An English (American) Cheesecake (circa 1871)

This vintage cheesecake is cheesy and creamy and flavored with just the right amount of nutmeg and amaretto flavoring.

This cheesecake recipe comes from the 1871 edition of Warne’s Model Cookery and Housekeeping, compiled and edited by Mary Jewry and published in England by Frederick Warne and Company.  The company is most noted for its publication of well-known children’s books such as Beatrix Potter’s “The Tale of Peter Rabbit.” However, there was also a series of these cookbooks that the Warne Company published into the early 1900s.  

History of Cheesecake

Cheesecake or some form of it dates back to ancient Rome where Marcus Porcius Cato, the Censor, the Elder and the Wise, was a Roman soldier, senator, and historian. He is credited with what seems to be a cheesecake recipe, better known as Libum, which means cake. The ingredients included a savory, salty cheese and honey.

The somewhat more familiar version of a cheesecake dates back to 14th century England.  The recipe, found in the “Form of Cury,” a 14th century collection of medieval English recipes prepared by the Master Cooks of King Richard II, contained brie cheese and saffron.

Cheesecake recipes continued to appear in England through the 1720s when Pastry Master and teacher Edward Kidder authored “E. Kidder’s Receipts of Pastry and Cookery For the Use of His Scholars.” Kidder used blanched almonds and a little “sack” (wine).

The English recipes made their way into America in Sussannah Carter’s “The Frugal Housewife,” published in New York in 1803. Carter made her own cheese with fresh cow’s milk and with or without rennet (curdled milk from the stomach of an unweaned calf). She added almonds, but no sack. The cheesecake batter was poured into a puff pastry and topped off with currants and “perfumed plumbs.”

Hannah Mary Bouvier, a lady of Philadelphia, wrote her version of a cheesecake recipe in “The National Cookbook,” published in Philadelphia by T. B. Peterson & Brothers in 1866. Bouvier’s curd cheesecake recipe seems more like a cheese pudding, but not very creamy.

The real game changer came when a New York dairyman accidentally invented cream cheese in 1880. It was called “Philadelphia” cream cheese because that city was known for its high quality food. Then came the famous New York Style cheesecakes usually found in Jewish delicatessens in the 1920s.

Warne’s Model Cookery and Houskeeping

Like the first edition of this cookbook and those that followed Mary Jewry targeted young and inexperienced housekeepers and “would best suit the requirements of housekeepers with small incomes,” states the publisher in the Preface of the book. The book includes 3,000 recipes as well as detailed instructions and color illustrations. A beginner can learn how to choose cuts of meat, kitchen equipment, and utensils. In addition, a lady can get hints on how to market and how to provide the right amount of food each week without waste.

The book provides an extensive insight into the social history of the day. At that time, a woman’s husband was likely the only breadwinner in the house, therefore it “should be her care that no waste or ignorant misuse shall squander the property of her husband,” the beginning section titled “Hints to the Housekeeper” states.

A lady’s care to not waste also included being a good cook so that “nothing is lost by carelessness or bad cookery,” and not lacking in “domestic comfort” or being distracted by idle pleasure. There were many other responsibilities the lady of the house must be attentive to, regardless of her social class. From paying the bills and getting the best bargains to managing the servants, the lady of the house did not have much time for idleness

The Recipe

I’ve never had to make my own cheese before, but cream cheese wasn’t invented until 10 years later, and even if it were, an English housekeeper wouldn’t have it on hand. Besides, it was easier and probably healthier to milk the cow and make fresh all natural cheese. By the 19th century, housekeepers were becoming more familiar with measurements such as pint, spoonful, and quarter of a pound. However, she still didn’t use a modern oven with a temperature setting nor was she fussy about separating wet ingredients from dry. She also would have made puff pastry ahead of time, but you can use a pre-made pastry purchased from your local bakery or supermarket. Although this cookbook was made for novice cooks like myself, it left out one important detail: how to make the curd.

If you’ve never made curd before, don’t be nervous, as it was so easy. I couldn’t believe it myself. You can learn by watching this video.

As with my bread pudding, I wanted this recipe to be as authentic as I could possibly make it, so since I don’t own a cow, I went back to my local dairy farm and purchased fresh raw cow’s milk. I didn’t get the cream, so I bought a natural brand from the farmer’s market. I purchased a good quality amaretto syrup from amazon, but you can probably buy the liqueur at your local liquor store. My delicious, soft currants came from Whole Foods Market. I traveled an hour to get there, but it was worth it to have currants instead of raisins.

Just like cooks in the 18th century, there was no bother to separate the dry ingredients from the wet. There is a separate process for making the curd and the puff pastry though. Otherwise, the eggs, cream, nutmeg, amaretto, and cheese, all went into the bowl and the currants were added in last.

I had intended on taking a stab at making my own puff pastry, but time got away from me so I purchased the Pepperidge Farm brand puff pastry from my local Wal-Mart. I’m sure a bakery pastry would have been much better, but this was the best I could do at the last minute. I think Mary Jewry would have branded me a neglectful housekeeper for my lack of care and attentiveness. Anyway, hindsight is 20/20; I hope I can do better next time.

I thawed out my frozen pastry according to the package directions and it almost perfectly fit into my 9-inch pie tin. I carefully cut off the excess and used it to make a mini egg and bacon pie (mmm, so delicious!). Remember to first butter the pan really well or you can use a cooking spray. The filling was just enough to fill the tin without any extra.

This time, I took special care to keep the oven at 350 degrees Fahrenheit and took the cheesecake out as soon as the crust was golden brown, about 20–25 minutes. I was very happy with the final results!

You may be wondering, as did I, if this cheesecake would be sweet enough without any sugar added or not using a sweet cheese. This was a concern for me, not because I like super sweet desserts, but I knew I would be sharing this with my dessert critic friends. They would surely let me know if it wasn’t sweet enough. I personally conducted two taste tests: first when it was still slightly warm and then the next day after refrigeration. Warm or room temperature is best for me, but my friends gobbled it up before it could warm up. “It was hard to wait,” one friend said. The amaretto and currants combined with the homemade cheese and added cream provided just enough sweetness to satisfy these dessert lovers. They even liked the pastry.

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