This article first appeared in the inaugural issue of the beautiful food history publication, EATEN Magazine. If you love food and love reading about the fascinating...
Awhile back I posted on one of my blogs about Roman honey cakes, which were primarily used as sacrificial cakes, but versions may have also been used as a snack in the tabernas and popinas.
Sally Grainger is one of the most well-known food historians, especially when it comes to the recipe book that bears Apicius' name. She is also the co-author of The Classical Cookbook, and in that book there is a recipe for Libum, a classic ancient sacrificial cake, first mentioned in Cato's On Agriculture.
Libum, serves 2
- 10 oz ricotta cheese
- 1 egg
- 2½ oz plain flour
- 1/2 c. runny honey
Beat the cheese with the egg and add the sieved flour very slowly and gently. Flour your hands and pat mixture into a ball and place it on a bay leaf on a baking tray. Place in moderate oven (400ºF) until set and slightly risen. Place cake on serving plate and score the top with a cross. our plenty of runny honey over the cross and serve immediately.
History.UK.com used to have a recipe for honey cakes posted but I find it's no longer available after their site was hacked. The British have a vested interest in Roman history since much of their culture was borne from early Roman occupation.
Roman Honey Cakes
- 3 large eggs
- 200g (7ounces) of clear runny "pouring" honey
- 50g (2 ounces) of spelt flour (preferred) or ordinary plain white flour
Note: Spelt flour is made from an ancient strain of wheat introduced to the UK by the Romans. It tends to be quite coarsely ground.
- Heat your oven to 170º C or 330º F or Gas mark 3.
- Beat the eggs vigorously until quite stiff, creating lots of air bubbles in the process. Gradually add the honey into the mixture as it thickens.
- Cook’s tip: For ease in the modern kitchen, we advise using a stab mixer.
- Gently fold in the sifted flour then pour the mixture into a greased cake tin. Place in the preheated oven.
- Cook’s tip: The actual time needed to cook your honey cake will depend on the size of the cake tray you have used. Small and deep will take considerably longer than large and shallow. On average, the cooking time is about 45 to 55 minutes
- Have a very quick look after 40 minutes to make sure the cake isn’t getting too brown and is starting to rise a little at the edges. The honey will give the cake a rich golden brown colour. Be careful not to let your cake burn.
- Cook’s tip: Make sure you do not open the oven door for any longer than absolutely necessary or the cake will subside.
- Remove cooked cake from tin straight away and place on a cooling rack for a few minutes before serving.
This cake is best served warm, fresh from the oven. Decorate liberally with even more drizzled honey! The cakes may come out a little differently. Some are quite crumbly and others are a bit like bread pudding. They all taste great with lashings of extra honey. The variations depend on differences in cooking time, tin size, temperature and thickness of the mixture. Try taking notes as you make the cake to ensure you can replicate the process next time around or make adjustments to the recipe until you get it just right for your tastes. The modern diet does not include spelt flour. It is tempting to eat these delicious cakes in abundance but we recommend small portions at a time until you are used to the deceptive heaviness of this rich dish.
Jesse Browner, a food historian and author of the excellent The Uncertain Hour, has adapted a recipe for saffron honey cakes from Mark Grant's Roman Cookery. I want to try these...they seem like they would be the tastiest version from the recipes I've seen.
Saffron honey cakes (adapted from Roman Cookery)
½ lb. clear honey
¼ lb. white flour
1 tsp. saffron
Preheat oven at 350 degrees. Dissolve saffron in a few teaspoons of warm water. Beat eggs until stiff, drizzling in the honey as you do. Add dissolved saffron. Fold in flour, pour into greased muffin tins, bake for 25 minutes. Serve with warm honey.
Mark Grant also has a recipe for Staititai in his book Roman Cookery, which I've tried. This early form of pizza comes from Athenaeus' Deipnosophistae or the Banquet of the Learned,a philosophic book from the 2nd century AD (100 years after Apicius), about food, cooking and sensual pleasures.
Staititai: A type of cake made with spelt dough and honey. Epikharmos mentions it in his Marriage of Hebe. The moist dough is spread on a frying pan, and on it are poured honey, sesame seeds and cheese, according to Iatrokles.
Translated recipe by Mark Grant:
- 9 oz. of spelt flour
- 1 tsp dried yeast
- 1 tsp sugar
- 5 fl. oz warm water
- Olive oil for frying
- 7 oz feta cheese (I bet goat cheese would work too...)
- 2 tbsp sesame seeds
- 2 tbsp clear honey
- Sea salt
- Dissolve the sugar in warm water. Spoon in the dried yeast and leave to stand 15 minutes to reactivate.
- Add the yeast mixture to the flour and knead into a supple dough-- you may need to add a touch more flour or water.
- Put into a bowl, cover with a cloth and allow to rise one hour.
- Divide dough into 2 equal balls. Roll the balls out onto lightly floured surface until you have rounds 10 in. in diameter. Leave for 30 min in a warm place and cover with a cloth.
- Heat oil in large frying pan. Slide a disc into the pan and fry gently, turning over from time to time until golden brown on both sides. Repeat with other disc.
- Mash the feta cheese and spread over both discs. Drizzle with honey and sprinkle with sesame seeds.
- Flash under broiler or hot grill to melt the cheese, cut into wedges and serve.
If you try any of these, let me know!
- Cheesecake, Ancient Roman-style: Libum or Honey Cakes(afridgefulloffood.typepad.com)