Experimentation and Redaction of ‘Another Sweet’
Background – the Lure
In 2017, I agreed to assist with a feast occurring in another Barony. The feast was Roman and the kitchen crew would be filled with familiar faces. A few weeks prior to the feast I was asked if I would be willing to handle the cakes for dessert. Further details were sought and a recipe for “Rich Sweet Cake” was shared.
The provided recipe, from a now-defunct educational wiki, was a modern redaction containing baking powder and a recommendation for pecans: not period ingredients but not unexpected for a modern redaction to be made in bulk. The volume of ground rosemary and baking powder were of greater concern!
I decided to do a test cake with the recipe as written – that is a great deal of rosemary, would the recipe appeal to the modern palate?
No. No, this cake was like licking a pine tree with an unappealing color to further the insult. A panicked consultation was had with the feast coordinator; alterations were made to reduce the amount of ground rosemary to 2 teaspoons, use oil instead of butter, slightly increase the honey in the cake, and to top the cake with additional honey not listed in the ingredients.
The second cake was well-received by tasters and 4 large sheet cakes traveled south. The half sheet left at the end of the feast was claimed by the Baron of the lands and the recipe was considered successful.
Except I was stuck on the original description, “a rich, sweet cake.” As written, the cake was neither rich nor sweet. Some areas of the cake had risen to a lofty 4 inches and the lack of sweetness in the cake had been made up with generous drizzles of honey during plating.
After some research and consultation, the recipe from the International Dinner Wikispace was identified as a modification of, “Rich Sweet Cakes,” from John Edward’s, Roman Cookery. There were several modifications as well as transcription errors, which led to both the overwhelming rosemary and the lofty height (Edwards, 1984, 175).
The Original Source
Aliter Dulcia: piper, nucleos, mel, rutam et passum teres, cum lacte et tracta coques. coagulum coque cum modicis ovis. perfusum melle, aspersum [ ] inferes.
There are two extant copies of Apicius, originally called De Re Conquinaria, from the 9th century, both in Latin. Both books are thought to be from the same source, now missing, which was in the Fulda monastery. One copy, now referred to as the Tours Manuscript, is highly decorated and is held at the Vatican Library. The second copy, which was held in Fulda and then moved to northern Italy, is now held at the Library of the Academy of Medicine in New York.
Some portions of the Apicius, including pieces attributed to the original manuscript but not found in 9th century texts, are also found in an 8th century manuscript attributed to Vinidarius. This manuscript is based on a text thought to have been assembled in the 5th or 6th century. Little is known about Vinidarius; he may have been an Ostrogoth living in northern Italy.
There was a resurgence of interest in early works during the late 15th Century and it is believed that they are all based on the Tours Manuscript. Of note are two Italian copies, one credited to an ‘anonymous Venetian’ and the other is Le Signerre’s work from 1498. The first English translation, credited to Joseph Vehling, was produced in 1936. There is a great deal of discussion over the use of Vehling as a reference as his Latin translation is incorrect and relies heavily on a 1541 text written by Albanus Torinus. Torinus claimed to have found a unique copy of De Re Conquinara, since lost, and added a great deal of personal opinion to the text. For a complete timeline of early manuscript production, I recommend the research done by Flower and Rosenbaum (2012, 9-18).
The scholars numbered the recipes differently including some who rearranged recipes by type or for more modern flow. Others exclude or include the Vinidarius text; some include the text as an additional book and at least one injected the recipes throughout the original text. The most consistent method for cross source comparison is by book, section, and recipe number within the section. In this case, Book VII: Polyteles, Section XIII: Dulica Domestica et Melcae, and recipe v: Aliter Dulcia, which translates as Book VIII: The Gourmet, Section XIII: Home-made Sweets and Melcae, recipe v: Another Sweet. To add to the potential confusion, ‘Another Sweet’ is the title for five of the seven recipes in this section.
Translations and Redactions
Vehling – 1936
Another Sweet: Crush pepper, nuts, honey, rue, and raisin wine with milk and cook the mixture with a few eggs well worked in, cover with honey, sprinkle with [crushed nuts, etc] and serve.
 Tractam, probably with a starch added, or else it is a nut custard, practically a repetition of recipe ℞ Nos. 129 and 143.
