The History of Cheesecake and Cream Cheese
The Evolution of Cheesecake from Ancient Greece to Upstate New York
According to anthropologists who have found cheese molds dating back to that period, cheese making can be traced back as far as 2,000 B.C. Cheesecake, however, is believed to have originated in ancient Greece. In fact, a form of cheesecake may have been served to the athletes during the first Olympic Games held in 776 B.C. to give them energy. Greek brides of the era also cooked and served cheesecake to their wedding guests.
In “The Oxford Companion to Food,” editor Alan Davidson notes that cheesecake was mentioned in Marcus Porcius “Cato’s De re Rustica” around 200 BCE and that Cato described making his cheese libum (cake) with results very similar to modern cheesecake. The Romans spread the tradition of cheesecake from Greece across Europe. Centuries later, cheesecake appeared in America, with a variety of regional recipes brought over by immigrants.
When Americans think of cheesecake now, it’s most often associated with a product that has a cream cheese base. Cream cheese was invented in 1872 by American dairyman William Lawrence of Chester, New York, who accidentally stumbled on a method of producing cream cheese while trying to reproduce a French cheese called Neufchâtel.
In 1880, Lawrence began distributing his cream cheese in foil wrappers under the auspices of the Empire Cheese Company of South Edmeston, New York, where he manufactured the product. However, you might know it better by the more famous name Lawrence came up with for his “not Neufchâtel”—Philadelphia Brand Cream Cheese.
In 1903, the Phoenix Cheese Company bought Lawrence’s business—and with it, the Philadelphia trademark. In 1928, the brand was bought by the Kraft Cheese Company. James L. Kraft invented pasteurized cheese in 1912, which led to the development of pasteurized Philadelphia Brand cream cheese, currently the most popular cheese used for cheesecake making. Kraft Foods still owns and produces Philadelphia Cream Cheese today.
Fast Facts: Cheesecake Favorites
- Traditional Greek Cheesecake—Most “traditional” Greek cheesecake is made using ricotta cheese, however, for the real deal, try to find authentic unsalted anthotyros or myzirtha cheeses which are made with either goat’s or sheep’s milk. Greek cheesecake is usually sweetened with honey. Some recipes incorporate flour directly into the cheese/honey mixture prior to baking, while others employ a crust.
- Cream Cheese Cheesecake—The cheesecake most Americans grew up with is one or another version of a cream cheese cheesecake. At the bottom of such cheesecakes, you’ll usually find a crust made of crushed Graham crackers or other cookies (Oreos are a top choice for chocolate cheesecakes) that have been blended with butter and tamped into the bottom of a pan or mold. Cheesecakes that rely on a custard base must be baked. (The original New York Cheesecake that hails from Junior’s on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn is a baked cheesecake.) However, there are scads of recipes that use a blend of other rich ingredients—such as sour cream, Greek yogurt, or heavy cream—that firm up in the refrigerator to create a “no-bake cheesecake.”
Cheesecake is Technically Pie, Not Cake
While it’s called cheesecake because cheesecake is generally unleavened and usually has a crust—whether that crust is baked or not—it’s is really a form of pie. Most baked cheesecakes use a custard base for filling comprised of milk, eggs, sugar, salt, and vanilla or other flavorings. The standard cheesecake recipe has the addition of cream cheese but allows for variations in the type of crust, other flavorings, such as chocolate, and a variety of toppings that range from fruit to nuts to candy.
Another misconception about cheesecake is that it has to be sweet. The French classic, quiche, is for all intents and purposes a savory cheesecake. You can find any number of recipes for savory cheese pies from countries across Europe and throughout the United States.
Cheesecake, believed to have originated in ancient Greece, was likely served to athletes during the first Olympic Games. Cream cheese debuted in 1872.
Philadelphia cream cheese isn’t actually from Philly
If you’ve always assumed that Philadelphia cream cheese was made in the City of Brotherly Love, you’re definitely not alone. But, unfortunately, you’re also wrong.
What is arguably the world’s most popular brand of the creamy spread did not originate in Philadelphia, is not produced there and has never been manufactured in the state of Pennsylvania.
Questions about the brand’s name and origin story have been floating around for years. If Philadelphia cream cheese isn’t from Philly, then why is it even called that?
Food writer Priya Krishna recently explored the origins of this staple spread for Bon Appétit. As it turns out, the brand, which was founded by a man named William Lawrence, has been making its cream cheese in New York since 1872.
Lawrence, a dairyman from Chester, New York, was attempting to make Neufchâtel — a tangy, crumblier cheese product that was popular in Europe at the time — when he accidentally added a bit too much cream and created a richer, more spreadable cheese, a company spokesperson told TODAY Food. But Lawrence wouldn’t start selling his cream cheese under the name “Philadelphia” for a few years.
In 1880, he partnered with A.L. Reynolds (a larger cheese distributor in the state) to sell bigger quantities of cream cheese. At the time, Pennsylvania had a reputation for its high-quality dairy farms and creamier cheese products so they decided to slap the name “Philadelphia” on the foil-wrapped blocks of creamy cheese.
“Reynolds wanted people to know the cheese was high quality and Philadelphia was associated with high quality dairy products at the time,” Philadelphia’s senior associate band manager Blythe Jeckel confirmed to TODAY.
Over the years, the company went through a few changes and Reynolds eventually sold the trademarked name Philadelphia to the Phenix Cheese Company. Philadelphia truly became a household name in 1928, when Phenix merged with the wholesale cheese-delivery business Kraft to form the Kraft-Phenix Cheese Company.
Philadelphia cream cheese is actually made in New York and Wisconsin.