It’s Christmas time! The true meaning of the holiday is complicated, and always has been, thanks to its mix and match ancient origins (yes, before the birth of Jesus).
Even though that famous nativity scene is the official reason for the holiday, many of the activities and traditions we practice at Christmastime come from much older customs celebrating the winter solstice. Decorated trees, gift giving, holly, mistletoe, caroling, and much more all have ancient, B.C. origins, and were later folded into the Christian celebration.
No ancient holiday influenced Christmas more than the Roman Saturnalia. The actual date of Jesus’s birth is unknown, but in the 4th Century A.D., Pope Julius I declared it to officially be December 25th. Many speculate that this was to Christianize Saturnalia, a holiday that many in Medieval Europe still celebrated despite the fading out of Rome.
Saturnalia was known for gift giving, charity, and above all, feasting and merriment! So to celebrate, I dug into Apicius for some dulcia, or sweets recipes, to make a dessert plate worthy of both a festive Roman noble, and a chef and amateur historian thousands of years later.
“Roman” Toast, Stuffed candied dates, and fresh cheese with honey!
I’m going to start by making a Roman spice mixture. Frequent recipes in Apicius call for “pepper”. While it’s true that black pepper was popular amongst the Roman elite, it is clear, especially in these sweeter recipes, that “pepper” is simply a colloquialism or mistranslation for “spices”. Apicius thus leaves a lot open to interpretation for the chefs cooking its recipes.
Let’s use some spices we know were popular in Ancient Rome to make a mixture will compliment our sweets. We’re going to use things we’re used to tasting in dessert today, like coriander (which the Romans seemed to love), fennel seed, and even some cinnamon imported all the way from India! But we’re also going to introduce a little savory element, some fenugreek dry rue (or oregeno to substitute) and rosemary.
Any time we get a recipe calling for “pepper”, this is what we’re gonna use. It should give our dulcia quite a kick.
Now let’s get cooking.
Here’s an interesting and pleasant surprise. In Apicius, you will find a recipe for straight up french toast, as we all it today. It turns out that the universally delicious dish of bread dipped in egg and milk and fried is at least as old as the Roman Empire.
ALITER DULCIA (ANOTHER SWEET DISH)
Slice fine white bread, remove the crust, and cut into rather large pieces which soak in milk, beaten eggs, and are fried in oil. Cover with honey and serve.
Seriously, the only difference is the use of the ubiquitous Roman sweetener honey in place of modern maple syrup or powdered sugar.
To keep things feeling ancient, we’re going to use a bit of whole wheat flour mixed with all purpose to approximate old world flour extraction. “Fine white bread” will thus have a little more character than we might imagine it today.
3 teaspoons dry yeast (or 1/4 cup sourdough starter)
1 tablsepoon honey
1 1/4 cups warm water
1.5 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons salt
Mix the water and yeast or starter, the honey, as well as the whole wheat flour, beat together with a wooden spoon until gluteny strands form (about a minute). Let this quick-sponge rest for 15 minutes, then add the all purpose flour and salt, mix together into a shaggy dough, then turn out onto a surface to knead it until elastic and smooth (about 8 minutes). Place in a floured bowl and let rise for 2 hours.
Like the Greeks they ripped off in so many ways, the Romans liked to bake their bread under a clay dome. To approximate that, I’m inverting my dutch oven over a baking tray. Bake at 400F for 35-40 minutes.
When done, let cool for at least several hours, if not a whole day. When ready to make the toast, preheat a skillet on medium low heat for 10 minutes or more. Slice the bread into 1 inch thick pieces and cut off the crusts. In a separate bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup milk, 1/2 cup cream, 2 eggs, and a pinch of salt and a pinch of our Roman “pepper”.
Let the bread soak for 30 seconds on each side. This bread is denser than modern white bread, and needs to absorb a bit more liquid to cook correctly.
Add a substantial layer of olive oil, let warm for 2 minutes. Remove the bread from the batter, letting excess drip off, and fry a few minutes on each side in the oil, until golden brown.
Remove, slather with honey on top and serve immediately. Oh look, we imported some cherries from Parthia to garnish!
STUFFED SOUR-CANDIED DATES
DULCIA DOMESTICA (HOME-MADE SWEETS)
Dates are stuffed – after the seeds have been removed – with a nut or with nuts and ground pepper, sprinkled with salt on the outside, and candied in honey.
Note that these are specifically called home-made. Like today, the trade of the dulciarius, or the pastry maker, was so highly developed that for the most part, home cooks didn’t bother to try and make their own. But this recipe offers something complex, a little tricky, and yet manageable for someone at home with basic supplies.
Start by making the filling. The recipe seems to suggest just putting a whole nut inside a date, but to improve this little sweet and better incorporate our “pepper”, I thought that crushing the nuts and adding a splash of vinegar and a pinch of honey would do nicely.
Next pit the dates and stuff them. Just lightly pull them part way open at the seam, and then reseal around the sticky filling with your fingers. You get the hang of it. Stuff as many dates as you want, and then roll them in coarse salt. Yum yum!
Now for the tricky part. We’re going to incorporate the Roman love of vinegar and acidity into our honey candy coating. For every half a cup of honey, add 3 tablespoons of cider vinegar. Over medium, slightly high heat, stir and bring the mixture to an even boil, stirring almost constantly for about 15-20 minutes until the mixture is dark, creamy looking, heavily reduced, oh and 290-300F if you have a candy or good instant thermometer. That’s the temperature this syrup will make hard candy out of. If you want a more toffee like consistency, stop at 250F.
IMPORTANT: You have to candy these dates only 1 or 2 at a time. Any more and they will stick together and, um… hypothetically, ruin an entire batch.
Add the dates, one at a time, to the sour candied honey, lightly reheating the syrup if it gets too tough to work with. Remove with a fork and place on parchment or foil, allowing to cool until hardened. Reserve or serve immediately.
FRESH CHEESE AND HONEY
Doesn’t get much simpler or delicious than that. Apicius doesn’t have a recipe for making cheese, but does offer these preparations for it:
MEL ET CASEUM (CHEESE AND HONEY)
Prepare cottage cheese either with honey and brine, OR with salt, oil, and coriander.
Wow, I’m saving some of the farmers cheese for that second method for sure. But since this is for a sweets plate, let’s go with the honey and brine.
Since cows and cows milk were not super popular in ancient Rome, let’s make a FARMERS CHEESE from goat milk.
You can do a simple fresh cheese by boiling milk and curdling with vinegar, but I opted to make my 3 day yogurt cheese, mixing with greek yogurt, lightly heating it a little each day, and bringing the temperature up to a hot 160F on the third day, finally draining the curd into cheesecloth, reserving the whey, and pressing the cheese with something heavy. Check out the link above for a full recipe on how to do this.
After that, lightly crumble into a bowl. Season with salt and stir a little whey back in to add our “brine”. Then drizzle with honey to finish.
Taken together, these three recipes for Dulcia in Apicius make for a delicious sweet, but not too sweet plate of delights, to keep the heart warm and merry through the winter season. Whichever holiday you’re celebrating this season, however many thousands of years old, you can’t go wrong with fried bread, fresh cheese, and candied fruit. As Saturn himself may have claimed (citation needed): Happy Saturnalia to all, and to all a good night.