Vehling, 2012, Book VII, Chapter XIII, v (298)
The discrepancy in the note number is the author’s and has been preserved through republication by both Dover and the Gutenberg Project. The addition of crushed nuts, noted using square brackets, is Vehling’s own addition rather than sourced from another text.
He also notes that the recipe, without tracta is almost identical to another recipe 143, which he refers to as a nut custard. Except that other recipe, when translated by anyone else, is actually a patina: a dish with layers of pepper, nuts, and honey between sheets of thin tracta.
One of Vehling’s first modifications, with the very first recipe, Conditum Paradoxum, states that, “in connection with honey, sweets, and so forth, the term ‘pepper’ may just as well stand for our allspice, or even any spicing in general.” He references this claim on recipe 295 and 299 as well. Instructions for recipe 299 begin by referring to the ingredients and methods of 298. Vehling also notes, in the glossary at the end of the book, that myrtle berry is frequently called pepper and so uses it instead of pepper (Vehling, 2012, Glossary M).
Flower and Rosenbaum – (1958) 2012
Another Sweet: Pound pepper, pine-kernels, honey, rue, and passum; cook in milk and pastry. Thicken with a few eggs. Pour honey over, sprinkle with pepper, and serve.
Flower and Rosenbaum, 2012, 171
Edwards – 1984
Another Sweet: Mix pepper, [chopped] nuts, honey, rue and raisin wine. Cook in milk and pastry. Thicken with a little egg and bake. Pour honey on top, sprinkle [with filberts], and serve.
Edwards, 1984, 174
Edwards redacted this recipe as a cake and modified it for the modern kitchen.
Rich Sweet Cakes
2 t. cinnamon
1/2 c. almonds, chopped
1/2 t. ground rosemary (or rue)
2 c. pastry flour
2 t. baking powder
1/4 c. sweet raisin wine or muscatel
4 T. honey or brown sugar
3/4 c. milk
filberts or pecans
In a mixing bowl, put cinnamon, chopped almonds, and rosemary (or rue). Add flour, baking powder, and mix. Next, combine sweet wine, well beaten egg, honey, and milk. Blend and stir into the dry ingredients. Bake in a 375°F oven in a greased 9 inch round pan for 30 minutes. Pour a little honey on top of the finished cake, garnish with nuts and serve.
Edwards, 1984, 175
Giacosa – 1992
Another sweet dish: Grind pepper, pine nuts, honey, rue, and passum; cook with milk and tracta. Cook to thicken with a few eggs. Pour honey over, sprinkle [with pepper].
Giacosa, 1992, 160
Giacosa wrote that the recipe was more like a hot egg pudding, re-titled it from ‘Another Sweet’, and modified it to a creme pâtissière, a thick custard, while omitting the rue completely.
3 Tbs. flour
1 3/4 cups milk
pepper to taste
2 1/2 oz. (70-80 g.) pine nuts
1-2 Tbs. passum
4 tsp. honey
Beat the eggs in a bowl with the flour and milk. Add pepper and heat in a pan.
Meanwhile, grind the pine nuts with passum in a mortar. As soon as the egg mixture beings to boil, remove from the heat.
Add the honey and the pine nut mixture. Resume cooking for approximately 15 minutes more over a low heat, stirring so that no lumps form.
Pour into 1 large or 4 small individual bowls; add a teaspoon of honey and a pinch of pepper to each and serve.
Giacosa, 1992, 160
Aliter dulcia: Comparison, Exploration, and Experimentation
In comparing the four translations, three of the four have brackets indicating a missing word with proposed edit. Two of the modern translations replace it with pepper. Flowers and Rosenbaum note that ‘pepper’ as the substitution is already present in the 1922 Teubner edition, which sources from the anonymous Venetian (Flower and Rosenbaum, 2012, 40 & 170), whereas Giacosa credits the research done by Jacques André’s work published in 1974 (Giacosa, 1992, xii.).
Vehling and Edwards both insert chopped nuts rather than pepper. Vehling labeled the recipe number 298 and claims credit for the edit rather than referencing another text (Vehling, 2012). Edwards gives acknowledgement to the 1969 Teubner edition and Andre’s 1974 work but does not note any direct contributor to his translations and redactions (Edwards, 1984).
