What is sernik?
Sernik is the name of the traditional Polish cheesecake made from a drained farmer’s cheese known as twaróg.
What the the origin of cheesecake?
The cheesecake is certainly very popular in Poland but it is also very popular in many countries around the world.
It all started in ancient Greece and Rome. An ancient form of cheesecake was indeed popular in ancient Greece even before its adoption by the Romans during the conquest of Greece.
According to Callimachus, a Greek poet born in Cyrene around 305 BC. JC, the first literary reference is the work of Aegimus (5th century BC), one of the oldest Greek doctors, author of a text describing the art of making cheesecakes.
The first known cheesecake recipes can be found in De agri cultura, or De rustica, an agricultural treatise written in Latin around 160 BC by Cato the Elder.
This work includes recipes for three cakes for religious use: libum, savillum, and placenta. The placenta most closely resembles modern cheesecakes, as it has a rind prepared and baked separately.
One of the first cheesecake recipes was written by the great-grandson of Cato the Elder, Marek Porcjusz Caton, who said:
“To prepare this treat, you will need 2 kilograms of cheese well-crushed in a mortar, a pound of wheat flour and an egg. All the ingredients will have to be mixed and then made into a cake baked on hot stone.”
The Greeks’ passion for cheesecake, however, is also confirmed by historians who mention that in 776 BC, on the island of Delos, the athletes of the Olympic games were fed with a cake made from sheep’s cheese and honey. And, in ancient Rome, the placenta was served. It was a dessert made with two discs of dough and cheese in the middle.
A more modern version can be found in The Forme of Cury, a cookbook written in Middle English in 1390.
From ancient Greece to the Modern World
The cheesecake became popular in Europe due to the Romans’ territorial expansion. The peoples of the countries conquered by the Romans adopted the habits of the Italians also in the field of culinary arts.
Over the years, Europeans’ love for cheesecake grew, and each country developed its own variations of this sweet delicacy.
Already in the first printed cookbook, in 1545, a cheesecake recipe appeared. One of the famous cooks of Henry VIII, King of England and Ireland, also contributed to the history of the cheesecake.
At Hampton Court, there was the largest Renaissance kitchen in the world, a huge factory that once served more than 1,200 meals a day at the Tudor courtyard.
The chef had the idea of cutting the cheese into small pieces, which he soaked in milk for 3 hours, then added eggs, flour and sugar.
The cheesecake has also been adopted as a symbolic cake by Esperantists, a group of people who speak Esperanto, an international auxiliary language that unites the peoples of 120 countries. It is therefore not surprising to find variations of this delicious dessert on almost every continent.
The most famous version today, the one with a crispy bottom and cream cheese, is the result of the creativity and the probable error of an American dairy producer, James L. Kraft who, in 1872, wanted try to reproduce the famous French cheese Neufchatel.
The experiment itself failed, but in the attempt of an equally tasty alternative recipe was discovered that of cream cheese called Philadelphia which is the basis of modern cheesecake. Hence the common attribution of this dessert to the Anglo-Saxon world which has made it, over the years, a real staple.
Variants of cheesecake
Cheesecakes can be broadly classified into two basic types: baked and non-baked.
The “original” recipe includes a base of crumbled cookies and butter, a mixture of cheese with sugar and eggs and, optionally, a coating based on various fruits. There is also a version of this dessert that is baked. In particular the most famous is the New York version which involves the use of milk cream and eggs, with sugar, to prepare the filling. In this case, the cheesecake is served cold, but after being baked in the oven.
The Polish version, the sernik, does not include a biscuit base and only includes one dairy product, the twaróg.
In the different countries where the cake is spread, there are many variations.
The most marketed varieties are black cherry, blackcurrant, strawberry, passion fruit, raspberry and lemon curd. The filling is a mixture of cream cheese, sugar and heavy cream, and is not baked but refrigerated.
Gelatin, usually made from fruit pectin, can also be mixed with cream to keep the filling thick. Variations include aromas of banoffee, coffee, tea, chocolate, Irish cream, white chocolate and marshmallow. In Scotland, a savory smoked salmon cheesecake is also prepared.
The United States has several recipes depending on the region and culture. For the vast majority of American versions, the cheesecake is baked.
In addition to the above-mentioned New York version, the Chicago cheesecake is quite popular: it is a baked version made with cream cheese, firm on the outside with a soft, creamy texture on the inside. The base is usually made of crushed shortcrust pastry and mixed with sugar and butter.
In Italy, in ancient Rome, a cake made from honey and ricotta was prepared with flour, traditionally shaped into bread. Some recipes included bay leaves, which probably acted as preservatives.
Today’s Italian cheesecakes use ricotta and/or mascarpone just like in tiramisu, sugar, vanilla extract and sometimes barley flakes. These versions are generally drier than American. Sometimes pieces of candied fruit are added.
The French cheesecake is very light, it is prepared with no baking and is generally only 1 to 2 inches (3 to 5 cm) high. This variety derives its light consistency and flavor from Neufchâtel cheese.
In Greece, cheesecake has been made since ancient times. It is now traditionally produced with mizithra, a traditional Greek cheese made from sheep’s and/or goat’s milk and whey.
Ostkaka is the Swedish cheesecake. There are two types: småländsk ostkaka and hälsingeostkaka.
Småländsk ostkaka, the Småland cheesecake in southern Sweden, usually includes sweet almond, bitter almond, eggs, cream and sugar.
Småland cheesecake is often enjoyed warm with traditional berry jam and whipped cream, but can also be tasted with, for example, milk or ice cream. It’s a staple at Småland’s Christmas table.
