Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Roman Religious Cake - Placenta




The Latin 'C' was pronounced like our 'K'. Kai-sar, Kik-ero, Pla-kenta.  Hopefully that little bit of knowledge allays all fears, worries, and squeamishness, because now that we know the name, it's time to meet the dish.

Placenta is variously linked to Lasagne, which it resembles in form, Baklava, which is a tenuous link at best, and Pizza, which is just plain crazy.  If anything, its closest modern relative is the Romanian Plăcintă, which I've both tried and enjoyed.  Placenta is a 'dessert' made from layered cheese, honey, and pastry, but really it is much more than the sum of its parts.  It was offered to the gods themselves as a form of bloodless sacrifice.  I am currently working on several posts about the role of food in Roman religion, so will deal with sacrificial cakes in more depth there.  For now, I merely wish to stress the significance of the dish we're about to attempt.

Our recipe for placenta comes from Cato (the bloke with the bread) in his work on agriculture.  Varro, another Roman who wrote an agricultural treatise, questioned this (On Agriculture, I.2.25-28) - why include a recipe for a semi-religious pastry in a work on how to tend the farm?  Farming, and Roman life in general, revolved around religious rituals, so perhaps Cato recorded the recipe for that reason.  Or perhaps he just fancied a nibble on something nice after a day spent telling slaves how to work the land.  Whatever his reasoning, we ought to be thankful that the recipe survived for us to make today.

To make placenta.  Moisten 2 pounds of flour, then knead it and make a thin crust.  Macerate 14 pounds of sheep's cheese in water, changing the water three times.  After, take the cheese out a handful at a time, squeezing it dry, before placing it in a bowl.  Once all the cheese is dry, knead it until smooth again, before forcing it through a sifter.  Add 4.5 pounds of good quality honey and mix it all together.  Lay out your crust on top of some oiled bay leaves, and construct the placenta as follows.  Place a layer of tracta on top of the crust, then cover it with the cheese and honey mixture, before adding more tracta.  Repeat this until the mixture is finished.  Place a single layer of tracta on the top, fold over the crust, and prepare to cook it.  Prepare the hearth, add the placenta, then cover it with a crock.  Heap hot coals on top of this.  Cook slowly, checking it two or three times along the way.  When it is cooked, smother it in honey. - Cato, On Agriculture, 76

For once, we have actually been told how much of each ingredient we need!  Unfortunately, Cato is either a) really hungry, b) cooking for the whole of Rome, or c) sacrificing the placenta to the whole Pantheon of Roman gods.

Cato Feeding Rome

Needless to say, we'll be toning down the quantities a little bit.  The other thing we'll be dropping is the maceration of the cheese.  If you macerate something, you break it up in water - the reason it was done in this recipe was to remove the salt from the cheese.  I tried this with cheddar and it worked very well indeed, but we'll be using Ricotta, which practically is water anyway.  Macerating that will leave you with a bowl of cheese flavoured water, which you don't want.  Finally, I used a mixture of spelt and white flour for the crust - I figure that since this would be sacrificed to the gods themselves, the Romans might make a bit of an effort to get some decent, refined flour.  Anyway, the gods are getting impatient, so let's start cooking!

Placenta

Ingredients


  • Spelt Flour
  • Plain White Flour
  • Several Dried Bay Leaves
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • Ricotta Cheese
  • Runny Honey
  • Tracta
  • Water

Methods


  • You need to judge what size of placenta you are making, and what you'll cook it in - this will determine how much of each ingredient you'll need.  I've opted to use my Tajine, but you can use any old casserole dish or baking tray.


  • You want to make enough 'crust', as Cato calls it, to wrap the whole way around the tracta/honey/cheese layers.  To make this, sieve your spelt and plain flour together, then add water and mix into a dough.  Knead well, then roll it out as thinly as possible on a floured surface.
  • Mix the honey with the cheese, tasting as you go.  If you're using cheddar, as half my mixture was, add it to water and break it apart with your hands.  Alternatively you can grate the cheese and add it to the water.  Grab handfuls of this and squeeze all of the water out - this leaves the cheese with a subtle flavour.  Do not mix Ricotta with water, as you'll be left with nothing.
  • Oil all of the bay leaves, then arrange them in the bottom of your cooking dish.  Oil this dish too, to prevent sticking.  Place the crust on top of these leaves.


  • Oil each of the tracta.  Place one on top of the crust.


  • Spoon some of the cheese/honey mixture on top of this.  Place a tracta on top of this.  Continue until it is lovely and layered.  You want to finish with a tracta on top.  The finished product should bear some resemblance to a lasagne.

  • Fold the crust over, cutting off any excess dough as required.  You do not want this crust to be too thick, as it won't cook thoroughly, and will be very stodgy indeed.  Garnish with an oiled bay leaf.  Either add your tajine lid (having seasoned it as required), or construct a foil tent over the top of the placenta.  This stops the pastry getting too crispy.

  • If using a tajine, set it into a cold oven and raise the temperature to 150 Celsius.  Otherwise, preheat the oven to 150 Celsius and place in.  Cook for 1 hour/1.5 hours depending on size.
  • Remove, serve, and enjoy.  Don't forget to set some aside for the gods.

Results


Whilst cooking, this smelled divine, but after trying some I'm not entirely sure what the gods saw in it.  The problem, I think, lies with both the tracta and the crust - both feel just a bit too stodgy.  Having done some more research into tracta, I'm not convinced that we need to dry it completely before use.  Thankfully the excess liquid from the ricotta softened it sufficiently, but I just feel that it can be done better.  As such, until we solve the tracta mystery, you might want to send your placenta to the gods, rather than the dinner table. Other than that, the cheese and honey made a nice team, giving the dish a savoury sweetness.  The bay leaves, however, which created such a nice aroma when cooking, added little to the taste.  At least they looked the part.  All in all, eating this reminded me of eating a stack of savoury pancakes - if that's your thing, then maybe this is the Roman recipe for you.

EDIT:  I remade the recipe with modern pastry HERE, and it was amazing!



6 comments:

  1. These posts are always a blast. I don't have the kitchen space to follow in your footsteps just yet, but one day!

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  2. Apparently pronouncing 'c' as 'ch' first started in the Middle Ages? Is that so?

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  3. I believe so. That's the way modern Medievalists usually pronounce Latin, at least.

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  4. rsmease - Glad you're enjoying the blog, and hopefully you can follow along soon!

    Henry and Arthur - Cheers for the info! I guess for Roman Latin we'll never really know it was pronounced, but all the guesswork suggest a 'k' sound.

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  5. Neill, I've just found your blog and I am interested and delighted! What you try to do, to recreate historic recipes, is awesome! And this post about the "placinta" is great. I am not gonna cook the recipe any time soon anyway. But it's great to follow your posts.

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