Aliter Dulcia: piper, nucleos, mel, rutam et passum teres, cum lacte et tracta coques. coagulum coque cum modicis ovis. perfusum melle, aspersum [ ] inferes
Translating the recipe without modification for modern English sentence structure:
Another sweet: Pepper, kernels, honey, rue and passum minced, cook with milk and pastry. Cook with egg to coagulate. Suffuse with honey, sprinkle [ ], serve.
Pepper was a highly favored spice in Rome and is a common ingredient in many recipes and other deserts in the book. Roman dishes frequently include sources of heat, sweet, and sour or bitter; seven of the eight recipes in the section use pepper, all use honey, and two use rue. Other spices in use for culinary purposes included cassia, cinnamon, cardamom, coriander, ginger, long pepper, and myrtle berry. Faas notes that the only spices also associated with sweets were cassia and cinnamon (Faas, 2005, 163-166). Edwards uses cinnamon in place of pepper in his redaction and Vehling likely used myrtle berry or allspice given his notes.
Nucleos refers to the seed inside a fruit and is generally considered a reference to pine nuts. Several other recipes specifically list nucleos pineos, which directly translates to pine kernels. The discrepancy could indicate that any small seeds or nuts were acceptable or could have been shorthand as the text was written entirely by hand. Other types of nut available in Rome include almond, chestnut, hazelnut, pistachio, and walnut (Faas, 2005, 239). Several recipes refer to nuces or nuces fractas, for nuts or chopped nuts, type unspecified, and are used in several other dessert recipes (Edwards, 1984, 63) (Flowers and Rosenbaum, 2012, 95) (Vehling, 2012, (129)).
Honey was widely available and had a seasonal market based on what was available to the bees and the weather. Most farms had at least one hive and there were honey farms for high volume production. According to Faas, honey farmers planted a variety of fruits, flowers, herbs, and vegetables to keep the bees well supplied. Honey that came primarily from vegetables was considered too thin and weak.
Some of the plants used include:
Farmers also grew specific types of trees for more aromatic honey; almond, citrus, oak, peach, and pine (Faas, 2005, 146-147)
Rue was a bitter herb favored in many of the recipes in Apicius. Modernly, rue is avoided for being an abortifacient and is also known to cause significant gastro-intestinal issues. Sold as a homeopathic and also a tea, a limit for safe consumption has not been established. Most modern redactions substitute a small amount of ground rosemary or bay. When a recipe use an herb, it is assumed to be dried unless it says, for example, green coriander, which indicates fresh (Kaufman, 2006, 131).
Passum is a sweet wine made from grapes that are partially or completely dried before being turned into wine, sometimes referred to as raisin wine, which are sweet and high in alcohol (Faas, 2005, 120). There are a few Italian wineries still producing passum in the traditional manner. Modern sweet wines, such as moscato, convey the same sweetness but not necessarily the same flavor.
Tractum does not have a clear definition and may have meant loaf or pastry during the writing of De Re Conquinaria. No recipe for tracta survives in the copies available today but an early form can be found in Cato’s De Agricultura. Grain and flour quality improved significantly between the two texts and the early recipe is presumed to be more course in quality. The surviving recipe uses both spelt grains and flour and includes instructions for making several forms including biscuits, long thin loaves, and wide flat sheets. The use of the sheet form as pastry is referenced in several patina recipes found in De Re Conquinaria (Faas, 2005, 182-183). Faas mentions a sauce for roast lamb that uses crushed tracta. Giacosa states that tracta, as dry dough or crumbled bread, was used as a thickener for sauces (1992, 27). This is the only mention of dried dough, which would make the use similar to amulum, a powder produced by soaking grains until the starch is released into the water and then this mixture is filtered and dried.
The recipe from De Agricultura is relatively sparse but not necessarily simple and implies a familiarity with both alica, spelt, and baking.
Take 4 pounds of flour and 2 pounds of the best alica. Soak the alica in water. When it has become soft, pout off the water and place the alica in a clean mortar. Then knead it with the hands,. When it has been well kneaded, add the flour bit by bit. The tracta are shaped from this dough. Put them on a basket to dry. When they have dried they can be placed side by side. Treat each tractum as follows. After they have been kneaded, brush with a cloth that has been soaked in olive oil. Brush both sides like this. These are tracta. Heat the oven in which, and the lid beneath which, the tracta are to be baked to a high temperature. (Cat. R. R. LXXVI)
Faas, 2005, 182
Spelt grains, or at least the modern version of the ancient grain, are available from a variety of grocery and health stores, frequently in the bulk products section.
