Cookery book shelf.

My cookery book shelf.

When Pauline first invited me to write a guest post about cookery you could have knocked me down with a feather

‘500 – 800 words should do,’ she said, ‘…with a couple of photos.’

‘Easy!’ I thought. ‘I know about cookery!’

Then panic began to set in… what on earth would I write? Salvation came two nail-biting weeks later in the form of a weekly women’s magazine, where I chanced upon a recipe for Mediaeval Elderflower Cheesecake or ‘sambocade’. The recipe, they said, was a version of one found in the earliest known English cookbook written for the household of Richard II in 1390. It didn’t actually have any cheese in it, but was made from milk, sugar, lemon and egg whites, flavoured with elderflower cordial and rosewater, and set in an egg-based pastry case. This set me wondering how old cheesecake actually is and how many different ways there are of making it.

The first place I checked was my 1981 copy of a Marks & Spencer cookbook, ‘Cheesecakes’ by Anne Ager. The introduction said, ‘The cheesecake started life in Russia and Eastern Europe well over a century ago.’ A quick foray onto Google soon proved that statement wrong. I learned that cheesecakes go back over 4,000 years; comprised of wheat, honey and cheese, a form of cheesecake was served to athletes on the Greek island of Delos as an energy booster during the first Olympic Games in 776BC.

The oldest known surviving hand-written recipe from Greece is credited to the writer Athenaeus. In 230AD, he advised that you should ‘pound the cheese until it is smooth and pasty, mix the pounded cheese in a brass pan with honey and spring wheat flour, heat the cheese cake “in a mass”, allow to cool then serve’. It became a popular cake to serve at Greek weddings.

When the Romans conquered Greece, they stole the recipe and added egg. They baked the ingredients under a hot brick and served it warm, sometimes putting it into a pastry case. They called it ‘libum’ or ‘libuma’ (from the Greek word for placenta) and would serve it on special occasions, also offering it up to the Gods.

As the Roman Empire grew, cheesecake became more widely known, each nation changing the recipe slightly by using ingredients native to their region and culture.

The earliest known Roman recipe for cheesecake is credited to Marcus Cato, possibly Cato the Elder, but, to be honest, there were quite a few Marcus Catos and I’m not entirely sure which one it was. Anyway, this was his take on it: ‘Libum to be made as follows – two pounds of cheese well crushed in a mortar; when it is well crushed, add in one pound breadwheat flour or, if you want it to be lighter, just half a pound, to be mixed with the cheese. Add one egg and mix all together well. Make a loaf of this, with the leaves under it, and cook slowly in a hot fire under a brick.’ The cheesecake was flavoured with grape must and aniseed, and baked on top of a bed of bay leaves.

The oldest printed recipe is in the first cookery book ever printed. It came out in 1545 and described cheesecake as a ‘flour-based sweet food’.

Henry VIII’s chef, a French man called Peter the Sweet, perhaps began the cheesecake as something like we know it today, although it would have still had an overwhelmingly yeasty flavour, since it wasn’t known at that point that you could use beaten eggs rather than yeast to make a cake rise.

Peter the Sweet cut the cheese up into tiny pieces, soaked it in milk for three hours, strained the cheese-flavoured mixture into a bowl (presumably discarding the soggy cheese) and then added eggs, butter and sugar, and slopped the mix into a pastry case. I’m presuming he used a soft cheese, which the Tudors made from whole milk. Since soft cheese was available, I don’t think he’d have used the hard cheese they made from skimmed milk. Whatever, he was probably putting his head a bit near the block by serving cheese to the king. In Tudor times, dairy products were deemed inferior foods only to be eaten by the poor and lower classes.

Today, cheesecakes still have a wheat base, but it usually comes in the form of smashed digestive biscuits (Graham crackers) mixed with melted butter, rather than a pastry case. Some cheesecakes are baked, some are chilled. Some are savoury, but most are sweet.

All around the world, nations have their own way of doing it….

