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cteavin

ancient roman honey cakes

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cteavin   

Hi,

I've long been a fan of using old recipes, mostly from medieval Europe but this time I've gone a bit further back with the help of two websites (web links posted at the bottom). It is impossible to recreate the recipes because the quality and types of flour, eggs, and honey are very different but I'd still like to pull a decent cake from the idea. In fact, yesterday made this cake twice and the first version, the pure reproduction, was delicious but presentation was terrible.

The recipe is:

3 eggs

200 grams honey

50 grams spelt flour

for the first batter I whipped the eggs and honey just as I would for a genoise. I heated the mixture then beat it on high for 2 minutes the medium for 10 more minutes until it was cool and reached the ribbon stage. The volume of the batter was excellent. I baked it for 45 minutes and in the oven it had a beautiful dome. Unfortunately it fell after I removed it from the oven. Later, I saw that the part of the cake that formed the dome became a brown skin I could peel off to reveal a delectable, moist cake. Really, it was very good. I then remade the cake adding in 50 grams of almond flour hoping to give it structure without adding in extra protein. It maintained more of it's height and it had a nice bite but it the topmost part was dry and there was still a "skin" though it was more firmly attached to the cake.

I would love to bake fifty variations to see what I come up with but that's not really possible. I was hoping some people here could suggest some ways to help the cake keep it's height while keeping honey as the main sugar.

I was thinking to change the method of beating; use a larger, shallower pan; using a flour with a higher protein content. What do you all think?

Thank you much,

steven

http://www.celtnet.org.uk/recipes/roman/fetch-recipe.php?rid=roman-honey-cakes

http://www.history.uk.com/recipes/index.php?archive=10

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Just wondering about the proportions--how sure are you of the flour/honey weights & egg ratio? With so much honey it seems more custard or pudding than cake.

Also, I'm curious if the nuances of the honey flavor come through well in such a simple recipe. It could be a great way to showcase some very special honey if those don't get lost in the baking.

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cteavin   

From what I've seen from those two websites and the actual text from online copies of the original work proportions are not specifically noted; however, I've seen the proportions noted in the recipe in many different places. Is it a case of copy and paste? Perhaps, but whatever the case they intend for their to be a higher ratio of honey to flour and honey to egg.

My best guess is that in the original recipes they would have used duck eggs. If chicken eggs were used they would have been "free-range", so I'm positive their yolk/white ratio would be different. I would guess that the person who remade the recipe took that into account. Still, I'm going to increase the number of yolks the next time I make it.

As for the cake, it is definitely nothing like a pudding. What I made had a moist yellow-orange webbing that reminded me of popovers. My best guess is the the acid in the abundance of honey sets the eggs. I wish it set the proteins faster so as to keep the height. About taste, because I'm playing now I'm using very cheep honey. The flavors are not coming through. When I get a good cake going I'm thinking either cardamon and rose or citrus zest would be good pairings for the honey but you're right about it being a good showcase for a pure honey flavor.

One final thought, would I be able to cut baking time if I reduced the moisture in the egg whites by 'aging' them for a few day outside their shells?

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Blether   

I'm following this topic with interest. Is the genoise idea part of the recipes you're using as a basis for your experimentation ? Is it the suthentic old-time approach ? (Helenjp suggested recently that it's possible to make genoise by hand, but I'm still not sure I believe her :wink: ).

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cteavin   

I'm following this topic with interest. Is the genoise idea part of the recipes you're using as a basis for your experimentation ? Is it the suthentic old-time approach ? (Helenjp suggested recently that it's possible to make genoise by hand, but I'm still not sure I believe her :wink: ).

If she can beat the eggs by hand she can defend herself in any situation with the guns she must have. ;)

The original recipe only says to combine the ingredients and who ever translated the recipe, I'm assuming from experience in that era and regions cooking style, said to beat vigorously by hand. The eggs leaven the cake, so it made sense to me to try it first in the style of a genoise. I was also curious to see what would happen.

Theresa might be right about separating the eggs. If I whip air into the yolks and honey and then add the flour and might lighten it enough to keep the egg whites from deflating. But what about developing the gluten in the flour (by beating) to help support the structure?


Edited by cteavin (log)

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Doc   

DO you think it may be the spelt flour? The gluten produced using spelt can be "fragile". If your in the experimenting mood, maybe try the recipe with wheat flour, if it works you know it's a spelt flour issue that just needs to be refined. Let me know how it turns out, love to try some "ancient recipes"

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helenjp   

I'm most interested in how anybody decided on what texture is most "authentic" for this recipe.

As for the hand-beating...I remember a little old Chinese lady beating eggs for cake for an hour by hand. To her way of thinking, that wasn't an intolerable burden, that was just the way you made cake...

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Blether   

I remember a little old Chinese lady...

I'd like to have seen her Outlook calendar.