Step one of the instructions is to soak the spelt grains until soft. One pound of grains was soaked in fresh, filtered, water at room temperature with a lid loosely placed over the container. The water was changed out every 12 hours. Faas’ instructions are to soak the grains under running water for several days to a week but he also chose to use bulgur wheat (Faas, 2005, 182).
At 24 hours, the grains were starting to soften but were still firm in the middle. At 48 hours, many of the grains were soft enough to chew but not all of them. At 72 hours, all of the grains were soft, stringy, and sticky.
A colander was used to drain the grains and they sat for an hour. The soaked grains were moved into a large bowl and kneaded by hand to mash them.
Once the grains were thoroughly mashed, spelt flour was added until the entire portion was integrated. Water was used to moisten the dough and to integrate the flour. The dough mixture was kneaded thoroughly until the flour was integrated and the dough was relatively smooth and pliant.
The dough was primarily shaped into large biscuits and an attempt at a longer, thinner shape. The raw tracta were dried on a wooden cutting board at room temperature until both sides had formed a thin skin, rotating half way through, roughly three hours. They were then baked at 425 F for 30 minutes.
Experiment – Putting it all together
An experimental recipe was designed after reviewing the original recipe, translations, and other uses of tracta in the De Re Conquinaria. Of important note is the instruction to mince together the nuts, spices, and tracta. Instead of a cake or an egg pudding, I believe it was more likely a bread pudding.
The following ingredients were chosen:
- Black pepper was used for convenience.
- Pine nuts from the Mediterranean are currently $35 a pound whereas available substitutes were $8-$10 per pound, hazelnuts were chosen by personal preference.
- Clover honey was chosen was well-liked choice in Rome and is widely available.
- Dried rue is not available locally so ground rosemary was substituted.
- Moscato was chosen as a passum substitute based on availability with similar sugar and alcohol content.
- Whole milk was used.
- The spelt tracta baked above were used for this experiment. The tracta were chopped into small pieces rather than crumbled or bread crumbs. Grating was attempted but the grains separated out and lead to an odd texture.
- Modern chicken eggs are larger than those in 1st century Rome and are likely the equivalent to two or three eggs.
- The dish was cooked in a deep cast iron skillet on the stove top rather than on a fire due to weather constraints.
Aliter Dulica – Another Sweet
0.5g black pepper, ground (1/2 teaspoon)
60g chopped hazelnuts
1/4 cup clover honey with extra for topping
1 pinch rosemary, ground
1/4 cup Moscato
375 ml whole milk (1.5 cups)
220g spelt tracta, roughly chopped into 1/4 to 1/2 inch pieces
1 large egg, ~45g
Optional toppings may include more chopped nuts or pepper
Combine the pepper, nuts, honey, rosemary, wine, and milk into a cast iron pot and stir gently while heating to a simmer. The milk will curdle; just keep stirring gently and everything will incorporate.
Keep the heat at gentle simmer and allow the bread pieces to soften and absorb the liquid. This takes between 30 minutes and an hour depending on the denseness of the bread.
Once the bread pieces are soft and most of the liquid has been absorbed, temper the beaten egg with some of the liquid from the pan. Add the tempered egg into the pan and stir to thoroughly combine. Continue to heat, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking until desired thickness is reached, approximately 5 minutes.
Move to a serving dish and immediately drizzle honey over the top while the dessert cools to room temperature. Once at room temperature, sprinkle with additional pepper or chopped nuts to taste and serve.
The final result is a rich, spicy-sweet custard-based bread pudding.
Future Recipe Testing
Several modifications for future testing are suggested based on the results from the initial preparation and tasting.
As noted, the flour and bread available to Romans in the 1st and subsequent centuries would be of increased quality, especially for the well-to-do, as compared to Cato’s time. Using a bread without soaked grains and of finer flour will lead to a silkier finished product. It will also require less milk.
