Tuesday October 11th was Old Michaelmas Day, the day when Satan, one of God’s angels, was banished from Heaven for being bad. He fell to earth fast, ‘like lightning from heaven’, and landed in a blackberry bush. Understandably he was a bit miffed at landing in a tangle of thorns, so he cursed the blackberry and pee’d on the fruit. If you don’t believe me go and look at a blackberry bush, after the 11th the berries are shrivelled, hard and bitter, inedible in fact. Last weekend the few berries left on my bush were fine and I picked what was left, less than a cupful, but wonderfully sweet.
Andy from Old Deptford History emailed and asked if I knew about Deptford’s connection with cheesecake. I didn’t, but along with that other ancient dish the custard pie, cheesecake has a very long history. We’ve tried a few historical cheesecake recipes in the past, they are subtle and ‘grown-up’, not the sweet, cream-cheese and fruit New York cheesecakes on offer in every hotel restaurant and supermarket chiller in the world. Real cheesecakes don’t even contain cheese, and are they really ‘cakes’? They can be tarts perhaps, or even pies.
The Greeks served them to athletes at the first Olympic Games in 776BC, and celebrated their weddings with cheesecakes baked with honey and herbs. The Romans recorded their recipes, Cato writing about his Sweet Libum, a cheese-based bread used as an offering to the gods.
When I say ‘cheese’ I mean curd, which isn’t cheese, OK, it’s similar and it’s directly related to cheese, but it’s not cheese. Curd is the original cheesecake ingredient. The emails between me and Andy were at cross-purposes. Andy was thinking of ‘London Cheesecake’, a sweet, flaky pastry topped with icing and dessicated coconut, but no cheese. There’s a blog describing Gregg’s London Cheesecake and in the interests of research and accuracy I tried to buy one from Deptford’s Greggs, but they weren’t on sale. Nigella has a recipe handed down through her father’s family, she says, but though she’s called it a London cheesecake, it’s the New York version. “Go figure”, as they’d say in the Big Apple.
Andy has a much more interesting cheesecake tale about Ann Arthur, a Deptford woman, which he featured in his Old Deptford History blog.
In 1685 Deptford was renowned for its cheesecakes, people baked cheesecakes and traveled to London to sell them. No specific recipe survives, but luckily Deptford’s most famous resident was keeping a hand-written recipe book. John Evelyn collected 353 recipes, including some from his friend Sir Christopher Wren, now they’re published in a book entitled simply ‘John Evelyn, Cook’. Evelyn’s recipe for cheesecake is perhaps the closest we’ll get to an authentic 17thC Deptford cheesecake, and I’ve tried to follow it. The only difference is he baked his pastry ‘blind’, and I didn’t.
154. An Excellent receipt for Cheesecakes, which wee make
Take 3 quarts of New Milk ren it pretty cold and when it is tender come drayn it from the whay in a strainer then hang it up till all the whay be drained from it, then change it into dry cloaths till it wett the Cloth no longer then straine it through a course haire sive, mingle it with 3 qrs of a pound of fresh Butter, with yr hands, take halfe a pound of Almonds beaten with rose water as fine as Curd, then mingle them with the yolks of tenne Eggs and neere a Pint of creame. A nutmeg grated sugar and a little salt when yr Coffins [pie crusts] are ready and going to sett into the Oven, then mingle them together, the Oven must be as hot for a pigeon pye lett the scorching be over halfe an houre will be them well, the Coffins must be hardned by setting into oven full of branne, prick them with a bodkin [sharp instrument], which brush out with a wing, then put in the cheesecake stuff, you may leave 2 whites in the eggs if you like it best so.
Charles II had just died, and James II was the new King, plots were hatching, and rebellions were breaking-out across England. On 3rd March 1685 Ann Arthur, well-liked by her neighbours and respected as a hard-working woman, left her home in Flagon Row and set off as normal for the City with her cheesecakes. This particular day she stayed later than usual in London before starting her walk back to Deptford.
In 1685 if you took the well-worn path from London Bridge to Deptford, you’d be walking through fields and orchards till you reached Rogues Lane (present day Plough Road) near to where it joined Deptford Lower Road. Near what is now Surrey Quays was an inn, the Halfway House. Samuel Pepys often walked this way from his home in the City to the King’s Yard where he was Secretary to the Admiralty, and in this year he became Master of Trinity House at Deptford Strand. Pepys usually stopped at the Halfway House for drinks and cheesecakes, sometimes he read a book as he walked, which shows it must have been a pleasant and uneventful journey.
Pepys was very fond of cheesecakes. He wrote in his diary about visits to the King’s Head in Islington to eat cheesecakes just as he had done with his father when he was a boy. On another occasion he travelled to the Red Lion in Barnet and had “some of the best cheese-cakes I have ever had in my life…” His passion for cheesecakes must have been a reflection of their general acclaim, something we’d have trouble imagining today. It is a mystery that after centuries of popularity, they suddenly fell out of favour. Why? What was once a national dish disappeared and now just about clings on in a few regions of Britain, Yorkshire and Northamptonshire for instance. Towcester cheesecakes were individual cheesecakes sold at Towcester Races, and because they are made with curd not cheese the local Trading Standards are trying to stop them being called ‘cheesecakes’. By the mid 19th Century our ‘real’ cheesecakes had disappeared from cookbooks.
We can wonder why Ann Arthur stayed later than usual in the City, had she done well selling her cheesecakes and stayed for refreshments? Or had she had trouble selling them and stayed till they were all sold. We’ll never know, but as she left the Halfway House behind her she found her way blocked by a tall dark figure she took to be a man, then by the moonlight she saw he had ‘a stern and dreadful countenance’ which filled her with fear and dread.
