Historical Food Fortnightly #12 If They’d Had it… : To Make Cheesecakes

The Challenge: “Have you ever looked through a cookbook from another era and been surprised at the modern dishes you find? Have you ever been surprised at just how much they differ from their modern counterparts?  Recreate a dish which is still around today, even if it may look a little – or a lot – different!”

The Recipe: “106 To make cheesecakes” from Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery and Booke of Sweetmeats, transcribed and annotated by Karen Hess.

The Date/Year and Region: Late 17th century England.1

How Did You Make It: From absolute scratch short of milking the cow and milling the grain for the bread.

Time to Complete: Too long!  It took me two weeknight evenings and a weekend morning to complete, all three consecutive. Part of that time though was me figuring things out as I went, as is usually the case when I redact historical recipes. I think it can be made in one very long day, but it’s an ambitious goal.

Total Cost: I am not very good at assigning cooked food a price.  I bought rennet for this recipe but I only used a few drops so technically it didn’t cost much.  I’d say about $10 total.

How Successful Was It?: It was wildly successful, especially considering that I made the cheese, which is a first for me.  It was tasty too.

How Accurate Is It?:  I used regular homogenized and pasteurized milk, but other than that, and accounting for modern kitchen equipment, it’s pretty accurate.


18th century cheesecake


I don’t even know where to begin with this one!  This one is a mammoth!

I’ve been reading this book, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, at bedtime for weeks, and about three weeks ago I came across a recipe called “to make cheesecakes.”  I read it recipe fully, then read Karen Hess’ annotation and I knew then and there that this was exactly what I was going to make for this challenge.  I mean, it’s cheesecake!  Who hasn’t heard of cheesecake and that it was invented in New York sometime?  Well, yes and no.  See, this is one of those instances in which the names are similar, the ingredients are similar, but the results are only slightly similar.  Cheesecake as Americans know it today is a relatively recent invention, but cheesecakes, or in the case of this recipe I’m presenting today, cheese tarts, have been around for a very long time.  The texture of these pre-modern, so to speak, cheesecakes is very different to that of modern American cheesecakes.  They are more rustic and, well, textured. Karen Hess explains that this cheesecake is not very different to the ones still being made in many parts of Europe.2

This recipe uses fresh curds, which give it its texture.  In contrast, modern cheesecake is made from commercial cream cheese, which accounts for the differences.  This is a prime example of the notion that nothing is new, only reinvented and re-imagined.

The recipe as transcribed by Karen Hess:

106 To Make Cheesecakes

Take 6 quarts of stroakings or new milke & whey it with runnet as for an ordinary cheese, yn put it in a streyner & hang it on a pin or else press it with 2 pound weight. yn break it very small with yr hands or run it through a sive, then put to it 7 or 8 eggs well beaten, 3 quarters of a pound of currans, halfe a pound of sugar, a nutmegg grated or some cloves & mace beaten, 2 or 3 spoonfuls of rosewater, a little salt, yn take a quart of cream, & when it boyl[es] thicken it with grated bread & boyle it very well as thick as for an hasty pudding.  then take it form ye fire & stir therein halfe a pound of fresh butter, then let it stand till it be allmoste cold, & yn mingle it with your curd very well; yn fill yr coffins of paste & when they are ready to set into ye oven scrape on them some sugar & sprinkle on some rosewater with a feather.  If you love good store of currans in them, you may put in a whole pound, & a little sack If you please.  & soe bake ym.3

The redaction of this recipe took me considerably out of my comfort, and even knowledge, zone.  The most fundamental ingredient was something I had never made, homemade cheese, and I didn’t feel that it would be a fair redaction if I used purchased cheese.  It was actually the cheese-making part that attracted me to this recipe in the first place.  I’ve been toying with the idea of making cheese for a while and this was the best opportunity to get started.  The recipe, as is common in the recipes prior to the 20th century, makes quite a fair number of assumptions about what the person reading it knows how to do.  It assumes, for instance, you know how to make cheese and thus omits those instructions.  I didn’t know how to make cheese, but thanks to recent interests, I do own a cheese-making book, which I used for reference. I also read every cottage cheese-making article I could find online so that I could learn how rennet works and how to take on this mammoth task.  It paid off.  I love the process of making the cheese.  It is such a magical process; one minute you have milk and 30 minutes later you have cheese, deliciously fresh cheese.