The finished dessert is quite sweet and that intensity is then increased with the additional honey drizzle. This may be an effect of the modern palate or there is a theory that Roman’s had a decreased sense of taste due to their consumption of lead (Faas, 2005, 148). Decreasing the honey in the base recipe and allowing the individual to increase the overall sweetness by adjusting the honey drizzle that is infused during the cooling process provides more flexibility. Using two types of honey, one sweet during the cooking process and then a second more aromatic for the drizzle, would also add more complexity.
Modifying the spice profile would also lend increased complexity and flavor to the dish. An easy change would be from black pepper to white or long pepper, which were readily available in the 1st century. Further additions of cinnamon or cassia, which were more readily available and used in cooking as time progressed, would have provided variety while demonstrating wealth.
A non-ingredient based factor would be a more authentic cooking process using a pipkin or other pottery. The dish would benefit as the pottery over coals will both simmer the dish and also bake the bottom, creating a more cohesive texture.
Potential Future Resources
Grainger and Grocock have written, “Apicius: A critical edition and an introduction and English translation,” which was published in 2006 and is out of print. According to Prospect Books, the publisher, the text was in the process of being republished with corrections, in April of 2020 but was delayed due to author illness (Email to publisher, Jan 13, 2020).
Many of the other resources available for study are in Greek, Italian, or French. While there are no current English translations, a translation without reinterpretation of Dr. Jacque Andre’s 1965 Apicius, L’Art Culinaire, or of the Teubner Collection would be highly valuable.
Additional excavation work at locations such as Pompeii and Herculaneum around Mount Vesuvius may lead to better understanding of the foods and resources available.
- Edwards, John. 1984. Roman Cookery: Elegant and Easy Recipes from History’s First Gourmet. Washington: Hartley & Marks.
- Fass, Patrick. 2005. Around the Roman Table. Translated by Shaun Whiteside and edited by Patrick Fass. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Flower, Barbara and Elisabeth Rosenbaum. 2012. Apicius, The Roman Cookery Book. Connecticut: Martino Publishing.
- Giacosa, Ilaria Gozzini. 1992. A Taste of Ancient Rome. Translated by Anna Herklotz. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
- Kaufman, Cathy K. 2006. Cooking in Ancient Civilizations. Connecticut: Greenwood Press.
- Vehling, Joseph Dommers. 2012. Apicius, Cookery and Dining In Imperial Rome. New York: Dover Publications Inc. Kindle.
- Vehling, Joseph Dommers. 2019. Apicius, Cookery and Dining In Imperial Rome. Urbana: Project Gutenberg. Retrieved 7/5/2020. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/29728/29728-h/29728-h.htm
Lord Máenach na Cailled for advice, support, shopping, and taste-testing.
The Honorable Lady Rycheza z Polska for acting as a sounding board and support in the early days of my project.
Maitre Renart le fox de Berwyk for asking me to help cook and providing source and support along the path.
Maestra Aelianora de Wyntringham for recipe translation assistance.
The Barony of Dragon’s Laire, especially members of the Culinary and Spirit-makers Guild as well as the Research Corpus, who have listened to me talk about this project off and on for several years and have also been taste-testers!
A Roman recipe as a modern cake
I set about designing a Roman Feast for Yule in 2019. THL Kloe of Thira is a modern cake baker. I worked with her to modify and test the proposed cake redaction to remove the baking powder and still be pleasing to the modern palate – and less dry.
2 tsp cinnamon or cassia
1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/2 c chopped hazelnuts with more for topping*
1/2 tsp ground rosemary
2 c all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda or salt (optional)
1/4 c moscato or preferred sweet wine
4 Tbsp honey and more for topping
1 c milk
1/4 cup olive oil
Grease a 9″ cake pan with olive oil and dust with flour. Preheat your oven to 375 F.
In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and spices. In a large bowl, combine the oil, egg, and milk, stirring to combine. Then alternating, add a portion of the flour, the wine, more flour, the honey, the final flour, and then the nuts. Stirring between each step to combine.
Once combined, pour into your the greased and dusted cake pan. Bake on 375 for 25 to 30 minutes. Drizzle with honey and allow to cool completely. Top with chopped nuts and or additional cinnamon before serving.
This recipe was served with much acclaim at Dragon’s Laire’s 2019 Yule.
Optional baking soda or salt: Several cakes were tested individually and in comparison over a series of weeks at our Baronial Social and Fight Practice. Preference for baking soda, versus salt, versus neither was very person dependent. All three options were preferred to baking powder.