Cheesecake is one of the most recognizable and popular desserts. You may assume its origins trace back to France or possibly Italy, as the fluffy cream cheesecake has become a staple of traditional bakeries.
But cheesecake has a very different origin: ancient Greece. The original cheesecake is thought by researchers to have been created on the Greek island of Samos, where anthropologists unearthed cheese molds for the dessert that were dated back to 2,000 B.C.
There is evidence people served athletes cheesecake during the first Olympic games in 776 B.C., as it was believed that the treat was a viable source of fuel. Cheesecake was also commonly used as a wedding cake.
The recipe for cheesecake in ancient Greek is not far removed from contemporary iterations of the dessert. Grecians of the day made their cakes by forming flour, wheat, honey, and cheese together and baking. The earliest cheesecake recipe is credited to Athenaeus in 230 A.D. although cheesecake is referenced and mentioned far before this recipe’s writing.
Athenaeus said, “Take cheese and pound it till smooth and pasty; put cheese in a brazen sieve; add honey and spring wheat flour. Heat in one mass, cool, and serve.”
The dish left Greece for the first time with the ancient Romans. After conquering Greece, they took the cake and altered its traditional recipe, substituting crushed cheese and eggs and choosing to serve it warm. Romans called this modified version of cheesecake “libuma” and reserved it as a delicacy for celebrations.
This recipe became popular across Northern and Eastern Europe, with different regions coming up with their own spin on the cake with locally sourced ingredients. Cheesecake became disseminated so widely that each country in Europe eventually had its own variation.
The first cookbook was published in 1545. The cheesecake was included as a sweet dessert dish. Roughly three hundred years later, cream cheese was invented in New York and became the most common cheese used in cheesecakes, giving rise to the “New York Cheesecake.”
Cheese and dessert in ancient Greece
Cheese-making is an ancient practice in the Mediterranean, with the production of cheese from goat’s or sheep’s milk dating back to the 8th century B.C. in Greece.
This history is accompanied by ancient myths about cheese production, including one in which Apollo’s son, Aristaios, raised by nymphs, teaches mankind the art of preparing milk for cheese production.
A cheese resembling feta is mentioned in Homer‘s Odyssey. In the ancient work, the Cyclops Polyphemus is described as a shepherd who lives with a cave full of cheese and milk taken from his flock.
But ancient Grecians, being the canny inventors that they were, combined their love for cheese with other sweet ingredients to arrive at the cheesecake. But cheesecake is just one amongst many other ancient desserts Greeks enjoyed: Greeks have had a love affair with ice cream since at least one hundred years before Alexander the Great.
In fact, ancient Greeks were attracted to “ices” as early as the fifth century BC. In those years, ices were actually honey and fruit-flavored snow, and they were wildly popular among Greeks in Athens’ central market, spreading quickly throughout the Aegean world.
Alexander the Great, born in 356 B.C., reportedly ate his share of ices while growing up as the son of the king of Macedon, Philip II. According to legends that have survived to this day, his favorite ice was flavored with honey and nectar.
Even Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, who was born in 460 B.C., spoke well of this delicacy, encouraging his patients to eat ice “as it livens the life juices and increases the well-being.”
Try this vanilla cheesecake popsicle recipe for a unique hybrid dessert that combines Greek yogurt with cream cheese and reconnect with the athletes, brides, grooms, and dessert lovers of ancient Greece!
Vanilla Cheesecake Popsicles
8 ounces light cream cheese
1/2 cup plain or vanilla Greek yogurt
1/2 cup 2% milk (or other low-fat milk)
2/3 cup powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 vanilla bean, seeds scraped
1. Place all ingredients into a food processor. Note: To scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean, cut through one layer vertically with a paring knife and then using the back of the knife, scrape down the inside of the bean to remove the seeds. Add seeds to mixture and discard the rest of the bean. Also: Adding some fresh cardamom adds a super vanilla and fragrant flavor to the bars. You can add a small pinch of ground cardamom, but just remember, a little goes a long way!
2. Pulse until ingredients are completely blended. Divide mixture between eight popsicle molds and add sticks, just as you would to make popsicles. Freeze for three to four hours, until solid.
3. Remove from the mold and enjoy!