June 2005

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All About Cheesecake

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All About Cheesecake

by Ingrid Gulliksen, Juice Bar Staff

Cheesecake! Almost everyone loves it and it is featured on dessert menus in fine restaurants, in truck stops, and just about everywhere in between. A delightful contrast of textures and flavors, this creamy, tangy-sweet comfort food is more popular now than ever.

The beginning
If anyone had asked me where I thought cheesecake originated, I would have guessed a New York city delicatessen somewhere around the turn of the 20th century. And, I would have been wrong—by thousands of miles and thousands of years. Surprisingly, cheesecake originated in ancient Greece! In his fascinating book Cheesecake Madness, John Segreto reveals that cheesecakes were first created between the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. on the Greek island of Samos. They were made by combining honey, wheat flour, and cheese that had been pounded to a smooth, paste-like consistency. This mixture was shaped into cakes, baked, and then cooled before serving. The very first Olympic Games took place in Greece in 776 B.C., and athletes ate this new food, cheesecake, to provide them with energy for the rigorous competitions.

Cheesecake quickly became a wildly popular Greek delicacy, and was even the forerunner of Western culture’s wedding cake tradition. As a gesture of hospitality, it became the custom for a Greek bride to bake and serve individual-sized cheesecakes to her new husband’s friends—from this the concept of the wedding cake developed. When the ancient Romans conquered Greece, cheesecake recipes were one of their spoils of war. In the centuries that followed, the then-mighty Roman Empire went on to conquer and occupy much of Europe and Great Britain, introducing the concept of cheesecake to the various lands that came under their influence. Consequently, cheesecake cookery quite naturally assimilated into diverse culinary traditions. Millenia later cheesecake was introduced to the Americas by immigrants from Europe and beyond, with each ethnic group producing its unique variety of this delightful food.

Cheesecake then and now
Although they do contain the same basic three ingredients—cheese, flour, and sweetener— contemporary cheesecakes bear little resemblance to those of the ancient Greeks. Cream cheese, an invention of late-19th-century New York State dairy farmers, is by far the most popular cheese used in modern-day cheesecakes. Although actual flour is sometimes used in the preparation of cheesecake crusts, graham cracker crumbs and cookie crumbs are the most popular ingredients used as flour in making cheesecakes in the United States. Some cheesecake recipes use honey as a sweetener, but granulated cane sugar is much more common. The standard recipe for today’s cheesecake fillings also includes eggs, milk or cream, butter, and flavorings. And instead of mixing all the ingredients together at the same time, they are layered: first the crust, then the filling, and if a topping is to be used, that is added last. Toppings are practically unlimited in their variety, and include fruits, nuts, spices, chocolate, and whipped cream, among many other choices.

Create your own cheesecake
The thought of baking a cheesecake intimidates many people. They fear the process is somehow mysterious and is best left to experienced professional chefs. In their book The 50 Best Cheesecakes in the World, cookbook authors Larry and Honey Zisman demystify the art of cheesecake baking and state reassuringly that creating a perfect cheesecake is not difficult, and simply requires planning, preparation, and a bit of time. Before you do anything else, thoroughly read your recipe, and then gather together all your necessary ingredients and equipment. To ensure that nothing is inadvertently left out, arrange all ingredients in order and, as each one is added to the recipe, remove its package or container—if the ingredient is not visible, you’ll be confident that it was included. Especially important for novice cheesecake bakers is a cookbook with clear, easy-to-understand illustrations; an excellent example of this is The Book of Cheesecakes by international pastry chef Steven Wheeler. Interestingly, not all cheesecakes require baking; there are many recipes for refrigerator or no-bake cheesecakes that include a crust, filling, and topping, just like the baked variety. In fact, anyone who can read can create a beautiful, scrumptious cheesecake. Help is as close as your favorite bookstore or public library, and the above cookbook examples are just two of many wonderful selections that are available.

Something for everyone
Although it is true that the traditional cheesecake is high both in calories and fat, and is neither vegetarian nor vegan, simple adjustments can be made so that just about anyone can enjoy a slice of fresh, delicious cheesecake. There is a virtual cornucopia of recipes using low-fat, fat-free, and/or sugar-free versions of and substitutions for all of the traditional cheesecake ingredients—crusts, fillings, as well as toppings.

Willy Street Co-op Bakery cheesecakes
Here at the Willy Street Co-op, our bakery regularly offers several varieties of cheesecake, both traditional and vegan. Co-op baker Life Molitor states that our traditional selections include marble (chocolate and vanilla swirled together), chocolate chip, and plain (vanilla) with a variety of fruit toppings. Vegan choices are hazelnut ganache, and apricot mango. Life also adds that the Co-op bakery uses organic ingredients as much as possible in the preparation of cheesecakes.

Cheesecake, with its surprisingly long and exotic history, is above all meant to be enjoyed. So whether you are inclined towards creating the perfect cheesecake, or simply savoring a slice of your favorite variety, need I say more? Enjoy!