Afraid it was the Devil himself she tried to run back to the inn but a fierce wind suddenly blew and prevented her turning back, forcing her on towards the lane that led to Deptford, all the while closely followed by ‘that gloomy apparition’ who then demanded to know where she was going and where she had been. In fright she stammered an explanation of her day, adding she was “a poor woman obliged to take that employment for her maintenance”; the spectre made some ‘horrible mutterings’ then thrust out his hand full of silver which Ann refused to take, instead she began praying under her breath for her deliverance from the Devil and from temptation. The cloaked figure urged her to take the silver saying it would lead her out of poverty, then he produced a handful of gold “a vast heap, more than any hand could grasp” and offered to put it in her basket. But Ann still refused and kept walking, her limbs shaking, towards Deptford hoping against hope she’d meet some friendly faces. At last she began to see the lights of the town, but just as she thought she would be safe a sudden whirlwind blew-up and took Ann and her basket up into the air, carrying her 50 yards before hurling her into a bush (I wonder where he got that idea!). Her screams alerted some of the townsfolk who thinking someone was being robbed rushed to her aid and carried her to a nearby house, and then onwards to Flagon Row where she told her neighbours of her ordeal. Ann never fully recovered her wits and blamed herself for what had happened, she’d neglected the sabbath selling cheesecakes, and she’d swore and called upon the devil. Many tried to redeem her but she refused to change. I don’t think it ended happily for the poor woman who became an example of what would happen if you led a depraved life.
Cheese has a very long history, but before cheese there were curds and whey. When milk goes ‘off’ it curdles and separates into curds (the solids) and whey (the liquid). Cheesecakes were a way of not wasting curdled milk, but by 1685, milk was being curdled by adding rennet. Evelyn’s recipe says ‘take 6 pints of milk (whole unpasteurised milk) and rennet it cold‘. You can do the same thing, its fun, honest! You’ll need the creamiest old-fashioned milk you can get, preferably unpasteurised (but be aware of the health risks), 6 to 8 pints should do for my recipe. Then add lemon juice, maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons, and wait while the milk curdles and separates. Take some muslin, about a square metre will be plenty, and fashion the muslin into a sieve, pour the milk through the muslin to separate the curds. If you can suspend the muslin over a bowl so much the better. Squeeze the curd in the muslin to drain the last of the whey. Now with the curd still wrapped in the muslin weight it down with something heavy to press it into a more solid mass, and leave overnight. The whey can be left for 12 – 24 hours at room temperature then heated till almost boiling, which once it has cooled is again passed through muslin to produce a low fat fine curd. In Italy this is called ricotta and is very perishable and so should be used at once.
If all that is too much of a to-do then I recommend making my cheesecake recipe with either shop-bought curd cheese (cheap and easily available), or really fresh ricotta. The best place to buy ricotta is Gennaro’s in Lewisham. I was there last Friday evening looking for some fresh ricotta, and the always-smiling Antonio greeted me with his usual cheerful “Buono sera signor!“ I told him I needed about half a kilo of ricotta and you’ve never seen a man change so fast, his whole appearance crumbled. “We ‘ave none,” he shrugged mournfully, shoulders drooping, “a few of the ricotta, they not very well…” He trailed off. “Not very well?” I repeated like a man sandbagged. “Si, so, you know, I send them away. It’s a very fresh product,” he added, “they didn’t taste good.” Antonio was rubbing his thumb and index finger together in the air trying to describe the ricotta’s lack of well-ness. After several “sorry, my friend, sorry, sorrys” from Antonio I left him to his misery, promising to ring next time to check on the health of the ricotta.
Preparation time: 40 minutes to make the pastry (could be done the day before), 5 minutes to assemble the ingredients.
Cooking time: 30 – 40 minutes.
For the pastry,
(This will make more than you need, you can freeze the extra for another cheesecake!)
450g good plain flour
Pinch of salt
1 tbs icing sugar
(all of the above sifted)
110g lard, cubed
110g butter, cubed
Ice cold water, a small cup
In a large bowl and with floured hands, rub the fats into the sifted flour, till it resembles fine crumbs.
Mix a little iced water, drop by drop, into the flour mixture, chopping it in with a knife till you have a stiff ball of dough.
Wrap this in clingfilm and chill for 30 minutes.
Divide the dough in half, freeze half for another time, and with the other half line a greased loose-ring pie tin (mine was 200mm diameter, 35mm deep), letting the excess pastry flop over the sides. Chill the pastry case while you prepare the filling.
For the filling,
225g ricotta or curd cheese
2 tbs double cream
110g softened butter
75g light brown sugar
2 tbs, heaped, of ground almonds
1 tbs rose water
Big pinches of ground ginger and freshly scraped nutmeg
3 whole eggs + 1 egg yolk, whisked
Combine the cheese with the cream in a mixing bowl.
In a separate bowl cream together the butter, sugar, almonds, rose water, ginger, and nutmeg. Fold in the whisked eggs, then fold in the cheese and cream mixture. It will be quite thick, not like a batter or a custard.
Take the pastry case out of the fridge and now you can tidy-up the overhanging pastry because it will have settled into all the crevices of the tin.
Spoon in the filling, then put the tin onto a warmed baking sheet and into the oven, pre-heated to 180C.
Bake for 30 – 40 minutes, depending on how deep your tin is, it will rise and probably crack. When it has risen evenly, and is shiny and dark it is cooked.
Serve slightly warm, or cold. As the cheesecake cools it will quickly settle down evenly. I scraped some more nutmeg onto the cooked cheesecake.
©David Porter 2011.