Who likes cheesecake?
Because I don’t want to live in a world the alternative is true, I’m going to assume that most of you said you did – good. Well, you’re in luck: today’s recipe from Cato the Elder’s De Agri Cultura could be seen as a type of blueprint cheesecake – one of the very earliest forms.
Before you get excited I should quickly read you the small print because there are a couple of caveats to this cheesecake recipe. For one: does it look like cheesecake? No. Does it smell or taste like a cheesecake? Also no. Essentially what we’re dealing with is a cheesecake in the sense that it has cheese in it and is shaped like a cake but really that’s where the similarities end. Libum may translate as ‘cake’ but rather than matching our modern day idea of cake as something sweet, the notion of ‘cake’ here just relates to the round shape. Some people (my husband is one of them) still use the term cake in this way today – a cake of soap, for example, which is why my toddler spent most of the night hiccuping up bubbles.
That’s not to say that ancient cakes couldn’t be sweet – far from it. Liba may not have contained any sweeteners in the dough, but that didn’t stop people serving them drowned in honey or pomegranate syrup. The Greek writer Athenaeus, writing some 350 years after Cato wrote the recipe for Libum also tells of basynias – boiled dough filled with a honey and date stuffing – and elaphos – dough shaped like deers cooked with honey and sesame – for the festival of elaphebolia.
Back in Cato’s De Agri Cultura we find a large number of different cakes listed, included the alarming entitled ‘placenta’ cake – but his concern with listing these cakes isn’t frivolous. In fact, as Nicola Humble points out in a book that encapsulates my two greatest loves with frightening precision – ‘Cake: A Global History‘ – Cato’s preoccupation with cake in a work that is otherwise serious and instructive shows how culturally significant it was to the ancients.
Libum fits in perfectly with this assessment of the seriousness of cake. Rather than be baked to be eaten (although of course they were also used for this), Libum‘s primary function was as a sacrificial offering to the household gods of ancient Rome. Each household would have had an altar upon which one or two of these cakes would be offered to give thanks to the gods. Is there a link with the word ‘libations’, which seems to be only associated with liquid offerings to the gods? I don’t know – opinions and guesses are welcome! Someone who specialises in Roman food and who made much better Liba than I, Farrell Monaco, sheds some light onto the religious function of these cakes. Go and read her post on Libum for much more accurate history and baking than I can provide!
Cake for the gods? Must be pretty fancy.
The thing about sacrificing food to the gods in the ancient world is that people often, um, cheated. They didn’t see it as cheating, obviously, but the foods that were offered were usually not what we’d call the cream of the crop.
Take the ancient Greeks. If you know your Odyssey or your Illiad (*scoff* and who doesn’t?!) you’ll know that men of ancient epics quite frequently cook and offer up food as sacrifices to the gods. It happens fairly often – in fact, Odysseus could probably have been home a lot sooner if he hadn’t dilly-dallied around with “burnt offerings” as much as he did. And what were the offerings of choice? Why, thigh bones wrapped in fat and roasted to a crisp, just like mum used to make. Yummy!
The ancient Egyptians were little better – oh sure, they might make a show of offering their gods fruits, breads, wine, fatty meats and rich cheeses up to three times a day, but once the prayers had been said the altar was cleared before the gods could tuck in and the food was taken home to be eaten by the priests (who later died of blocked arteries – true story.)
And finally, the Persians. Herodotus tells us they had no temples to their gods as they believed altars to be “a folly” but when they felt the need to do some praying they stuck with good old fashioned human sacrifice. Even with this unconventional offering the gods might not get long to enjoy the meal; the butchered victim later had his flesh carried away by a holy man (Magi) to make “whatever use of it he may please.” Hmm. Whether or not we trust Herodotus’ account of human sacrifice – notorious anti-Persian sensationalist that he was – is of course another matter.
All of which is meant to say: humans are greedy and don’t like sharing. Why offer Zeus an actual saddle of lamb when you can just burn some bones and say that the gods appreciate the smell of burning fat more than the taste of meat? Why allow cheese and meat to fester away on an altar to Osiris when you, a priest, can just eat it and claim that your actions were divinely inspired? Why sacrifice something as useful as a cow to Ahura Mazda when you can kill a potential criminal and ask for a successful harvest in one go?
Liba were no different. No one was going to stuff them with expensive spices or insist they be filled with precious honey just to be left at the altar to some god of lost car keys or getting red wine out of the carpet. Of course, if one were to make enough Liba for the gods to take their share and for everyone else to enjoy then that was another matter. Then all sorts of toppings and additions could be added.
So what’s in them?
Ricotta, spelt flour and egg. They could not be simpler!
