Off to Ancient Rome: Cato the Elder's Cheesecake
Men in ancient Rome fighting over the last piece of Cato's cheesecake.
Did you know that the oldest surviving work in Latin prose is the ancient Roman statesman Marcus Porcius Cato's De agri cultura, On Agriculture? That would be just over 2,100 years old. In it we find a real jewel, a recipe for cheesecake! Cato, known as "the Elder," was born outside Rome in Tusculum, a town in the region now known as Lazio. In his life he was praised as a great writer and orator. De agri cultura gives us a peek into life in ancient Italy. Let's have a look.
Some ten years ago I was lucky enough to meet, cook, and dine with the well-known culinary historian and classicist Phyllis Pray Bober, the author of Art, Culture, and Cuisine: Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy, who passed away in 2002 at the age of 81. With Dr. Bober, we cooked an ancient Roman dinner, a medieval one, and also one of the Renaissance--all strictly following the original recipes. What I learned from Dr. Bober was that it's very important to recognize the history of what you eat--the people who cultivated and now cultivate your foods, the recipes and how they've changed, and how people ate at different places and different times. As the old European proverb goes, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." Thumbing through Dr. Bober's book the other night, I came across her collection of ancient and medieval recipes (measurements and descriptions altered for the modern reader). Enjoy Dr. Bober's recipe for Cato's cheesecake below. Take a trip to ancient Italy!
--Ago tibi gratias, Magister
First, the Ingredients
24 ounces cream cheese (or mix half and half with fresh ricotta)
3 to 4 tablespoons whole wheat flour
1/2 to 1/3 cup cup honey (herb preferred)
2 eggs, separated
Poppy seeds (variation: toasted almond slices)
Second, the Recipe
Mix cheese, flour, honey, and yolks, whipping as much air into the mixture as possible (by hand).
Beat the egg whites into soft peaks and fold into cheese mixture (Cato specified only 1 egg and there is no mention of trying to lighten the cake by this means). Pour into a greased spring-form pan (or an oiled earthenware serving dish, unglazed).
Bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour, testing with a straw until done. Turn off oven, remove cake, and pour warm honey over and sprinkle with seeds or nuts; return to the cooling oven for 5 or 10 minutes.