The Italians use ricotta cheese (made from sheep milk whey), the French Neufchatel – a soft, grainy-textured, slightly crumbly cheese that has an edible white rind and smells, and tastes, of mushrooms. The Greeks like mizithra (a Cretan soft cheese made from sheep or goat milk whey) or feta – a crumbly cheese made from goat or sheep milk whey.

The Germans prefer cottage cheese (a soft, moist and lumpy cheese made from curds and whey), while the Japanese add cornflour (cornstarch) and beaten egg whites to cream cheese to make a more soufflé-like dessert.

The Americans use cream cheese, a product accidentally discovered in 1872 by William Lawrence, a Chester, New York dairy farmer who was attempting to make his own version of Neufchatel. Soon after, another farmer from South Edmeston, NY produced a much smoother version. By 1875, Philadelphia cheese was on the market and still is now. Along with ricotta cheese and Quark, it is the cheese most used to make modern cheesecake.

I suppose I cannot mention either New York or Philadelphia without also mentioning their world-renowned cheesecakes:

New York Cheesecake is served as it comes – no fruit or sauce. It was invented by a German/Jewish immigrant, Arnold Reuben, after he experimented with a recipe for a cheese pie that had been served to him during a dinner party. He added extra egg yolks to the mixture to give it its unique flavour.

Philadelphia Cheesecake is much more flamboyant and comes with fruit or chocolate toppings, or anything you like.

Everyone has their own favourite cheesecake and I’ve made many versions over the years. Personally, I prefer chilled cheesecakes with no sugar added to the base. I like Bailey’s or coffee cheesecake, but my favourite is a plain one with cherry compote (whole fruits in sugar syrup) on top.

Chilled cherry cheesecake

Chilled cherry cheesecake

There are hundreds of recipes for cheesecake and I probably have quite a few of them in my 262 cookbooks. (And, yes, I did count them because I knew you’d ask!) There are quite a few more in the two boxes of recipes I’ve ripped out of magazines to ‘sort out later’. I’ve curbed my habit of buying cookbooks just for one or two recipes that catch my eye, but I still haven’t stopped myself ripping them out of magazines. There’s so much there, I can’t find what I want most of the time.

My daughter bought me a couple of special notebooks with pages and pockets to either write recipes in or slip them into and maybe, one day, I’ll get around to doing it. I could put all the recipes on disc or onto a memory stick for when I’m ‘gone’, but my daughter knows which cookery books I use the most – the one I’ve been writing recipes in since 1976, Delia Smith’s 1977 ‘Book of Cakes’ (which has a cheesecake section) and the ancient book I used for Domestic Science back in my schooldays, which has no cheesecake recipes but does tell you how to make things like junket, jugged hare, calf’s foot jelly, pig’s head brawn and boiled sheep brains. (Not that I make any of those!)

Favourite Recipe Books

Favourite Recipe Books

Forgive me if I don’t give you the recipe for the rather spectacular lemon, strawberry and passion fruit baked cheesecake in the photo below.

Bakes strawberry, lemon and passionfruit cheesecake.

Baked strawberry, lemon and passion fruit cheesecake.

It’s one I made years ago and I can’t lay my hands on it right now.

Hmm, not sure I believe Jackie can’t find that recipe, but will give her the benefit of the doubt!


  1. Such a great article Jackie, makes me want to whip one up , during the 70s cheese cakes were very popular,a group of us would make them for our regular dinner parties, always aiming to use a spectacular topping, but one dinner party my taste buds rebelled, cheese cake was attractive no more. How ever they seem to have reinvented themselves, and I feel ready to try your lemon ,strawberry and passionfruit concoction, if we asked our mum for a favourite recipe, she would reply, oh I just made it out of my head, perhaps I could do that with your cheesecake, thanks so much for your article.

    • Hello Anonymous.Thanks for taking the time to read my article and to comment. I hope you succeed in making the cheesecake without a recipe. I will try to find the recipe a.s.a.p.

  2. A mouthwatering article. Yes, I am ready for the cheese-cake revival!

    • Hello Christine. I’m glad my article has made you want to love cheesecake again.

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