The recipe is as follows:
Make libum by this method. Break up two pounds of cheese well in a mortar. When they will have been well broken up, put in a pound of wheat flour or, if you wish it to be more delicate, half a pound of fine flour and mix it well together with the cheese. Add one egg and mix together well. Then make into bread, places leaves beneath, and cook slowly on a hot hearth under an earthen pot.Cato, De Agri Cultura
I used wholemeal spelt flour because 1) spelt was a very common grain in ancient Rome, 2) we already had it in, and 3) like any good victimarius before me I wasn’t about to waste my best quality plain flour in a time of flour shortages.
I mixed all the ingredients together until a sticky and quite wet dough formed. Although I kneaded it for a few minutes I found that there was only so much it would actually stiffen up, so turned quite quickly to the baking of it.
I greased a cake tin with olive oil and made a bed of bay leaves which I placed my wet dough, rounded to perfection by my own fair hands, onto, and placed the pan into the oven. Cato stated that the dough should be cooked “under an earthen pot”, which panicked me slightly because I imagined the steam would only make my already damp dough damper, which could hamper the dough de-dampening – d’oh! Nevertheless, I complied and in lieu of an authentic earthen Roman pot, I placed a stoneware lasagne dish over the pan and left it to cook for an hour.
After an hour the Libum was firmer but still felt a bit undercooked. It lacked any sort of brownness, so I put it back under the lasagne dish for another thirty minutes and crossed my fingers that I wasn’t about to give our household gods indigestion from under baked dough. After half an hour it looked much better and was ready to offer up to the goddess of house and hearthside, Vesta.
Before we placed it on our household altar, though, we thought we should probably try it. Cato’s original recipe was somewhat plain but would probably have been embellished with all sorts of additions. For authenticity I chose not to add any of these additions to the actual dough, but instead heated honey and toasted pine nuts, both very common features of Roman kitchens, to have as accompaniments.
Eaten alone, Libum was perfectly pleasant. Both my husband and I struggled to equate it to a modern day food – it didn’t taste cheesy but there was a creaminess to it that was thanks to the ricotta. The base of the cake where it had been sat on the bay leaves was particularly delicious and fragrant. I’d never really tasted bay before, not having a palate sophisticated enough to pick up on bay in stews or casseroles, but here it was unmistakable. The spelt was also a great choice of flour as it provided additional texture that fine white flour wouldn’t, as well as a contrasting nuttiness that worked very nicely. The Libum was dense – very dense – but not exactly heavy or stodgy, and it cut beautifully. It wasn’t, however, like a cheesecake. There was no light moussiness or whipped quality to it.
So far, so good. Of all the things I’ve tried to cook, this felt like something that was as close to the original as I could make it – it tasted ‘old’ and looked authentically simple. One Libum fit comfortably in the palm of a hand and I could imagine a young girl laying a couple of these at the household altar and munching absentmindedly on one for herself as she made her way back to the kitchen.
With honey was where Libum really shone, however. I drizzled a little, then a lot, over a slice and sprinkled it with pine nuts. It was glorious. I would now consider honey and multiple little Liba an essential on any cheeseboard, if I were the sort of person who was fancy enough to serve cheeseboards after dinner, or pick them instead of cheesecake for pudding at a restaurant. In fact, if I’d ordered a cheesecake for dessert and a slice of Libum with honey arrived instead, I don’t think I’d send it back.
Cheesecake it isn’t, however. Libum is much closer to bread than cheesecake and there can be no doubt that like most bread, Libum performs best when warm and fresh from the oven.
Unfortunately, this morning I realised we’d run out of bread (fresh or otherwise) for our morning toast and wondered whether leftover Libum would work instead. Cato may have argued that the best Liba were the ones that were offered to the gods, but what he might have been pleased to know is that a day old Libum, slathered with lemon curd and eaten on a rainy morning in front of the TV also holds up well, with or without the gods’ blessings.
Libum (makes 1 cake)
125g spelt flour or wholemeal plain flour
- Preheat oven to 180 degrees c.
- Break up the ricotta in a large bowl to a rough paste.
- Add the flour and egg to the ricotta and combine thoroughly.
- Grease a round cake pan with olive oil and make a bed of bay leaves in the bottom. You want enough bay leaves to completely cover the base of the dough.
- Shape the dough into a round disk, about the size of a hand.
- Place the dough on the bay leaves in the cake pan and place in the oven. If you have an ovenproof dish to cover the pan and help create steam you can place it over the dough. If not, don’t worry and just bake as you would a normal cake but check on it after 1 hour.
- After 1.5 hours if baking under a pot (and after 1 hour if baking as normal) check on the cake. It should be golden brown on top and the edges and firm to touch, like bread. If not, bake for another 5-10 minutes and check again.
- Take the cake out of the oven and while it is cooling, place some pine nuts in a dry frying pan and toast for a couple of minutes. Keep an eye on them as they turn quickly and you don’t want them to burn.
- Heat some honey in a microwave or add it to the frying pan with the pine nuts if you want to combine the two and heat until runny.
- Serve the Libum on a dish and honey and pine nuts in a jug or plate to dip slices into.