I'm most interested in how anybody decided on what texture is most "authentic" for this recipe.

Yes: Of course if you're taking it as inspiration and accepting that you're not amiming to recreate the period product, fair enough, that's one approach and of no more or less value than an attempt at recreation. I'd love to know what the original method was.

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I tried this recipe https://www.wiki.ed.ac.uk/display/potcw/Roman+Honey+Cakes

last spring.

The amount of flour is significantly greater.

I have several reproductions of old cookbooks and one noted that the honey most often used in baking in classical Rome was boiled and skimmed prior to inclusion in most recipes to remove any residual wax or other bits and pieces that may have been in the raw honey.

This does change the hydration effect of honey. Even though I used processed honey, I did boil it for a couple of minutes then allowed it to cool prior to mixing it into the beaten eggs.

Another honey cake, I think it was made with barley, required cooking the barley meal first to make a sort of porridge prior to adding the remaining ingredients. The batter was baked in molds that produced a design on the cake, probably made from terracotta clay.

I have this book: http://www.amazon.com/Taste-Ancient-Ilaria-Gozzini-Giacosa/dp/0226290328/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1257527321&sr=8-1

and also the one by Mark Grant - an earlier edition I bought several years ago.

I experimented with several of the recipes that were made with millet, barley, etc.

I know there is a recipe for honey cake in the Mark Grant book, not sure about the other and I can't find either one at the moment. (I have a large collection of cookbooks, at the moment not in good order.)


Edited by andiesenji (log)

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cteavin   

I'm most interested in how anybody decided on what texture is most "authentic" for this recipe.

As for the hand-beating...I remember a little old Chinese lady beating eggs for cake for an hour by hand. To her way of thinking, that wasn't an intolerable burden, that was just the way you made cake...

It's impossible to have a perfect reproduction. The types of flours have literally evolved, how poultry is raised today yields eggs with slightly different chemical structures, etc. A true food historian would have to be well versed in the region and do a lot of educated guessing. I think the closer you get to our modern period the better the chances of having a more "authentic" product which is one of the reasons why I love the work the people at Goode Cookery have done. For me, I look to the past for inspiration. My feeling is that people today rely to much on formula and too little on their senses: even variations in the amount of sunshine will cause slight variations in the final wheat berries that we use in the various flours around the planet, so a recipe that worked in the 70's in America with bleached flour will produce a different result than the soft unbleached wheat we get in Japan -- but it takes a lot of practice to get that kind of feel for cooking. Still, I think it's a worthy goal.

:wink:

The honey cake is interesting for a couple of reasons. The proportion of the ingredients, the use of honey in place of sugar, the spelt flour. It makes me think about how I can play with the texture of cake.

I tried this recipe https://www.wiki.ed.ac.uk/display/potcw/Roman+Honey+Cakes

last spring.

The amount of flour is significantly greater.

I have several reproductions of old cookbooks and one noted that the honey most often used in baking in classical Rome was boiled and skimmed prior to inclusion in most recipes to remove any residual wax or other bits and pieces that may have been in the raw honey.

This does change the hydration effect of honey. Even though I used processed honey, I did boil it for a couple of minutes then allowed it to cool prior to mixing it into the beaten eggs.

Another honey cake, I think it was made with barley, required cooking the barley meal first to make a sort of porridge prior to adding the remaining ingredients. The batter was baked in molds that produced a design on the cake, probably made from terracotta clay.

I'm going to have to order one of those books. I have a pretty good collection myself. :wink::smile:

I've read that boiling the honey now is unnecessary but do you think it changed your results? I like the idea of using barely but I'd guess there'd be little or no rise. Was it yeasted?

I was playing with a "breakfast cake" this summer that used corn meal in the batter. The texture was too corse and dry for me so I switched to quinoa and increased the BP. The grains swelled and added a nice bite. The extra nutrition felt fight for a breakfast cake. I've thought about using wheat berries but maybe barley would be good, too.

I baked two versions with regular cake flour yesterday with similar results. The cake as smoother on the palate and a little more bland; I'm guessing one of the properties of a lot of honey in baking is a skin.

It's Saturday here. I bake or not to bake, that is the question. :biggrin:

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I am pretty sure that boiling the honey did have some effect on the results. I have prepared other recipes in the past that specified boiling the honey (for specific times) prior to using it in the recipe and I believe it is because some water is extracted from the honey during the process, although I have not tested it scientifically.

When I attended baking school back in the '50s, we had a class on the history of baking and learned about the various ways flour from various grains was produced from antiquity to the present (or the present as it was 50 years ago).

To be truly authentic, the flour would be coarser than whole wheat flour, closer to the texture of fine corn meal, and it would contain a lot of grit from the stones on which it was ground. Not to mention the various things that might be added to flour to add weight or bulk...

