Smearcase - Gastro Obscura



A few Baltimore bakeries still serve this cheesecake named after 19th-century cottage cheese.

A dairy wagon in Virginia City, Nevada, made the news when it tipped over in 1878. The Territorial Enterprise published a story called “Whey Goin?” in which a pun-crazed reporter described the scene: “The air was filled with milk and the wagon was left a complete wreck. It was a regular smear-case. From the length of time he has been in the milk business Pedroli’s horse ought to know butter than to act in such a whey— ’tain’t the cheese.” 

All but one of the dairy products listed in the article are still common today. Derived from the German schmierkäse (“to smear” and “cheese”), smearcase simply meant cottage cheese to a 19th-century American. Milkmen sold it. Families mixed it with cream to create the product that paved the way for modern cream cheese. In the Pennsylvania Amish community, smearcase is still a term for cottage cheese. But in Baltimore, smearcase is the name of a rare, custardy cheesecake.

Once home to a large population of German immigrants, Baltimore still features a handful of long-standing grocery stores and bakeries that sell this distinct, local sweet. To make a traditional smearcase, bakers prepare yeasted crust, then add a custardy, cheesy filling. After baking, they finish it off with a sprinkle of cinnamon. Compared to standard American cheesecake, smearcase tastes lighter and less sugary, with a more cake-like crust. Bakeries around the city sell the rustic dessert in large, rectangular slabs. It’s a straightforward indulgence that’s at once wholesome and comforting.

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