18th century cheesecake


Once I had the cheese figured out and made, the rest was relatively easy.  I did take some of the suggestions Hess makes in the annotations into consideration but in the end I went with what I thought would work best.  As always, I scaled the recipe down to a manageable amount while keeping the proportions as close to the source recipe as possible.  In this case, my redacted recipe is 1/3 of the original.  Raw milk is next to impossible to find in this area, legally or otherwise, let alone stroakings, so I had to settle for the best quality homogenized and pasteurized (but NOT ultra-pasteurized) whole milk I could find.   I used regular raisins because I couldn’t find currants.  My breadcrumbs were homemade because I already had them, but I would have used store-brought crumbs, like panko, if I had not had any. I also used modern kitchen equipment.

My redacted recipe:

To Make Cheesecakes

80 fl oz (2 12 MODERN American quarts) whole milk
10 drops (18 tsp) liquid animal rennet
2 tbsp non-chlorinated water
13 fl oz heavy whipping cream
14 cup plain breadcrumbs
2 12 oz unsalted butter
2 large eggs, well beaten
12 oz (13 cup) granulated sugar
13 of a nutmeg, grated
1 tsp rosewater
large pinch of salt
¼ pound raisins, plumped in hot water

sugar and rosewater for topping

1 blind-baked 9 inch deep dish pastry shell (see below)

In a large non-reactive pot, bring the milk, slowly, to 95 ºF.  Remove from the heat; dilute the rennet in the non-chlorinated water (bottled), and add to the milk.  Stir carefully and slowly for approximately one minute.  Cover the pot and let it stand, undisturbed, for 45 minutes.  With a cake decorating spatula or long knife, cut the curds, still in the pot and whey, into half-inch cubes.  Over very low heat, bring the mixture up to 110 ºF, stirring gently every now and then.  When the mixture comes up to temperature, remove from the heat and let it rest for 5 minutes.

In the mean time, line a large strainer or colander with butter muslin or a double layer of cheesecloth.  Gently pour the curds and whey into the strainer and allow it to drain for 20 minutes.  Gather up the corners of the cheesecloth and tie up around a heavy dowel or other item from which the curds can hang.  Allow to drain a further 20 minutes or until it stops dripping.

Break up the curds into large pieces and put them in the refrigerator until they are completely cold.

Place the heavy cream in a small saucepan over medium heat.  When it comes to a boil, add the breadcrumbs.  Cook, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes.  Remove from the heat, add the butter and stir.  Set aside and let the mixture cook to almost room temperature.

Pulse the curds in a food processor for a few seconds to break up the curds.  It will look almost like whipped cream cheese.  Transfer the cheese to a large bowl and add the eggs, granulated sugar, grated nutmeg, rosewater and salt.  Mix until well combined.  Fold in the plumped raisins into the cheese mixture, add the breadcrumb mixture and mix well.

Pour the cheese mixture out into the prepared pastry shell.  Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon of sugar.  Pour 1 teaspoon of rosewater into a small bowl and, using a pastry brush or other kitchen soft-bristle brush, brush the top of the cheese mixture with the rosewater.

Bake in a preheated oven at 325 ºF for 50 to 60 minutes, or until the mixture is almost set but jiggles a bit in the center.  Turn the oven off but leave the tart inside. Prop the oven door slightly open; leave the tart in the oven for one hour, closing the door again after 10 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely before cutting.


