. Greeks today use feta or mizithra cheeses in their cheesecakes, and in France, cheesecakes are often much smaller than their North American counterparts, using mostly Neufchâtel cheese as a main ingredient. Neufchâtel cheese gives French cheesecakes a light flavor and texture.

In Italy, mascarpone or ricotta cheeses are used, and sometimes flakes of barley are added. This gives Italian cheesecakes a much drier texture. Black cherries, blackcurrants and lemon curd are common ingredients for cheesecake recipes from the United Kingdom, where the crusts are also made from crushed biscuits, and jellies or jams are sometimes mixed in with the cheese.

In Brazil, cheesecakes are made from gelatin (which is used as a binder), condensed milk and cheese, whole wheat or maize flour mixed with honey are used in Colombia. Asian cheesecakes are traditionally light and spongy compared to the density of a New York cheesecake. Many Asian cheesecakes use powdered Japanese green tea (called matcha), mango or lychee as flavors. Finally, Australian cheesecakes are always unbaked and can include tropical flavors like passion fruit.

Swedish cheesecake is perhaps the most different of national cheesecake recipes. Generally, in Swedish style cheesecake, rennet (a key ingredient from the stomach lining of baby calves which is often used in cheese-making to make milk curdle) is added to milk, and the mixture is allowed to sit as the casein (a formed protein) coagulates. After baking, Swedish style cheesecake is served warm. As this recipe is somewhat work intensive, there are at-home alternative recipes which use cottage cheese. Typically to help buyers discern Swedish style cheesecake from other cakes such as New York style cheesecake, the Swedish cheesecake is called ostkaka.

Although these remain the traditional and most mainstream variations of cheesecake throughout the world, there are other more bizarre flavors that can be found in some places as well. These include cheesecakes which use cheeses like Swiss and blue cheese, or those that incorporate native foods like spicy chilies in Central and South America or seafood in Asian countries. Regardless of the extra ingredients, cheesecake keeps a simple basic recipe that singles it out from other desserts and delicacies: a sweetener, plus cheese and flour (wheat).

The History of Cheesecake

The cheesecake that we know today in North America actually didn't become popular until the 18th century. It was at this time that the strong and dry, yeasty flavor in the cakes was replaced by the European fashion of making cakes: namely, adding beaten eggs as a replacement for the yeast. Europeans had started to use eggs instead of yeast to make their various breads and cakes rise, and this addition also transitioned cheesecake from a rather rough tasting every day cake to a delicacy with a sweet and succulent flavor. As the waves of immigration from Europe to America began to accelerate in the late 1800s and early 1900s, this “eggs for yeast substitute” began to pervade America as well. To go back to the very beginning of cheesecake history, however, means returning to ancient Greece nearly 4,000 years ago.

It is believed that the very first “cake of cheese” or “cheese cake” was made in Greece—in particular, on the Greek island of Samos. Brides and grooms in Greece often had cheesecake on their wedding day as a sign of hope and prosperity for their marriage. It is for this reason that cheesecake is seen as the first real wedding cake. It is also well known in culinary history that Greece, regarded the cheesecake as a good energy source, and it was often given to athletes who would be competing in Olympic related challenges before their events for energy as well as good luck. Cheesecake was in fact said to have been given to the first Greek Olympic athletes in the first Olympic games which took place in 776 BC. This is not the oldest record of cheesecake in Greece, however.

While excavating on this island, archaeologists discovered cheese molds dating as far back as 2,200 BC. At that time, it was thought that only honey, wheat, flour and cheese were mixed into a cake form and baked over a fire at high temperatures to form a cheesecake. In 230 AD, more than 2,000 years since the Greeks first began serving and eating cheesecakes, Athenaeus, the famous Greek writer, wrote down the very first recorded recipe for cheesecake. In it, the baker was instructed to mix and pound cheese in a brass pan until it turned creamy, then to add “spring” wheat flour and honey before heating in a single mass over heat. The cheesecake was directed to be served cool.

The Greeks continued to value and consume cheesecakes as a regular part of their meals throughout their empire's reign; however, when Rome grew into a powerhouse and eventually conquered Greece, the Greek cheesecake tradition became the Roman cheesecake tradition.

It was a Roman politician named Marcus Cato, who was the first to record a recipe for Roman cheesecake. Although the basis of the original recipe was upheld, Romans modified the ingredients slightly, adding in eggs and crushed cheese. In fact, it was the Romans who were the first to include eggs in their cheesecake recipes. To bake, Romans put their new cheesecake combinations under a hot brick to heat up and thicken, and they served their creations warm. They called the cakes “libuma,” and unlike the Greeks who consumed cheesecakes quite often, the Romans only served libuma on special occasions.

It is well known that the Roman empire spread far and wide throughout Europe as it grew, and as such, so did Cato's recipe for cheesecake. As the empire enveloped areas such as (what is now) Eastern Europe and Great Britain, new citizens of Rome began incorporating their own ingredients and techniques into the cheesecake recipe. Over time, these recipes stuck around and became ingrained in the cultures of the areas they touched. The personal chef to Henry VIII was known, for example, to use milk to soak tiny pieces of cut up cheese for three or more hours before adding the sweetener, butter and eggs to make cheesecake. 1545 was the year that the first book of recipes (cookbook) was printed, and it included the cheesecake as a sweet dessert.

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