The total amount of white, very fine flour (similar to what we use today) obtained from a pound of milled wheat might be as little as 1/4 of the total, after multiple "boulting" or "riddling" passes to separate the coarser stuff which was used as porridge, in soups, stews and in coarse cakes that were savory rather than sweet.

The slight rise obtained in the barley cakes is only from the beaten eggs.

When they describe beating eggs by hand, they mean "with" the hand - using the fingers as a whisk.

Messy but possible with a lot of effort. :laugh:


Edited by andiesenji (log)

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Blether   

Cteavin, you prompted me - for the first time in years - to refer to my copy of China de Burnay's "Under the Influence of Bright Sunbeams". This was a present back in the 80's - I'm a terrible present-receiver and though I read/browsed through it off and on, I think I barely cooked a single recipe, once (the fennel and potato dauphinoise ? An early-1900's recipe that she calls 'dauphinois'). The book's tagline is "centuries of natural cuisine in recipes for today". It draws from written records from Apicius onwards. Do you have a copy ? Examples of recipes are:

Bean Butter (12th C)

Cold fennel soup (from The Forme of Cury, the oldest English cookbook extant)

Orange marinated Trout (Italian, 15th C)

Apricot Pudding (1545)

and this:

Tyropatinan, 'Roman Custard'

The concept of a separate pudding or sweet dish to end a meal with is really quite a modern one. Usually a Roman meal would end with fresh fruit or a savoury dish. This Roman custard was almost certainly served as a contrast to a spicy dish to add a 'sweet and sour' taste to the meal, as well as being eaten on its own as just something sweet.

Cooked very slowly, it makes a lovely creamy pudding, half way between custard and creamy scrambled eggs and was probably a great favourite of older Romans who were unlucky enough to have lost a few teeth !

5 eggs

1 pint / 600ml milk

3 tbsp honey

[break eggs into milk, whisk till blended. Stir over low heat till it thickens; stir in honey. Pour into a shallow dish and allow to cool.]

This dish, if sprinkled with pepper, can be used as a side dish with strongly flavoured savoury dishes. Omitting the pepper, it can be served with any fruit.

Her bibliography is good reading for anyone interested in food history.


Edited by Blether (log)

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hathor   

Ciao.

I just dug through some of my historical Italian reference books, and couldn't find any recipe that approximated the honey cake recipe above.

Albeit none of my books are Lazio or Roman specific.

I did find numerous references to torta di farro though, and farro could be translated as spelt, but.... it's for the whole grain and not flour.

Blether, I'd love to see that book, it sounds fascinating. And don't feel bad that you haven't made any of the recipes, times and tastes have changed, some of the sugar content in those recipes is enough to kill you and wipe our your teeth in one go!

Cteavin, I'm curious, why did you assume a duck egg instead of a chicken egg?

-Judith

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cteavin   

Ciao.

I just dug through some of my historical Italian reference books, and couldn't find any recipe that approximated the honey cake recipe above.

Albeit none of my books are Lazio or Roman specific.

I did find numerous references to torta di farro though, and farro could be translated as spelt, but.... it's for the whole grain and not flour.

Cteavin, I'm curious, why did you assume a duck egg instead of a chicken egg?

-Judith

Hi Judith, thanks for looking in your reference books.

Duck eggs is really a shorthand for 'other than chicken'. It's been a long time but in civics classes once upon a time I remember learning that the Romans bread all types of birds and that eggs were scarce by modern standards being most plentiful in spring (I believe). In other 'classic' recipes they prefer duck eggs saying the yolk is larger and fat content higher, so I wrote duck. :smile:

@Blether, I'm going to find a copy of that book and order it tonight. It sounds right up my alley. :cool:

I'm baking a new version as I type. Since one large egg here is 60 grams I've used 2 whole eggs plus 3 egg yolks (bleeding off a little white) to measure 180 grams hoping to lessen the amount of liquid in the batter, I've also doubled the flour and changed it to AP. We'll see. The batter reached ribbon stage much faster than before.

If this works, I'll make another version with chocolate. If it doesn't work I'll try again with less honey, perhaps a 50/50 split of sugar to honey to see what that does. It's nice to have such simple pleasures. :raz:

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cteavin   

Success!

I can kick myself for not taking a photo but essentially you can make a genoise with honey. The batches I made with 50 grams of flour were much more moist but there was no true grain to the cake. It was more like the webbing you might find inside a cream puff. This cake still has a "skin" but much, much, much thinner. I've tried a piece with and without. With this top crust it gives the sensation that the cake is dryer than it is. I then peeled off this crust and could see a beautiful crumb underneath that is very moist.

It's not really presentation ready but it's good enough that I can start thinking ways to make this into a proper dessert. Still, I'm going to make another batch later with less flour and maybe another with 100 grams of flour and three eggs measured to 180 grams to see what changes.

I should add to anyone who might want to bake this that I'm in Japan so I'm limited to UNBLEACHED flour.

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