For the pastry shell:

1 14 cups all purpose four
large pinch of salt
1 stick (12 cup) cold unsalted butter, cut in 12 inch cubes
3 tbsp ice water

Place the flour and salt in a food processor and quickly pulse to combine.  Add all the butter and pulse until a coarse meal forms.  Slowly, add the ice water, a small amount at a time, only just until the mixture comes together in clumps.  You may not need all the water, or you may need more, depending on the humidity.

Gather the dough into a ball and flatten into a disk. Wrap in plastic film and chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

For baking, preheat the oven to 375 ºF.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator 10 or 15 minutes before rolling it out.  Roll out the dough between two sheets of plastic film into a round large enough to cover your pie dish, which should be 9-inch deep-dish pie plate.  Remove the top sheet of plastic film, invert the dough onto the plate and line it, making sure not to stretch the dough or it will shrink back in the oven.

Line the dough with foil and fill with pie weights or dry beans.  Bake for 15 minutes.  Remove from the oven and carefully lift the foil with the beans.

The shell is ready for the cheese filling.

Makes 1 9-inch deep dish cheesecake


18th century cheesecake


As I said, this one is a mammoth.  It is a long process but there are a few points in the process that lend themselves to be break points, as I used them.  You can make the curds one day (and if you want to stop here, just salt them a bit and voila, fresh cheese!), mix the filling another day along with making the pastry dough, and then roll out the dough and bake everything the following day.  If you do this, bring the temperature of the cheese mixture up a bit from chilled so that it is easier to evenly pour and spread into the pastry shell. That is how I managed it, and I’m glad I didn’t try to make everything in one day because I don’t think I would have enjoyed it very much.

To plump the raisins, put some water, about two cups or so, into a small saucepan and bring to a boil.  Remove from the heat, add the raisins, cover, and let it stand, still off the heat, for 20 minutes.  Drain the raisins and dry them.  This recipe in particular didn’t call for the raisins to be plumped that the other similar recipes in the book did.  The author of that particular recipe (it’s a compilation of many people’s works) most likely assumed that the cook knew to plump the raisins before being used.  I suppose you can use the raisins straight from the box but the texture, and even taste, will be different.  There is not enough liquid in the recipe for the raisins to plump during cooking, as is the case with other dishes.  I wouldn’t skip this step.

To keep the tart after cooking, do so in the fridge as it is a dairy product, but bring it up to room temperature before eating.  There is not much sugar in this cheesecake and foods taste less sweet the colder they are, which is why ice cream needs so much sugar.  The flavor is just better at room temperature.

A note on rosewater.  I am not a big fan of rosewater and I wouldn’t choose to use it in modern recipes when I could use vanilla, but I think it’s important to use period correct ingredients in period recipes if one wants to get as close to the original flavor as possible.  That said, the rosewater in this recipe is not at all overpowering.  It’s actually very pleasant.  It lends the cheese mixture a bit of an aromatic kick, and it works so well with the nutmeg.  I would have never thought to put those two together.  If you decide to make this tart, or any other recipe that calls for rosewater, but you are not fan, don’t shy away from it, try it.  The flavor of the rosewater here is a far cry from the flavor of, say, Turkish delight.

So, there you have it, cheesecake that is not what you think of when you think of cheesecake but is cheesecake nonetheless.  I will say though that as far as foods with the same names but different products go, this case is not so disparate.  There are many more dishes that are much more different now than they were centuries, or even just decades, ago.  Blancmange comes to mind.


1. An earlier version of this post claimed that the recipe, and the manuscript, were 18th century North American, but, in fact, it was complied in England around 1675. At some point the book made its way to Martha Washington. By then, most of the recipes were outdated and out of fashion. See Stephen Schmidt, “On Adapting Historical Recipes,” https://www.manuscriptcookbookssurvey.org/on-adapting-historical-recipes/

2. Karen Hess, Martha Washington’s Booke of Cookery, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 128.

3. Ibid.

1 Response

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