Sunday, January 1, 2017

New Year's Eve experiment: Libum or Roman cheesecake... sort of

So I was going to a New Year's Eve party with a bunch of SCA folks and looked through my SCA cooking board to find a new recipe to try. I had pinned a recipe for "Roman cheesecake" but the recipe I'd pinned was just the beginning of a research trail to determine if it actually had any historical accuracy behind it.

A little google fu got me to the history of cheesecake and that site mentioned that Marcus Cato is credited for recorded the first Roman cheesecake recipe. More google fu turned up another recipe cited as being from Cato's De Agri Cultura that was very similar to the first one I'd seen.  And this one had a translation of the original Latin as well as a modern version. I wouldn't use any of these sites for actual scholarship but for a New Year's Eve party it seemed sufficient.  If the recipe was tasty I could always look for the original De Agri Cultura later.

Deciding on the recipe cited as Cato's, I decided to quadruple the recipe since a yield of 4 didn't seem like very many for a party.  If this were a more serious culinary experiment, I would have done the recipe as written first and tried to use solely historically accurate tools.

I used Kroger's Simply Truth organic ricotta and there wasn't much liquid to start so draining it on coffee filters didn't remove any significant liquid.    I used a hand mixer to beat the ricotta...  I have been struggling with tendinitis in my  right wrist and "beating until light and airy" by hand didn't seem tendinitis friendly.

The translation of the original Latin called for "1 pound of wheat flour, or if you wish the cake to be more dainty, 1/2 lb of fine flour."  The redaction proportions were 1 pound = 1 cup.

The modern redaction did not specify the type of flour, but the proportions made it clear that it should be wheat flour.  I was using unbleached white flour so I halved the amount and folded it in 1/2 cup at a time with the mixer.  The dough was still too sticky to make into buns, so I added 2 more 1/2 cups and still had sticky-ish dough.

 Sticky dough is sticky

Going back to the original recipe I had pinned, it included kneading on a floured surface and that did the trick.

This looks much better

Looking at the amount of dough I had, I realized that the yield of 4 was for a cake that would need to have slices cut to eat.  Knowing how much better finger food went over at Mistress Alessandra's Vigil table, I decided to make a dozen or so cakes rather than the 4 the recipe called for. Making the smaller cakes yielded ~12 so with a quadruple recipe, I had 48 and enough left to make a cake the original size.

The first half of the cakes, ready to bake

Thankfully, I love bay leaves and had plenty of dried ones because putting a leaf under each cake meant that I used nearly 50 over all.

I used nearly all of this bag of bay leaves

I'd be curious to see if fresh made any significant difference.  I used olive oil spray on the pans but ran out after the first two and had to use coconut oil spray on the other two,  All things considered, I think the purpose of the bay leaves were to keep the the cakes from sticking and, at least with the smaller cake size, made the oil a little superfluous anyway.

I did not have anything close to the testu (brick or clay pot) that cooking the Roman way called for, so I baked them without.  In retrospect, I suspect that the testu (I'm imagining something similar to half of a clay roaster for lack of any research yet) would have kept the cakes a little softer and slower to brown.  30 minutes at 425 degrees resulted in cakes a little browner than I would have preferred but the bay leaves kept the bottom of each cake from burning.  The original sized cake turned out just about perfect.

This one is Just Right.

I had raw honey and warmed the first part of it up in a pot and warmed the rest up in a microwave. I didn't notice any significant difference in the result either way.  I did use significantly more honey than what was called for because, well,... it's honey.

Cakes that have marinated in honey for an hour, ready to take to the party.

The end result wasn't bad for a first attempt. These weren't very much like modern cheese cake, but everyone thought they were tasty so I would call the recipe a win and worth hunting down a copy of De Agri Cultura and making a more historically accurate attempt.  At some point.  So many projects. So little free time.

And on that note, I'm going to try to do a 2016 projects post to figure out just exactly what I did this past year and hopefully fill in the gap of the past few months of silence.  I also have over 1000 museum pics from our trip to London I want to get organized and share in case they are useful for anyone else's research.  But I've got several time critical projects to work on and I am event steward for Midwinter Arts & Sciences in February so (as usual) I need 48 hour days to manage even most of what is on my plate, so we shall see what actually gets done. :)

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