A simplified version of the Småland cheesecake can be made with cream cheese, for example cottage cheese, eggs, sugar, chopped almonds and cream, which are mixed together and then baked.
Hälsingeostkaka, the cheesecake from Hälsingland, southern Norrland, in central Sweden, contains milk, wheat flour and cottage cheese. It is often flavored with saffron. The Hälsingland cheesecake has a smoother consistency than that of Småland.
It is cut into slices and reheated with cream in the oven or in a pan, then traditionally served with blackberry sauce and whipped cream.
The German cheesecake, käsekuchen, also called quarkkuchen or matzkuchen (topfenkuchen in Austria) includes quark and freshly prepared shortcrust pastry and not crumbled cookies.
Dutch and Belgian cheesecakes are usually flavored with fruit or melted chocolate, are made with quark and are not baked. The Belgian cheesecake also includes a base of Speculoos, traditional cookies from northern Europe.
The queijada, a Portuguese pastry, is closely related to the cheesecake, although smaller in size and prepared with requeijão, a Portuguese cheese.
The Russian cheesecake, vatrushka, comes in the form of a dough ring and is filled with twaróg, just like sernik.
The tvorozhnaya zapekanka, on the other hand, is a crust-free baked cheesecake that mixes tvorog (Russian quark), eggs and semolina, and often includes raisins.
Asian cheesecake includes matcha tea, lychee and mango. It has a slightly pronounced taste and is light and spongy. Compared to its European counterparts, the Asian cheesecake is also much less sweet.
The Japanese cheesecake is based on the emulsion of corn starch, eggs and cottage cheese to obtain a smooth texture similar to a flan.
The Indian state of Orissa is known for chhena poda, a cheesecake made by baking a mixture of chhena (cottage cheese), sugar and nuts.
The most popular version of cheesecake in the Philippines is the ube cheesecake. It consists of crumbled Graham crackers, cream cheese and ube halaya (purple yam purée with milk, sugar and butter). It can be baked or simply refrigerated. Like other Filipino yam desserts, it has the characteristic purple color.
South Africa has several types of cheesecakes. The most popular variant is whipped cream, cream cheese, jelly, and a base of butter cookies. It is not baked and is sometimes prepared with Amarula, a liqueur made from sugar, cream and marula fruit, a tree widespread in southern Africa and in the Sahelo-Saharan strip. This variety is very similar to the British cheesecake and is widespread in British South African communities.
Australian cheesecakes are usually unbaked. They are usually flavored with passion fruit, chocolate, raspberry, lemon, caramel or vanilla.
The essential ingredient of Polish sernik is twaróg. Twaróg is the fresh cheese from Poland that can be found in many recipes. Halfway between the farmer’s cheese and the cottage cheese, the fresh cheese and the ricotta, it is fairly grainy and fairly dense.
Classified as farmer’s cheese, this skim milk cheese is one of the most famous Polish products. This white cow milk cheese is often compared to quark, but twaróg is a unique creation that cannot be found anywhere else in the world.
It is white in color, elastic and lumpy in texture, and has a slightly tart flavor. The twaróg can be more or less strong depending on how it is prepared. There are three skimming techniques:
- The partially skimmed półtłusty,
- The fully skimmed chudy,
- The tlustý, rich in fat.
Twaróg is one of the few authentic Polish products consumed across the country. Even if it can be eaten plain, simply spread on a piece of bread, it is most often added to traditional Polish dishes.
One of the most common breakfasts in Poland is twarozek – a combination of twaróg, spices, chives and finely chopped vegetables such as radishes, onions or cucumbers, served with cold meats and bread. Twaróg is also commonly used as a filling in the famous Polish pierogi, which can be presented in a savory or sweet version.
Due to its neutral taste, it is often used in Polish desserts, especially as a garnish for the famous naleśniki pancakes. Whether sweet or savory, twaróg is a staple in all Polish households and a necessary part of traditional Polish cuisine.
- 1½ lb twarog (Polish farmer's cheese, recipe below), or farmer's cheese or ricotta cheese
- 5 eggs
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 1 cup sugar
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- ½ cup raisins
- ½ cup slivered almonds
- 1 tablespoon vanilla extract
- Zest of ½ orange
- Juice of a lemon
- 1½ gallon whole milk
- Juice of 8 lemons
- 4 teaspoons salt
- In a large bowl, mix the cheese with the sugar and eggs.
- Soak the raisins in warm water for 10 minutes. Drain and coat the raisins with flour. Add the raisins, flour, almonds, orange zest, lemon juice and vanilla to the mixture. Add the melted butter. Whisk well.
- Spread the mixture evenly into a greased springform pan.
Bake the sernik in an oven preheated at 300F/150C for one hour (depending on the oven, add 10 to 15 minutes of baking if sernik is not fully cooked).
- Wait 10 minutes before unmolding. Enjoy the sernik at room temperature or after chilling in the refrigerator for an hour so it is a little firmer and easier to cut.
- Pour the milk into a large pot. Add salt and simmer over medium heat. Once the milk starts to simmer and small bubbles appear on the sides, turn off the heat.
- Add the lemon juice. Stir slightly. Cover the pot and wait thirty minutes for the milk to curdle.
- Strain the milk through a clean white cloth or cheesecloth.
- The solids remaining in the cloth is the cheese. Press the cloth firmly to obtain a dense cheese. The liquid is called whey and can also be saved and used as a drink.
- The cheese used for the sernik needs not be flavored. However, if the cheese is used for other purposes, feel free to add herbs, spices, oil or nuts.